I’ve only ever bestowed names on two actual human beings (my children), but as a fiction writer I am obliged to name hosts of characters – and sometimes it can be tricky. Historical fiction requires you to invent names that are appropriate to their times and location as well as those that reflect something of a character’s identity, but for me there are other conditioning factors. I feel I can’t use names that belong to friends and family. Even if I think it unlikely that Uncle Anton is going to read anything I’ve written, I want to forestall even the possibility of his eye falling on a page penned by me, which features “a sinister-looking thug, in spite of his age and receded hairline. Anton, I learned, was his name”. If I were writing a Japanese character, I would love to endow her with what I consider to be one of the most romantic given names I’ve come across – Chikage, which means One Thousand Shadows. But, this name belongs to a longtime friend in Japan and I couldn’t possibly appropriate it.
Names can be quite the minefield. I don't like to give characters names that are currently popular in print or on screen. Or names with ambiguous pronunciation, like Featherstonehaugh/Fanshaw, Beaulieu/Bewley, Ralph/Rafe – or names that stray into Pychonesque absurdity, like Mike Fallopian and Herbert Stencil. They have to look and sound and be right by belonging to their correct region or rank – but I would like to write a character someday with a statement name, like El Elegante or La Païva (the 19th-century celebrity prostitute) or a clan title like The O’Neill.
I’m no expert on anthroponomastics (which, as I’m sure every Jon, Rick and Barry knows, means the study of names of persons), but I’ve always been fascinated by personal names. From an early age, I would list in a notebook striking names carried by real people I encountered. Xeno Captain, Dr Hazard, Pam Pumphrey, I remember you still. And how could I forget the rejection letter I once received that began, Dear Miss Dalek? There is no end either to the list or to my delight in it. Probably the first name that I found listworthy was one that belonged to a girl in my street, with whom I became friendly. She was called Teeny Bus. Actually, she had another name, a proper Dutch name, but “Teeny Bus” was the alternative her immigrant parents had come up with, believing it to sound more Anglo.
A convent education caused me to be early intrigued by the concept of hidden names. We were terribly curious about the nuns and speculated about their unknown birth names. Wild rumours passed through the corridors. Sister Ignatius was really called Maureen – and someone else heard from a relative in Rotorua that Sister Zita, who was Maori, was once named Hinemoa. Oh, the mystery of it. But I properly came across naming taboos when I read the Japanese masterpiece Tale of Genji, written by Lady Murasaki early in the eleventh century. The characters in this proto-novel are referred to by their functions or attributes (The Lady of the Paulownia-Courtyard Chamber, the Minister of the Left). To mention a person’s given name explicitly was disrespectful and a breach of Heian-era court manners.
|Tosa Mitsuki, Murasaki Shikibu writing, from his series The Tale of Genji 17th century.|
This cultural taboo had migrated to Japan from China, where speaking or writing the given names of exalted persons, or of the deceased, was a severe transgression. Historically in China, given names consisted of a family name, a first name (or “true name”) and a familiar name/nickname. Calling a man by his true name was considered insolent, at the very least, unless you were his parent, lord or sovereign, and fatal when it came to the true name of the emperor. The taboo against using the emperor’s given name, and those of his ancestors, was proscribed by law, with a death penalty attached. There was a work-around for the bothersome business of the emperor’s name, though. You were permitted to write it, only in some laudatory context, of course, as long as you omitted the last stroke of its characters. That little swoosh of the brush made all the difference between life and death – as an unfortunate scholar named Wang Xihou discovered in 1777.
|The Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799). His deadly given name was Aisin Giro Hongli.|
The 18th-century Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty was inclined to genocides (Tibet, Mongolia) and literary inquistions. When his inquisitors came calling on suspect intellectuals, they left no inkstone unturned, no scroll unrolled. The Emperor’s literary police were nothing if not thorough. Every text in the house was scrutinised sentence by sentence. Wang Xihou was found to have criticised the content of a dictionary authorised by the Qianlong Emperor’s grandfather. More heinous still, the scholar had written the emperor’s name without leaving off the characters’ final strokes. As punishment for this insult to the imperial name, Wang Xihou was beheaded, along with all of his relatives in a ghastly guilt-by-association judgment.
A secret name is difficult enough, but when a multiplicity of monikers attaches to an individual, historical research can become complicated and, frankly, maddening. Take the custom which allows artists and artisans in Japan to possess numerous names for different purposes – the 19th-century netsuke master Kokusai, for example, was born Ozaki Sōzō in Edo (Tōkyō) and also went by the name Iseya Risuke. He took the art name Kokusai, although occasionally signing himself Takeda Kokusai, Takeda Minamoto and Takeda Yasugorō – suggesting a connection with the 16th-century lord Takeda Shingen of the Minamoto lineage. He also styled himself as Iseya Sōzō. And finally, after his death (from eating a toxic puffer fish), he came in receipt of one last name, Hōjuin Reitoku Nichiyū Shinshi, in the traditional Buddhist naming ceremony that is a part of Japanese funeral rites.
Yagō, meaning “house name” is the term for names passed down within a Japanese guild or studio. Kabuki actors famously are known by their guild names. Onoe Kikugorō V, one of the most celebrated actors of the Meiji period, bore the guild name of Otowaya. He was at various times, and in different contexts, also known as Ichimura Kakitsu IV, Ichimura Uzaemon XIII, Ichimura Kurōemon, Onoe Baikō V and Onoe Kurōemon I, and used Baikō and Kakitsu as his poetry names. (I don't have a poetry name, but my mood name is definitely Summer Cloud.)
|Multi-named kabuki actor Onoe Kikugorō V.|
I apply a version of house names to my characters too, in the interim, employing terms like Heroine, Boss, Benefactor, Informer and Victim. Like Apache children, and children of the Warlpiri people in central Australia, who go unnamed from birth until judged strong enough to survive (usually at around two or three years of age), my characters remain nameless until I have done the hard work of dredging the psyche and figuring out who they are. Unfortunately for them, there is no naming ceremony overseen by a wise elder – there’s just me stalking around the house saying the names over and again in my head until I feel they are alive.