A lot of people know the quote from Shakespeare’s Juliet, ‘What’s in a name? that which we call a rose. By any other name would smell so sweet.’ Or a variation of it, even if they don’t know that they are actually quoting Shakespeare. But really, what does a name matter?
I got to thinking about this after a lady in a Facebook group I belong to asked about cheesy names in a book. Apart from the obvious aspect of making sure your characters names fit the location and era your story is set in, a lot more can go into the naming of a character, as well as a town or city.
For example, the much loved and read Harry Potter series. Harry Potter is a pretty common English name and immediately sets the scene that Harry is just an ordinary boy like the reader, or at least that’s what the reader thinks to start with. And then there is Voldemort. In the second book (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), it is revealed that Tom Marvolo Riddle, a former student of Hogwarts is actually Voldemort. J.K Rowling does this through an anagram of Tom’s name. When the letters are rearranged they spell, I am Lord Voldemort. There was also the fact that no one spoke his name, years after he disappeared, for fear of conjuring him. That’s a pretty good argument that a name actually does mean something.
In my own manuscript I take naming my characters and locations seriously. Firstly to explain, my story is about two worlds, one forgotten and the delicate balance between the two. Consequently one of the Kingdom’s is named Leth-aon which means one half in Scots Gaelic. Then there is the character’s names. Lucian (which means light and is what his power is based on), Damona (inspired by the Celtic goddess for fertility and healing) and Benedict (means blessed, which is apt considering he is the Royal Spiritual Adviser). That’s just an example, there are many more in my story!
I put the same care into naming my children and I often think about the meaning of a person’s name when I am first introduced to someone (this is also so I don’t forget their name). So while Shakespeare has a point, it is also a little naive of him. If we changed a rose’s name to something less pleasant smelling (a skunk for example) and vice versa, the meanings would change accordingly. I do get that he was making a point that people should be judged for themselves rather than on preconceived notions (Juliet was talking about her lover, a Montague and therefore an enemy to her family, but she loved him anyway). However, when we first hear someone’s name or understand what an object is called, we have preconceived ideas based on that word and it’s associated meanings.
So while you can call a rose by another name and it would still smell great, the connotations would not be the same. And remember, in a world where first impressions are everything a name is pretty important. No one wants to have the kind of name that people poke fun at long before they have spoken a word. It is why we can legally change our names if we want after all. Shakespeare, to answer your question, there actually is a lot in a name.