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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Creating Original Historicals for Fun and Frivolity: Naming Tips

Edith May Anderson and Dorothy Gale McNeil. I researched hard.
So you've picked a time period to put your created historical in. Congrats! One of the hardest steps is done. You've picked the decade you want to set this all in. Now on to another hard step: naming your character. Names make the doll--and the character in this case. The name you pick can either cause you to crash and burn or soar and fly.

The main thing is that authenticity will get you. Every damn time. It is the major way people fuck up making a historical character and it's where I find myself face palming every time. If you want to name your character McKayla Piper Wallace, that's all well and good for your modern girl1, but they didn't name girls that back in the 19th century, and it's really going to jar your authenticity to do that mess.

Let's stop you from naming historical your girl a name that makes us go "Eugh, that's...nice." and get you to to a name that makes us go "Oooo, that's nice!"

To start, ask yourself some questions. Don't just start grabbing and flinging things at the wall to see what sticks. You'll get somewhere if you start with a good foundation. A few questions to start with: 
  • What's your character's culture? Maybe she's Swedish, or English. African-American, or Indian2 or Spanish or Italian or Korean. She'll likely have a first name that reflects that culture, and almost certainly a last name that will.
  • What decade was she born in and what were the popular names of the time? You might not be able to look up too far back--name records generally only go back to the late 1800s in the US--but you can also look in literature and history to find names that were appropriate for the time. Take for example, that a lot of people born in the 60s and 70s got "flower child" names, like Willow or Daffodil or Clover or Rainbow. Or Moon Unit. Never forget Moon Unit Zappa. Oh, Frank.
  • What nicknames or derivatives can come from a name? Molly, for example, is a derivative of Mary. Samantha often was called Sam. Cécile's nickname is Cécé. Last names can come into play as well, but more on that later.
  • Were middle names popular? They may or may not have been. Be cautious but don't be scared away. Note that the most common middle names for a girl nowadays are Lynn, Anne, Renee, and Elizabeth. You might want to skip those. And some people have two middle names.
  • What is their religion? A lot of Catholic girls, for example, had the first name "Mary" after the Virgin Mary and a middle name after their saint day, like Maria Josefina Montoya. A Puritan girl could have a virtue name, like Prudence or Chastity. Or Remember Patience. (Heh. I love so many of the Dear America books.) Don't rule out saints and/or names from the bible--a lot of Jewish children might have names from the Bible. Fatima is a lovely Muslim name.
  • What does her name mean? Addy's name, Aduke, means "beloved" in Yoruban, while Felicity means "Happiness." "Regina" means "queen" and Natalie means "born (on Christmas)."
  •  Does her name mean something to her family? (Family gets more detail in the next part.) Maybe her parents blended their names, or named her after a grandparent or other relative. Perhaps she has a twin, and their names have a theme. Dorothy in my gang, for example, has a mother who has loved The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and so, when she had a daughter, named her "Dorothy Gale". Kit was named after her mother and aunt, Margaret Mildred.
  • Did someone name her something to be a jerk? Slave owners often gave their slaves lofty names just to be asses, no shit--or worse, low grade names. So you got things like "Queen" and "Squire" alongside "Buck" and "Sissy" and "Cowslip."
  • Did her parents name her something uplifting? Many African-Americans reclaimed lofty names in the Civil Rights and Radical 70s--since many white people refused to address a black person respectfully, they would force the issue. So you had children named elegant names like "Sir", "Lady", "Duke", or "Prince." My people were crafty.
And then there's the things not to do. I could go on and on about that--for example generally you might want to avoid naming the character something that spells out a weird word by initials, or a name that sounds like an object, like Amanda Lynn. (Say it a few times quickly, and then strum that instrument and sing us a bard's song.) But if you've put half a second's thought into characterization and used my tips above, you'll be good. But let's just hit a big one. Cause I sometimes can't with people.

Don't mar or stereotype other cultures. For fuck's sake, just DON'T. You might have picked a character from a culture not your own--which means doubling down on research. Work at it and come up with something respectful, and authentic. And don't dare go for stereotypes. No naming your black girl Ebonita because she's brown3 or Kimono because she's Japanese or defaulting to "Jade" for a Chinese girl.

