By Geoff Nelder
I laughed the other day because I received a request from a baby naming site to link with my writing one. Initially, I thought this was a curious variation of a Nigerian bank scam, but once my stomach subsided I realized there was some sense here.
When I started writing fiction, characters’ names appeared from a mix of telephone directories, atlases and local newspapers. A snag with the directory method is repetition and so time consuming. As my fiction reached into more exotic parts I found a site with a name engine that gave me lists of real names from different continents.
Choosing the right name for a character is as important, if not more so, than choosing one for a newborn. You don’t want a tough gangster being called Cedric, or – I realize I may be upsetting real people here – an academic called Buster. It isn’t so simple. One of our aims is to have our main characters undergo change during the plot. The change is usually one gleaned from experience such as surviving a crisis, or it could be a coming of age. For such a character a name that can also ‘grow up’ is handy. That’s why many novels use Robert. Bobby as the kid, Rob as he matures, Robert as a gentleman then Bob as an ancient with dementia.
As my main genres are science fiction and fantasy I have great fun making up names. It was a voyage of discovery when I conjured up a name for a prehistoric man living in the Middle East. Twenty thousand years ago was before any established religion so Mohammed was out. However, I reasoned that since that region would likely have had a proto-language that led to early Arabic. I played around with Omar but although ancient was too new for my character. I felt I needed a Q in there since it is a feature of so many names in that region. Oqmar thus was born. If you google Oqmar 99% of the hits are for my ancient man in my recent book.
So what was the link I was asked to make from my website? It is Quick Baby Names. I gladly acceded because apart from having spent months trying to convince daughter that Ewan is a great name for her baby, the site gives the derivation and meanings. My daughter chose Oliver, and he’s gorgeous.
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Linking someone to Fiona’s recent post on the vanishing apostrophes on Birmingham’s street signs reminded me of something, which sent me to Guardian’s style guide.
(Should you be interested, “St James Park home of Exeter City; St James’ Park home of Newcastle United; St James’s Park royal park in London.”)
I must recommend the Guardian’s style guide. I far more often need to turn to my faithful Strunk and White, for dealing in American English, but I can waste goodly chunks of time reading the Guardian’s – it’s such a excellent combination of useful information, useless information, self depreciation, sense, and general British-ness. All this and they helpfully provide an online edition, so I can waste time all over the place, not just when near my shelves.
For example, take a look at the H section, which offer everything from where to put the apostrophes in the name of a famous girls’ school to the correct spelling of hyperthermia and hypothermia, via hi fi (how we listened to music in the days before iPods), hummus (you eat it) vs humus (you put it on the garden) and a long digression on the construction of an excellent headline.
Who can resist that sort of miscellany?
* For those as might not recognize the nickname, the Guardian is a major national paper in the UK. In the 60s it was renowned and ridiculed for its poor proof reading. As they say in the introduction to the printed edition of the style guide: The ‘Grauniad’ nickname, once well-earned, has been hard to shake off, but we do better today. ”
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Birmingham City Council has been getting a lot of stick lately for its decision not to use apostrophes on street signs.
As a writer part of me does worry about this. It’s yet another erosion of the traditions of our language and grammar, and yet another blow to the trusty old apostrophe, the use of which baffles many people already.
But just how important is this? Fair enough, something like St Paul’s Square really should have an apostrophe because it’s called after St Paul’s Church, which is called after… St Paul. The apostrophe is there to show possession. Place names, on the other hand, tend to be less clear-cut. Kings Heath perhaps ought to have an apostrophe because it refers to the heath owned by the king (singular). But how about Druids Heath? Is that singular or plural? Where should the apostrophe go? It might well be better in that case to leave it out than get it wrong. And as for Acocks Green, is this even named for someone called Acock or does it come from a different source altogether?
As the article I link to above says, many of the apostrophes were already dying out in the 1950s so this is hardly a new phenomenon. Indeed, I have an old map of the area which shows Kings Heath spelled without the apostrophe as far back as 1880 – and many other such names around the country have either lost their apostrophes or never had them in the first place: Kings Pyon, Bishops Itchington (yes, really!), Canons Ashby.
So perhaps Birmingham council deserves a bit of slack. After all, I’d much rather see a road sign spelled Kings Heath than the sign I saw in a computer superstore this lunchtime, which read “IPOD’s”. That really did annoy me!
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