When authors invent names (or not)
I recently wrote about the slippery concept of parents "inventing" a baby name. Some claim invention of a name already borne by hundreds of people, while others claim traditional origins for brand-new names because they resemble old word roots.
Yet we credit individuals with "inventing" names all the time -- when they put those names into books or plays. Does anybody question Shakespeare's role as the inventor of the name Miranda, even though it’s built off the Latin root meaning "admire"?
In fact, you can find the whole gamut of invented, discovered, and pseudo-invented names in literature. One reader noted a recent example: Neil Gaiman's Coraline.
Gaiman has been unusually frank about how he chose the name. One day he was typing the name Caroline and accidentally transposed two vowels. He was so taken with the result that he used it for the heroine of a children's novel. Only later did he discover Coraline was a "real" name. (It was modestly common during the joint heyday of Cora, Coral and Adeline in the late 1800s.)
For a mirror image, try Anne Rice's vampire Lestat. (Hmm, on second thought, don't bother trying to see his image in a mirror.) Rice named her undead hero Lestat de Lioncourt in the mistaken belief that Lestat was an old French given name used in Louisiana. In fact, the name was her own accidental creation.
So who's the name inventor, the author who fell in love with a "real" name he thought he made up, or the author who made up a name she thought was "real"?
Even when a writer does invent a name for a character, the job of creating a baby name isn’t necessarily done. For instance, Jonathan Swift invented the name Vanessa for his 1713 poem "Cadenus and Vanessa." Swift created the name as homage to a woman named Esther Vanhomrigh, building it out of bits of her first and last names. That’s as straightforward an origin as you’ll find.
The trick is, Swift's poem didn't inspire much use of the baby name Vanessa at all. The name was almost unheard of until the 20th Century. Celebrity parents Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson had a much bigger influence on the name Vanessa when they chose it for their baby daughter in 1937, by which time "Cadenus and Vanessa" was far from most parents’ minds. As young Vanessa Redgrave grew up, she added her own fame to the name’s profile.
Does that make Vanessa a literary name or a celebrity name? I’d say the answer is fully both. It’s literary in origin but celebrity in usage, much as a name like Eduardo is Old English in origin but Spanish/Portuguese in usage. The creative act is distributed; the name’s practical “meaning” continues to be shaped over time.
Which brings us back to Neil Gaiman. He may not have invented the name Coraline, but I’d say he clearly re-invented it. Doesn’t that name carry a different meaning than it did 10 years ago? And if a baby is named in honor of Gaiman’s heroine, isn’t his origin the one that matters?