An example of stupid naming shit? In my *cough* wonderful stint on message boards, I ran into a woman who insisted that every Japanese girl's name should end in "-ko" because that meant "girl child." It was pointed out that this was very much otherwise by many, many people. Including me, whose initial knowledge of Japanese names came from Sailor Moon, and the only Senshi I can name with a name ending in -ko is Minako. One of ten (eleven with Small Lady/Chibi-Usa). Oh snap. Still, the woman doubled down on this being true, she knew this because of her learnings. To this day, I still think she's a Dragged idiot with just enough knowledge to be stupidly dangerous, and I don't even talk to her anymore.

When I named Kimmy--whose full name is Kyung-Mi Kim--I actually asked a Korean friend of mine if her name and the names of her sisters sounded right, and she told me it was pretty appropriate, so I kept it. But back up the question train. This does not mean pestering people for their opinions. Don't just go around pestering strangers mining for data. And if a person of any culture says they don't want to help you, then they have that right to say no.

Kyung-Mi "Kimmy" Kim, and Tyanna Lewis.
And for the love of Athene, don't just mix cultures for no reason. It's not cool. Especially Asian or Native American ones. They are not mix and match pieces. And don't name your Native American character Little Running Fawn or Cherokee Dakota Bearpaw.

But enough about that. On to last names. They are a little easier but can be tricky, especially if you don't want something boring. There's cultural flows. Again, do some searching and researching:
  • Mc and Mac often mean "son of" as well as last names like "-son". O' meant "grandson of."
  • Smith is a hugely common last name---for WASP people, mind. There's also Johnson and Williams. 
  •  A lot of enslaved black people were given the last name of whoever owned the plantation. Hence all those Washingtons and Jeffersons. Conversely, a lot of African-Americans, getting out of slavery, would pick their own last names.
  • Let's not name Native people utter dreck like BuffaloHide or Running Creek or Igloo. I can't trust you.
  • Many names were "Americanized" by officials when immigrants passed through Ellis Island, because people back then though names had to be more English and less ethnic.
  • So called "Jewish" last names are actually often East European or German, and more reflect the culture they're from as well.
  • Last names can help make nicknames too. Kit's nickname is also a derivative of her last name--and this is also true with my own character, Kimmy.
  • There's the lists of most common surnames on Wikipedia. It  lists by continent, and then by country. If your character comes from another culture, you might want to start there.
I'll be honest, last names trip me up me so hard. So generally I hit up a good name generator and start throwing things and running up long lists until a last name pops at me. Or tell my husband to grab something or throw open a phone book if I can find one. They're not a big thing anymore, phone books. But if I have one I may use it.

Finally, have some resources. A few good online resources for names:
  • Popular Baby Names is a good resource back to the 1880s in the US, based on Social Security records. It will give you the top 200 first names per decade.
  • Behind the Name is good to see when names not only came into popularity, but into practice. Again, it goes back only to 1880 for charts, but you can see when a name initially came into play, and when the popularity spiked and waned.
  • English Names of the 1500s: A little old, but a lot of those names carried forward into the late 1700s and several up to today. Plus, it's got a nice list of last names.
  • Popular Given Names US, 1801-1999 Now that's a list of names for a decent span of years! 
  • Random Name Generator I use this all the time to generate last names not only for my dolls, but for my writing.
  • Fake Name Generator: This one too. Note that it also gives birthdays if you're having trouble pinning those down.
  • Quick Name Generator: I love this one, for throwing out huge lists of names I later chunk off for other things.
 Other resources that don't get links:
  • Wikipedia has lists of popular last names in other cultures, and lists of first names, and just...lists.For example: List of Most Popular Given Names. Start searching and start learning.
  • Get a baby name book. I have tons of them. My fave is Beyond Jennifer & Jason.4 which skips meanings and goes for the cultural impact of a name. You can generally find them used for super cheap costs, after someone has ignored all the advice and named their child Dakota Mockingbird or some stupid shit.
  • Google "(culture) names". But don't just grab one and run with it. Hat tip? Don't grab so-called "American Indian" names out of baby books or off the web. EVER. That shit is full of icky, smelly stereotypes.
So there you go. Start playing with names. Mix and match and move around until you get something you like, and then hold on good! But work at it, and do your research--that is a running theme, when going historical. 

