Naming Rights

I am currently trying to write a murder mystery, not because I have a great plot line in mind, or a deep roiling well of family dysfunction and tragedy to draw from, but mostly because I want the naming rights.  I figure I have very limited opportunities to name things – my children, pets, maybe I can rename myself, but these will never be enough to exhaust the great names in my mental notebook.  And I don’t think that I am alone here.  In the Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald spends a couple of pages reeling off the names of Gatsby’s houseguests.  This doesn’t seem to advance the plot at all, except to showcase Fitzgerald’s quirky rolodex.  His couples are named the “Catlips,” or the “Fishguards,” there is a man named “Klipspringer,” and a “whole clan named Blackbuck.”  Occasionally Fitzgerald adds an extraneous but compelling detail.  There’s Edgar Beaver, “whose hair, they say, turned white one summer for no reason at all,” or Ripley Snell who got “so drunk on the gravel drive that Mrs. Ulysses Swett’s automobile ran over his right hand.”  Somehow specifying the right hand instead of the left makes Ripley Snell even quirkier.

So my first step in writing a mystery was to figure out what names I would use, and basically I hoped that the plot line would somehow just take care of itself.  Like Fitzgerald, I wanted to set the mystery in some sort of cloistered elitist environment filled with people with ridiculous names.  I wanted to have people with first names that sounded more like last names, perhaps Farwell Windblow, Foster Cradlerocks or Cooley Bowbreaks.  In fact, I envisioned a family saddled with colliding naming traditions.  On the mother’s side the tradition was that the first born son was named after the mother’s maiden name, while on the father’s side, the first born daughter was named after the father.   Unfortunately for the son, the mother’s maiden name was Cate, and his twin sister was called Billie.  This transgender naming was never questioned in their tight world, particularly since the family summered in Maine at their family compound called Cate’s Head Bay.  Their neighbor was named Carr Fellowes, but everyone just called him Auto.  Finally one year he just went ahead and legally changed his name to Otto.  And so on and so on.

The fabulous thing about writing a mystery novel is that you can experiment with names, switch them around, and name the murder victim or the sleazy perp after friends – the possibilities are endless.  In my mystery, I named one of the characters Goddard, because I wanted somebody to have the nickname of “God.”  And then his sister could be a Goddess.  My detective is Liza Blue, based on my brother’s long ago suggestion that we collectively change the (Brown) color of our last name.  Blue seemed the best alternative to other standard colors – what would be the point of changing Brown to something equally blah like Green, White or Black.   Liza Blue had a nice rhythm about it and reminded me of Eyes of Blue.   Also, with Blue, you could play around with the spelling, i.e. Blew, Bloo, Baloo, Bleu.

 In the real world, your naming rights are severely limited by the number of your children – basically a couple of first names and associated nick names and a couple of middle names.  And how do you want to spend this precious resource – do you want to honor ancestors, either living or dead?  If so, which ones, and are you slighting the other side of the family?  When I was a child, the tradition was that the first born son was a junior, so my older brother got stuck with the name Ralphie.  There was no similar tradition for girls, though plenty were named after their mothers.  My mother’s name was Fanny, and fortunately for me, she announced early on that she was not going to repeat her parent’s mistake.

It would certainly be quite an honor to have someone named after you, and I think of my Grandmother Brown, who was a matriarch in every sense of the word, not only to her five children and 22 grandchildren, but also to several generations of nieces and nephews.  Her Christmas list must have numbered in the hundreds; her house was the family gathering spot and a treasured shared memory among all my cousins.  I imagine that she sat by the phone with baited breath after each birth, thinking that maybe this time, at last, she would have a namesake.  The problem was that her name was Geraldine, and I think that everyone thought it was an ugly name.   When my parents were married, my mother made a preemptive strike – they got a police dog and named her Geraldine.  That was one ballsy move by my newlywed mother – she must have wanted to send her mother-in-law a very clear message that she was in charge of the relationship.       

