The Symbolic Importance of Names – Writing 101

Carol A. Hand

Recently, I read a featured post on one of the newer blogs I follow, K. A. Libby: A Novel Enterprise, and made a surprising discovery. The main character in a novel she had just published, Beware the Sleeping Dog, bears the same name as the one I had just chosen for the main character in a novel I’ve just begun, Mavis. After this discovery, I didn’t feel comfortable using the same name although my choice was purely coincidental. Initially I thought all I needed was K.A.’s approval. I included a question about this dilemma in my response to her comments on one of my posts.

“Thank you so much for such lovely and poetic comments, K.A.! I just realized when I was reading your blog this morning that I’ve just picked the same name (Mavis) for the central character in a book I’ve just begun. It seemed the perfect name because I’ve only ever met one person by that name in my lifetime, a former student. I wonder if that’s ok with you. An unassuming researcher, the Mavis I envision is a different kind of hero who helps people discover their power to transform their lives as individuals and members of communities by listening and recording their stories. The final decision of whether to use what they learn about themselves is up to them… It’s not to [sic] late for me to change her name – I’ve only just begun.”

I still felt uneasy even after posting this comment. The discovery of the same name in another novel made me think about the importance of taking more time to choose a name that has a deeper meaning for me. My initial choice, Mavis, was just because it wasn’t a common name. Out of the thousands of people and students I had known and worked with during my life and career, I had only encountered one person with that name. There would be little chance that the former student who bore that name would think that the story was about her.

I had thought about using my grandmother’s name, Agnes, but I wasn’t sure I could bear it. There were too many unpleasant memories associated with her that would be reawakened. I wondered if I would have to confront them each time I had to type her name.

Agnes and sisters

Photo: My Grandmother, Agnes (on the right), with Her Sisters, Sarah and Margaret

“I did leave all of my dear friends behind as I have been doing since I made my first pivotal move at the age of 12. While my parents and brother settled into their new home, I spent the summer of transition with my grandmother on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation in Wisconsin. My summer experiences and the shock of entering my new home just as school began influenced my lifetime far more profoundly than I realized at the time. I learned that for some people, like my grandmother, growing up in adversity doesn’t necessarily make one kinder or wiser. Sometimes, people are too wounded to care about themselves or others.”

Still, the strong ethic I have to honor the sanctity of other people’s work forced me to consider other possibilities. Maybe I could call my character Minerva. Like Mavis, I had only encountered one person who had that name. I still thought about my friend from long ago but I hadn’t heard from her in decades. Before I chose another name, I decided to do some research to find out the symbolism that name carried. I’m glad I checked.

I learned that Minerva, a Roman goddess, symbolizes wisdom, arts, trade, and strategy. “She is often depicted with her sacred creature, an owl … which symbolizes that she is connected to wisdom.” (Wikipedia)

An owl. That would be a fitting name for a researcher and scholar, but not one of Ojibwe ancestry.

“In most Native American tribes, owls are a symbol of death. Hearing owls hooting is considered an unlucky omen, and they are the subject of numerous ‘bogeyman’ stories told to warn children to stay inside at night or not cry too much, otherwise the owl may carry them away. In some tribes, owls are associated with ghosts, and the bony circles around an owl’s eyes are said to be made up of the fingernails of ghosts. Sometimes owls are said to carry messages from beyond the grave or deliver supernatural warnings to people who have broken tribal taboos.” (Native Languages)

“In Anishinabek and many other indigenous teachings, the Owl is a creature of bad omen and often considered evil.” (Rua Lupa, Pagan Newswire Collective)

I don’t feel comfortable choosing a name that symbolizes “bad omens” and death for a character I envision personifying hope and resistance against colonial and structural oppression. True, speaking truth to power often results in serious consequences, so perhaps the name would be fitting for a worthy ally or adversary.

Finally, I reconsidered using my grandmother’s name, Agnes, and explored the associated symbolism. The woman’s name Agnes “derives from the Greek name Ἁγνὴ hagnē, meaning “pure” or “holy”.” (Wikipedia)

Would using my grandmother’s name help me heal the deep wounds from the past that we both carried? I wonder who my grandmother could have become if her life had been unaffected by childhood sexual exploitation and the shame she internalized because of her ancestry, due in part to the years she spent in an Indian boarding school as a child. Would she have become someone like the character in my to-be-written novel who, despite deep insecurities, cares deeply enough about others to listen to their stories and discover their strengths and, in the process, discovers some of her own strengths as well? I will change the name of my main character to Agnes and continue working on my book with this thought in my heart.

