Amaya’s dverse prompt yesterday made me look up the meaning of my family names. My dad had one version, which I realise now is non-standard. I never knew what my mother’s name meant until now. Could explain a lot.


On one side hurtful, sorrow on the other,

How could I be other than I am?

From inauspicious names, a quiet fury,

With eyes wide open to see the pain,

Hands outstretched to touch the wounds,

And tongue whiplashed to deny the lies.

Pain and sorrow, in all around I see,

Ancestors who saw it all, abide with me.


A rose

For the dverse prompt.

photo ©Tomeq Zag


A piece of history, I own,

a link in the chain,

like so many hands,

of Mary and Jane,

Maire and Sinead,

holding hands, child and crone,

last and first to be made,

the hands, young and old

who had nothing to claim

to pass on and bequeath,

naught but a name.

Like the name of the rose,

with symbols so many, so heavy and rich,

whatever it means, now nobody knows.

What exactly does ‘contemporary’ mean?

I ask, because this is one of the many aspects of writing for YA that make me feel I’m barking up the wrong tree. I’ve already written about the ‘kick ass’ injunction that to my mind misses the point about feminism completely. Same for the ‘diversity’ imperative. I recently read a review raving about a new YA space opera about colonising a new planet in which the reviewer went into overdrive about the most original and awesome aspect of the story, which was that all the characters in the story were queer. So much for the colonisation project, I thought, but more seriously—ALL the characters?

I admit; I’m completely out of the loop as far as modern culture is concerned. I don’t even know what’s on French TV never mind anybody else’s. The way people use the English language has changed since I learned to speak. It probably has in the US too, but on the odd occasion that husband tunes the tranny into BBC Radio 4, it’s like listening to a different language. The intonations are all different, and the way the phrases rise and fall in weird places and the fear of pronouncing vowels (Dr Heew springs to mind), make me wonder what my writing sounds like to these new Anglophones.

I recently had a story rejected by a magazine and was given quite extensive feedback. It was interesting, not because of what it told me about my writing, so much as what it told me about how other people were reading my writing. The story is set in pre-Christian northern Europe, and the main problem the editors had with it (apart from the unacceptable level of violence) was the language. It was suggested that it would be better written in a contemporary style. Whose contemporary did they mean, I wondered? The request was coming from people who objected that the word ‘fuck’ was anachronistic in the context of Iron Age Scandinavia. To my amateur knowledge, the word is of very early Proto-Germanic origin and predates the discovery of the Americas by possibly a thousand years. Just because it is used and used to death in modern American does not mean that Americans invented it! ‘Contemporary’, unless the setting is contemporary, is anachronistic, period.

I also find myself totally at sea with the naming of literary characters. Family names like Riley, Bailey, Taylor, Cameron, or Blake are commonly used as given names for male or female characters—not so common are Bottomly, Burtle or Pratt. Geological features like Brook, River, Sierra and Savannah pop up everywhere but I have yet to meet an Escarpment, Tundra or Swamp. You can call someone Red or Sienna, but not Yellow or Puce. Try it. “Hey, I’d like you to meet the twins Pratt and Puce.” There’s no logical reason why you should find yourself rolling your eyes at Pratt and Puce, any more than at Cameron and Sienna. But you would.

I don’t understand this mania for inventing names to be original. They end up being not. Maybe I’m just being fuddy-duddy, but it seems to me that nothing dates a story like its use of contemporary speech, especially when contemporary means cult phrases, original names or product placement. Imagine a novel full of Amstrad computers…

The ghost in my phone


I’ve just had an interesting conversation with a blogger friend about receiving messages, or tidings of some sort, from an unknown source, through coincidence, dreams, or tarot cards. The stuff you maybe don’t believe in, but you do really. Maybe.

That particular conversation has inspired me to jot this down, a weird experience I had the other night.