If I can stop one person from naming their doll  something as bad as Usagiko Madison dePizza from 1850s Chicago, I haven't wasted my letters.

Felicity Merriman and Elizabeth Cole.

1 I actually hate first names for girls names that begin with "Mc." Yes, that includes McKenna. But I can't stop you from pulling that bullshit. All I can do is advise you not to name your 1940s girl McMolly.
2 When I say Indian, I mean from India. If I'm talking about descendants of the first people in Americas who were minding their own shit 'til Europeans showed up, I call them Native Americans. Just because Columbus fucked it up 500 and some years ago doesn't mean I have to keep doing that shit.
3 True fucking story. Wait til I get to the part where she dressed her up for Halloween as Mr Hanky the Christmas Poo, because the doll was the same color. Yeah I can't fucking even.
4 Which is now called Beyond Jennifer & Jason, Madison & Montana. Come on, people. Update your name lists.


  1. Usagiko Madison dePizza??! You made that up, I hope! I hate to think of some poor doll sitting on a shelf somewhere, burdened with an awful name like that...but there's nothing so weird that somebody somewhere hasn't done it, and many of those people frequent the "other" boards....

    I don't have any custom historicals (yet), but your guidelines have also been helpful to me in naming my modern girls. Thanks!

  2. It is important to note that while a lot of those "Jewish surnames" do come from German, there are very distinctly Jewish German surnames and Gentile German surnames. It has to do with how surnames were originally assigned in Germany, which was a country with severely sketchy Anti-Semitism levels way before Hitler came along. A good general rule is that anything with "Gold", "Silver/Silber", "Stein" (which is properly pronounced shtyne and not steen) and the gloriously ridiculous last name "Lipschitz" are all Jewish. Normal Gentile German surnames include but certainly are not limited to Berger, Hindermann, Scheder, Weber, Hirsch, Guenzel, Schul(t)z, Haegner, Jaeger, and Schreiber.

    Another interesting thing to note is that where a white person in the US is from, especially pre-1950s, will play a large role in what ethnic subgroup her surname would indicate for. Examples: The American South was settled predominantly by Scottish and Irish folk, so last names starting with "Mc" (Irish), "Mac" (Scottish), and "O' " (Irish) are common there even today. The Midwest had a large number of Scandinavian settlers (Scandinavia literally has like 12 surnames and most of them end in "sen", AG was not off base with Kirsten at all) as well as many Germans; Texas was largely settled (in terms of white people) by Germans and Czechs, with some of the Scots-Irish descended Southern whites thrown in for good measure. I'm not going to expand upon the remaining areas- that falls under the heading of "research people need to do for themselves"- but you get the picture.

  3. I got a Just Like You doll for my 10th birthday. I really wanted a Nellie but my mom said she is retired, she is too expensive. So I decided that my girl would be a cousin of Nellie's. I called her Fiona(means fair) Mary (name of the Virgin Mother) Cathleen (means pure)O'Connell and realised suddenly that I didn't want a Nellie after all, I just loved my Fiona. To this day I still have her, and Nellie and Samantha too!

  4. I love how you made your Elizabeth brown hair and eyed, like she was in the original printings of the book. I don't really plan on getting any historical customs, but I do like making modern ones and this article really helped. And I really hope no one will ever name their doll Usagiko Madison dePizza. That would be brutal.

  5. Feel like posting another name resource I just like looking at, NameVoyager.


    It's a graphic representation of name popularity in different times.

  6. You know, when I read the part about "Mr Hanky the Christmas poo" I had to look that up because as a non-native speaker I thought I´d just misunderstood. (Must have missed that Southpark episode.) Now I´m REALLY shocked. Why would someone do something like that?! That´s so horrible and mean and just plain WRONG!

  7. Do you know of a good resource for accurate Native American names?

    1. Here is a great resource:


  8. Mr Hanky, etc?

    Now that is just WRONG.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. I've seen Ebonita on IG. Really lady?!

  11. www.babynology.com is a website that gives you chance of picking a best baby name for your baby. The site would be a great resource if you like to know how to name your baby.

  12. I'm doing a black girl in the 70s, so would this be a good name:

    Lady Willow Jefferson?


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