Perhaps to make up for this early slight, my parents gave my grandmother the naming rights to their fourth son.   Geraldine wasn’t a possibility, and they were relieved that my Grandfather’s even more unfortunate name, Fay, had already been used by my Uncle Fay, who had stuck with tradition and named his son Fayette III (poor guy).  My grandmother proposed the name Nathaniel Walker Brown, honoring some long lost relative.  My parents dutifully wrote this into the birth certificate, but then promptly ignored it and merrily called my brother Tony.  If Tony enters politics, he will have to put his name in quotes, Nathaniel “Tony” Brown, like Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, or Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

It is a tricky business to name your children.  I think that it is a parental responsibility to find that fine line between a name that makes your child feel unique and special and not an oddball – a name that is not constantly misspelled or mispronounced or prompts a reaction of ?Huh?  If the name has a little family heritage, all the better.  Our son Ned’s given name is Edward, which is a family name, but we chose Ned because it was somewhat uncommon, but it’s still a name you can do business with.  Also we have never met a Ned we didn’t like.  Frances is as close as we could come to my mother’s of name of Fanny.  Basically, if you want to get creative with a name, get a dog and go wild.  I once proposed that we name a dog Elemeno P, basically the letters of the alphabet L, M, N, O, but that was voted down as overly cute.  How about naming a dog kitty; you would call “Here, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty,” and surprise onlookers when a large dog bounds up.  My cousin says her elderly aunt named her dog Lover so that she could startle the neighborhood when she called to him at night.  But beware of getting too cute.  While friends and family will politely hold their tongue when your reveal your newborn’s name, they will freely express their shock and dismay at your pet’s name.  Our first dog was a shnauzer poodle mix which we named Gizmo.  My mother immediately weighed in, “Don’t you realize that Gizmo is one of those cute names mothers use to protect tender ears against the horror of the word !Penis! said outloud -Such as Ralphie, you know that you are never supposed to touch your Gizmo in public.  Put it away right now.”

So go ahead and humiliate a pet with some crackpot name, but don’t overlook the one special person you can reliably make fun of, i.e. yourself.  Your final naming opportunity will come when you announce what your grandchildren should call you – settling for Grandma or Grampa seems like a lost opportunity.  When my parents first became grandparents, I begged them to call themselves Gumby and Pokey, but they declined.  My mother did get into the spirit of the thing and anointed herself “Bum,” a play on her given name of Fanny, and soon anyone under the age of 10 was calling her Bum.   

I don’t foresee needing a grandmother name anytime in the distant future, but I figure there’s no harm in tucking a few away.  I would make a good Pokey, but Nick is not a fan of Gumby.  Maybe we could consider other famous couples, such as Bert and Ernie (I would be willing to be Bert) or Lady and the Tramp (well maybe not).  I have also considered  pairs of words that always go together, drawing on the symbolism of an enduring partnership.  But I have had trouble coming up with an acceptable combo.  For example “Board and Grapple,” just won’t work.  I have always liked the duo of “Flotsam and Jetsam,” particularly the sound of the word flotsam, but these words would be too difficult for a toddler to pronounce.  “Ebb and Flow” might work and Nick likes “Warm and Fuzzy.”  For a solo name, I have taken a recent fancy to name of “Dobbin,” best known as a farmyard horse.  This name should be easy to pronounce, and it has many positive attributes – hardworking, durable, forever loyal, trustworthy and low maintenance.  Just give Dobbin a fresh bag of oats every now and then, and with a lump of sugar and a pat on the back, she should be good to go.  

 The missing words in the following paragraph are all anagrams (i.e. share the same litters like post, stop, spot).  The number of asterisks indicate the number of letters.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on these rules.  Scroll down for answers.

My grandmother’s **** was Geraldine,

 In every way, a matriarchal queen.

 So what did it **** when no one called with the news –

“Congratulations, we’ve named our daughter after you!

 My mother wanted to put the issue to rest before she next begat,

 She got a dog, named her Geraldine and said **** to all that!







Answers: name, mean, amen

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