Friday, October 19, 2007

The Trouble Old Possum Must Have Gone To....

by Shawn MacKENZIE

“Never pick yourself a name you can’t scrub the floor in.”
...Terry Pratchett, wit and sage

There is an old story which goes something like this:
Long ago, when the Universe was young, a mighty Creator took aside the first human and said, “I have filled the world with life; that was the easy part. But none of the species have names. That task I give to you. Let’s see what you’re made of – see if you’re truly inspired.” And the Creator brought before this first human every living creature that walked upon the earth, swam in the great oceans, or flew across the skies. One by one, he named them all.

I marvel at that, really I do. Imagine the responsibility! In what sort of Looking-Glass world might we be living had that protohuman gotten it wrong? Had he dubbed the dragon a hairy-nosed wombat, the very fabric of our universe would be rewoven beyond recognition.

Such is the power of names.

This is one of those things which I delight in pursuing along the meandering paths of abstract rumination. But, beyond the fun of that, there is also a profoundly practical aspect to this train of thought. People need names. For pets, for children, sometimes for ourselves. Writers need names and the ritual of naming even more. For characters, for places , for whole worlds! (Playing God has its perks!) We birth our characters with each new story and must, as good parents do, give them names they can live with or, at least, grow into. Shorthand for writer and reader, alike, names can reveal volumes of information, not only about the characters themselves but about their family, their people, their history, their faith, their social status, even, at times, their age or occupation. Certain magical circles believe that people actually have three names, each linked intrinsically to the tri-partite soul: air/mind, earth/body, and secret/power/soul. Nothing is ever simple when it comes to magic.

Names also mask – a plain name for an exotic character, a hot-house appellation for a wall flower.

We humans have certainly evolved considerably since that breath-infused dust-bunny gave us appropriately elephantine elephants and mitey mites, so one would think we’d have this naming business down to a painless science. But, with so much riding on the perfect appellation, where do we start?

In the names we choose for our characters/children/pets, do we dare invest them with our greatest dreams and aspirations – that they might miraculously live up to some noble moniker with which we saddled them? Do we use family names, and, if so, is it out of respect or loathing? Do we opt for whimsy or irony, a big name for a small character, perhaps; or a slight name for a weighty one. Even our villains must be named with care. Mordred, for example, now there is a nefarious name of the first order – one would hardly mistake him for a white hat, no matter how many kittens he saved.

So many possibilities....

Perhaps it is the crossword-puzzle editor in me, but I usually start with dictionaries and lists. Long lists of meaningful words and names – both fore- and sur- – from cultures which might, just possibly, wind up playing a part in my tale. Of course, there is also the longer list of words and names I just like the sound of – there can never be too many of those.

Matching name to character, that is when things get even more complicated. Does a name I give a character affect the personality, itself, or does the core personality affect the name chosen? This gives rise to more profound ethical questions: how far does our authorial authority go? Can we mold a being with the power of naming? Do we have the right to do so? (Playing God has its drawbacks, too.)

Which brings me to another story.

A couple of weeks ago, upon returning home from a convivial evening of good company and finely-honed prose, I was seduced into adding to my fur ‘n’ feather familia a stray golden tabby. Abandoned at the nascent age of barely 6 weeks to wander the fierce wilds of North Bennington, this little being chanced upon my porch, and, with a plaintive mew, wheedled her way into my house and affections.

That was the easy part. Turning to the difficult: she needed a name.

As I watched her sleep the deep sleep of the foundling, I began ticking over possible names in my mind. Something literary, perhaps, to thematically tie-in to the long-line of companion creatures who’ve been in residence over the years: Inigo Jones, Lennon, Chaucer, Chekhov, Eliot, to cite a few.... Or something whimsical, in keeping with my hamster, Bannister “Crash-Bandicoot” Featherwhistle, or Fearless the Mouse or Spike. Two days later, the literary won out and she was being called Salinger. Still is, though pressures are being brought to bear to change it; of course, exactly what her name will be changed to remains the great unknown.

But that is all good. I’ve known the intricate ritual of naming – especially with cats – to take days, weeks, even years to be resolved to mutual feline/human satisfaction. Names come and go, stay for a while like in-laws at Thanksgiving, and are shed when ill-fitting as easily as a jacket in Indian Summer. At least with our companion creatures, we have the luxury of appellation evolution. This little cat will grow into a name, much as she grows into herself. If I listen very hard, she will tell me who she is. The same is true of characters. If we listen to them, they will share their names. Of course, if they happen to tell you their secret name, you both might have to agree to use Tinker-paws or Fluffy in public.