On Friday evening I sent a text message to the youngest who had been to see a film with the eldest, asking her was she on her way home to eat. I put the phone down on the chest of drawers outside the bathroom, picked up whatever it was I’d gone in for, and looked at the phone to see if she’d replied. The screen was still lit up. She hadn’t replied, but in the box at the bottom was the start of a new message. It just said ‘Zbigniew’. I certainly hadn’t written it, and there was nobody else at home who could have written it, even supposing the phone had been out of my sight, which it hadn’t. I mean, why would anybody write Zbigniew anyway?

Apparently the name (Polish) means something to do with anger, either getting rid of it or having too much of it. Could it be that some Polish guardian angel was telling me to stop giving out at the kids about their general idleness? Could it be that my phone is haunted by someone called Zbigniew?

What do you think? Does anybody believe spirits or whatever can communicate through text messages? I know Tricia Drammeh does. She’s written a novel about it, The Séance. I’d be interested to hear of any similar experiences.

Choosing a classy name for a pooch

A short while ago, I wrote a piece about names—in particular the names we give to our four-legged companions. You can read it here.
Some of the names I have come across have been bizarre, absurd, and completely improbable. I just wanted to add another one to join Virus, Tonsilitis, Sandwich and Cube: Pegasus, a roly-poly Amstaff cross.
When poor old Pegasus (in French that’s Pégase, pronounced Peg-ass) waddled over, I couldn’t help thinking that for a rotund, wingless dog, Pig Ass wasn’t such an inappropriate name after all.


There is a sort of epilogue to yesterday’s post about names, a chance meeting coming home from taking Finbar for his trot yesterday. We were rounding the corner by the library just opposite the market, Finbar surging ahead, dead keen to be getting back to his comfy chair, when he pulled up short, nose to nose with the most enormous, Rotweiller, a head the size of a calf’s and slavver dripping from its chops.

Finbar backed up, the beast followed, I tensed up. It had a muzzle dangling round its bull neck like a necklace, but wasn’t on a lead. It lurched at Finbar who skittered to one side as the Rot’s owner appeared, beer can in hand, and shouted at his pet.

“Leave it, Pâquerette!”

If you don’t know what a Pâquerette is, here’s a pic of one. Sweet.


The naming of animals and other parts

Since the Horace episode, when the Colissimo parcels delivery service exhorted me to name the parcel I was expecting before they would let me be privy to its whereabouts, I have been thinking quite a lot about names. There was a time when names were quite straightforward; there was the Bible for Protestants and the saints’ calendar for Catholics.

Times though have changed, and it is now permissible to burden a child with any assortment of consonants and vowels that sound attractive or at least original to someone’s ear, the only hard and fast rule being that you must use the Roman alphabet.

When I was in the maternity hospital with my first child, there was a rather surreal episode when the official from the town hall came round to register the new babies. The girl I shared a room with was Chinese origin and didn’t speak any French. The whole family was brought in to get the baby’s name sorted out. The official explained to one of the female family members who was delegated as spokeswoman, that he needed to know the child’s name. The baby’s auntie told him—a name about three minutes long in Chinese. He shook his head and asked her to write it down. She did. In Chinese. He asked her to write it in French. After a long time and a group effort, she produced the three-minute long name in Roman letters. The official wanted to know where the first names ended and the family name began. Nobody understood what he meant. There was another long confabulation after which another name was added at the beginning, that the proud father pronounced with a beaming smile, “Gwendolyn”.

Gwendolyn struck me as a rather off beat name for a child who was going to be brought up in an exclusively Chinese-speaking household, but the official from the town hall thought it was a splendid name. To my mind, Horace is a perfectly reasonable name for a cat that is, let’s be honest, horrible. I’ve known of cats called Maureen and Desmond, Mickey and Caledonia, and dogs called Rosie, Myrtle, and Jason. All perfectly honourable names for pets and people.

