Monday, April 07, 2014

What's In a Name?

After reading the posts last week about titles for books my eye was caught by a newspaper article in The Times yesterday about names for children, which serve something of the same function.

Every year, a list is published of the most popular names registered in Britain and it's interesting to see the fashions that come and go.  In general, it's the conventional ones that stick around – Jack, Olivia, Alex were high listed this year, along with Mohamed – but there are waves of fashion. Names like Charlotte, Sophie, Alexandra and Victoria were popular at the time my daughter was christened, but her children and their friends have less traditional names – Niamh (pronounced Neeve), Freya, Aliyah.

My oldest granddaughter is called Milena, a pretty mid-European name I hadn't heard before – though chosen, I was told, because my daughter and her husband had bought a book called 1001 Girls Names and it was the only one they could agree on.

The list that caught my eye yesterday wasn't about fashionable names, though. It was about names that were moribund, with not a single use registered over the whole of the past year. Some were perhaps unsurprising – Blodwen, Percy, Doris – but I was astonished, and even miffed, to discover that Marjory in all its forms – the name of my detective DI 'Big Marge' Fleming – was one of them... What, I wanted to demand, was wrong with it? It's an ancient and honourable name, good enough for Marjorie Allingham, the English mystic Margery Kempe and even the little girl on the seesaw in the nursery rhyme.

But my lead character is now, inevitably, dated by her name. And the discussion on book titles did make me wonder about that too – do our own titles date, as time passes?

One of the stand-alones I did before the DI Fleming series has just come out as an ebook in the US.  It's about a murder that takes place at a music festival and it's called The Trumpet Shall Sound. I had in mind the aria in Handel's Messiah, which goes on 'And the Dead Shall be Raised' – appropriate for what happens in the story. At the time, I thought my readers would recognize the subtlety.

But classical works like that aren't as well known as once they would have been and allusive titles can just miss their mark, leaving readers puzzled. Perhaps the long, explanatory titles, like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, are not just fashionable but practical too.

As I've said before, though, I'm not entirely sure that our agonies over getting the title exactly right are worth it. When my husband asked me recently what the book I wanted him to bring down from the bedroom was called, I could only say, 'I don't know. It's the one lying beside the bed.'

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