Wherever you are, Grandmother, may my words honor you
and help you heal from the suffering you endured while you walked the earth.
My you discover and unlock the promise of your sacred name.

I would like to thank K.A. Libby for inspiring this post today. Someday, I plan to read her novel, Beware the Sleeping Dog, but it will have to wait until mine is finished. I hope she understands the reason for my delay. In the meantime, I encourage others to visit her blog and read the enticing excerpt she’s posted.

Note:

The theme I chose for this blog (Runo Lite) doesn’t display links very well, something I realized when I took blogging 101. Since then, I have been coloring the link text to increase visibility, but it also can be distracting.

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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About Carol A. Hand

What matters are not the titles I’ve held or university degrees I earned or the size of a house or bank account. It’s really what I’ve learned from ordinary people like me whom I’ve met along the way. They taught me to live with gratitude and give thanks for each new day.
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26 Responses to The Symbolic Importance of Names – Writing 101

  1. Lara/Trace says:

    “Sometimes, people are too wounded to care about themselves or others.” This truth hit me so big, Carol. And in my humble opinion, as we write, we do heal.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Another thoughtful post, Carol. Names are far more than labels, as you’ve just discovered. Too often in western culture we forget that a name is also a history that connects us to generations past. I get annoyed when I see parents giving kids made-up names that have no connection to their own language, history or culture. Names are part of identity and should be treated with respect.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I always appreciate your eloquent, erudite comments, Art. Yes, I have discovered how important naming is – it’s a crucial foundation for the art and ceremony of creating something that will hopefully be deeply meaningful to some.

      Like

  3. Another thoughtful response to a Writing 101 prompt. Enjoyed your discussion here about names, and how another writer’s work inspired you to pen this post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Cheri. it’s a little intimidating for me to know that you’re reading my posts, and honestly, I’m in awe of your ability to read, let alone comment, on so many! This context makes me appreciate your encouragement and specific feedback even more.

      Like

  4. Indira says:

    I agree with Cheri. Very thoughtful response to the prompt.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Very nice Carol! I love your thoughtfulness in regards to picking a name. In In Arab culture it is very important to pick a suitable name and most people know what it means! I got asked all the time what my name meant and said hmmm uhh! So it is interesting to think about the importance! I am excited
    to read your novel when it is done!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. rosemawrites says:

    This is such an informative and interesting topic to discuss. Nice! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  7. sojourner says:

    I always highlight my quotes and links.

    My grandmother’s name was Myrtle. Feel free to use it;-)

    What came to mind was this: why not use a more common name, then there will be no thought, by others, that you ripped something off from another writer?

    What I have discovered as a composer, if I may be so bold as to refer to myself in that manner, is that every note, rhythm and phrase I have ever written have been written many times before. But at the end of all those USED notes, rhythms and phrases is my music.

    By the way, this is the reason I am not well known or wealthy;-)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments and suggestions, Sojourner. I think, for now, I’ll try using my grandmother’s name. There’s something about using it as I imagine different possible outcomes in her life that is appealing – rewriting her story as a foundation for a character based on my experiences (somewhat). And yes, it has all been written before, but maybe something about the melodies, instruments, and artists of your unique compositions will touch someone who might not otherwise be accessible…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. desilef says:

    Beautiful thought about using the name Agnes to discover new understanding and empathy. There’s also an approach some people use which is to choose the name of someone you know (or even a fictional character) who embodies the characteristics you see in your character (the one once called Mavis). That way as you continue a lengthy project, there’s an emotional resonance. But once the work is done and you’re going to make it public, you change the name so it no longer identifies the real person.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for these great suggestions and insights, Diane. Honestly, I am impatient to begin. Yet the diversions in Writing 101 are immeasurably valuable. The assignments often force me to go deeper into my feelings and wider in my thinking. But today, I’m just tired and I want a break. But I have green beans and tomatoes that need to be frozen…

      Like

  9. hsampson says:

    Wow, interesting Carol, I think writing this novel will have many interesting effects in you and your readers, since we always project our inner self in our writings. I loved this post!! Thank you!!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. What a wonderfully insightful and powerful post, Carol. You’ve demonstrated the power of naming in an unusual way. Your grandmother sounds like an intriguing character.

    As you may know, we here in Canada just wrapped up our Truth and Reconciliation Commission into the treatment of Aboriginal children in the residential schools. The first-person accounts that were shared were incredibly painful, but also showed Canadians how the horrors inflicted upon these children have haunted them and their children and grandchildren and ruined families and whole communities.
    I’m glad to hear that you are writing this book.

    Liked by 1 person

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