In France though, people don’t usually give their pets names like…names. They call them after edibles : Chocolate, Liquorice, Nougat, Cinnamon and Cookie. I even know a dog called Sandwich. There are an awful lot of dogs with names that supposedly reflect their character that translate roughly as Yob or Hooligan, Villain or Crook. A brown dog of our acquaintance bought as a Dachshund but which has grown four normal length legs is called, appropriately enough, Joker. There are a lot of very strange names around too: next door has a tomcat called Isis, Finbar has a friend called Virus, and there’s one that he avoids called Tonsillitis. A friend has a new puppy called Lampshade (The breeder chose it, and my friend hasn’t thought it weird enough to change), and we also know a Golden Retriever called Cube, a rather sad and inappropriate name in my opinion.

The names we have given our own animals, of course are eminently suitable. Jackson, the Siamese, Finbar the dog, Branwell and Raymond the tabby cats, and Trixie who is unclassifiable and has never really qualified for a normal name. The Little Cat is just that. However, many people consider pets’ names that fall outside the Biscuit and Goulash category to be extraordinary. When I wanted to change a password for Internet access from a string of letters and digits to something more manageable, I tried to use Raymond. It wouldn’t work and I couldn’t reset it, so I had to go through an operator. She asked me for the password that wouldn’t work. I told her, Raymond. There was a distinct hesitation.
Operator: Raymond ?
Me: That’s right.
Operator: Most people use the name of a pet, not a…person.
Me: Raymond is the cat’s name.
Another hesitation.
Operator: You called your cat Raymond?
Me: That’s right. Is that a problem?
Third hesitation followed by a sigh.
Operator: No, you can call your cat what you like, I suppose. It’s just…I have an uncle called Raymond.

I was glad I hadn’t asked to use Branwell.

What’s in a name?

I have been reading a lot lately about names. Which are acceptable, and which names are confusing. To be honest, I’m confused. A publisher’s reader once told me he found the names of my characters confusing because they were taken from the Bible and mythology. What I never understood was how a real name can be confusing. There are some very strange assortments of letters that are stuck on real live babies and called a name, but mine did not fall into this category. Would he have been confused by Jayden or Beyoncé, I wonder?

Names are important, for real as well as fictional characters, and I have always been of the opinion that a name should mean something. I have terrible problems taking seriously names that don’t mean anything, other than a random assembly of vowels and consonants that somebody’s parents thought sounded cute, or original.

There was a time when boys would quite often be given their mother’s family name. Now girls are given them too. Fine. But when the surname you give your child isn’t anything to you at all? We had a child stay with us a couple of years ago who went by the name of Liberty. Her brother was called Tillerman. Apparently Tillerman was not the family name of anyone they were related to, and Libo (for as such she was known in our household) had no idea in which catalogue her parents discovered her brother’s name. Same for the Kellys and Rileys and Ryans. Why? Why not Gilhooly or Higgins or Slattery? It isn’t the fact of using family names as given names that bemuses me; it’s the giving of somebody else’s family name.

Perhaps it is because we have got used to playing fast and loose with the names we give to our children, that naming of fictional characters has reached dizzying heights of daftness. Since some parents seem prepared to go to extreme lengths in the search for originality, fantasy names often share the same apparently random effect, but with the addition of replacing most of the vowels with apostrophes. But should we assume that in our fantasy worlds, the same custom of naming children by anything you fancy prevails, especially when so many fantasy worlds have very strict rules about most things, rules which have often not changed for thousands of years? Is it not much more likely that the naming of children follows a logical pattern, and the names have a meaning in the fantasy language?

Is it likely that the mother of our fantasy hero, Queen K’thel’knth would call her child Jade? Or Dane or Jace or Jim? It might simplify things for the reader to have the hero called Jim, but isn’t it much more logical that she would call him or her K’thel’pnth, or P’thn’knth, or some other unpronounceable monstrosity? Also, is it likely that Jace would have a sister called Killyuggoneonia, or a brother called Ashgabushkash? Would they not make a more likely family called Jace, Dane, and Jade, children of Queen Jenna and King Drake? Consistency is the key. Consistency and pronounceability.

Meet K'ht'phlip otherwies known as Flip
Meet K’ht’phlip otherwies known as Flip