Ten reasons I love onomastics

One the questions I am most frequently asked is how I choose my character names. That’s one of the reasons I enjoyed this post so much, and wanted to share it with my readers.

Onomastics Outside the Box

While plenty of people only choose names for their children, pets, and characters because they like the sound or think it’s cool, I’ve long been drawn to the history, culture, and etymologies behind names. I tend to choose meaningful names (both forenames and surnames) for my characters. It’s been years since I chose names from lists in the encyclopedia or the old baby names booklet my mother had when she was pregnant with me.

Some of the reasons I love onomastics include, but aren’t limited to:

1. It reminds me of how the world’s languages (Indo–European or otherwise) are more closely linked than many people assume. For example, the Kazakh name Akhat means “one,” which is very similar to the Hebrew word for one, echad. The spelling of the Etruscan name Egnatius was changed to Ignatius to resemble the Latin word ignis, “fire,” which is likewise very similar…

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Music Monday: “Have You Seen Her,” by The Chi-Lites

I was watching a music program on PBS this weekend, and part of the show featured interviews with soul music performers from the 1970s.  George McRae (“Rock Your Baby”) said something very interesting:  you could not put these songs in different musicians’ hands and have them be as brilliant because they were emotional products of the composers and performers.  As I considered his words, I realized how very true that was of certain songs in particular.  This is a long-time favorite of mine, and I simply cannot imagine it without the brilliant lead vocals of Eugene Record.  Enjoy!

Blast from the Past: Pet Peeves: Malapropism

A text-only version of this article appeared in my GoodReads blog on August 24, 2010.

Mrs. John Edwards as Mrs. Malaprop, Via WikiMedia Commons.  No restrictions.

In his play The Rivals, Brinsley Sheridan introduces us to Mrs. Malaprop. Mrs. Malaprop thinks that she sounds very educated because she uses some pretty fancy words — but she has no idea what they mean, so she comes across as fairly ignorant. My favorite examples come from Mrs. Malaprop’s speech to Sir Anthony Absolute about her ambitions for her daughter:

“Observe me, Sir Anthony. — I would by no means wish a daughter of mine to be a progeny of learning; I don’t think so much learning becomes a young woman; for instance — I would never let her meddle with Greek, or Hebrew, or Algebra, or Simony, or Fluxions, or Paradoxes, or such inflammatory branches of learning — neither would it be necessary for her to handle any of your mathematical, astronomical, diabolical instruments; — But, Sir Anthony, I would send her, at nine years old, to a boarding-school, in order to learn a little ingenuity and artifice. — Then, Sir, she should have a supercilious knowledge in accounts; — and as she grew up, I would have her instructed in geometry, that she might know something of the contagious countries; — but above all, Sir Anthony, she should be mistress of orthodoxy, that she might not mis-spell, and mis-pronounce words so shamefully as girls usually do; and likewise that she might reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying. — This, Sir Anthony, is what I would have a woman know; — and I don’t think there is a superstitious article in it.”

An excellent page of Mrs. Malaprop quotes may be found at this link.

As you go through the list of what we now call malapropisms in honor of Sheridan’s comedic character, I’m sure you’ll notice that the main problem comes in with homophones/homonyms.

I got into a big argument recently with an author because he referred to “knocking an arrow” in his manuscript, and I called out his error. He showed me numerous blogs that show people “knocking arrows,” which amused me mightily (I used to be an archer).

I think that knocking an arrow is not a very good use for it. In fact, I would think that too much knocking would render it pretty useless after a while.

In order to aim a bow, you must first nock the arrow.

The dictionary is your friend, and should be the source upon which you rely. If you look up nock, you will find that its origin comes from the Middle English nocke, which means “notch.” The notched end of the arrow is called a nock because it has a notch.

Now, let’s look up knock. Not only do we see no definitions related to archery, but we also see the Old English origin of the word in knoken, meaning “to press.”

I could go on and on about this, because it is an unfortunate problem. I have seen people write “for all intensive purposes” where they mean “for all intents and purposes,” and “taken for granite” when they mean “taken for granted.”

Honestly, as an editor, these sorts of things leap out at me and make me cringe. However, there are worse potential consequences than my disturbance; malapropisms may result in your manuscript being pitched out by an acquisitions editor who, frankly, doesn’t have time to clean up after you.

Watch your homophones/homonyms, folks; you don’t want to be the next Mrs. Malaprop.

Sample Saturday: Around the World in 80 Pages

atw80p-v2Today, I thought I would give you an entire story that appeared in my first short fiction collection, Around the World in 80 Pages. This book is perma-free on Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, Apple iBookstore, and Amazon.  I hope you’ll pick up a copy.  Enjoy!

No Eyes But Mine Shall See
Originally published in Bestseller Bound Anthology Vol. 1, 2011

Gilbert Rochambeau first appears in my debut novel, In The Eye of The Beholder. He also plays an important role in the upcoming sequel, In The Eye of The Storm.


Gilbert’s cravat hung loose, his shirt collar open. He dried the pen, closed the inkwell and sighed. His handsome face was tired and drawn in the lamp’s glow. Outside, the rain fell on dark London streets; it was late. He ran his fingers through cropped curls the color of old Roman coins and willed the tears to remain in his dark brown eyes as he reread the letter he would never send. He absently rubbed his leg with the other hand; the damp English weather made the old injury ache.

“Dear Claire” …

So innocuous. How could such a simple salutation say so much and so little at once?

He read on, the words flowing in his native French.


I watched your carriage drive away today, standing at the window until it was out of sight. There were so many things that I wanted to say to you, but you were gone.

I wanted to say those things when you stood in front of me, saying your farewells. You looked so beautiful in your blue cloak, its silver fox-furred hood lighting your eyes. Did I ever tell you how much your eyes reminded me of the Camargois sky?

No, I don’t believe I ever did.

Your glorious chestnut-colored hair was styled in an elaborate coil of braids: very fashionable. Yet my fingers recall its weight as I held those locks to brush them.
And my lips recall the kiss I stole that night. Did you feel what I did?

I wanted to speak so many times when I escorted you around London or Paris. Restaurants, museums, shops; we went so many places together. I wanted to be much more than your majordomo, but you never knew.

You encouraged my drawing, but you never saw the dozens of sketches I made of you. Some were from memory, from the days in Paris. You riding your fine horse; I know how you have missed that black mare. Many of them were made while you lay ill; I feared for you, as did all the household.

I wanted to whisper to you then, but I said nothing. Instead, I brought a black velvet toy mare and gave her to you. Your quiet smile was thanks enough.

I understand so much better now how a sadness of the heart sickens the body. The doctor called your illness hysteria, said you were mad. How wrong he was. You have ever been sane, even in the darkest times. Perhaps I could have done more to ease your burdens; I will never know. But I did what I could.

I wanted to speak when you befriended Joseph Merrick, and when you railed at Doctor Treves, my benefactor thanks to you, for the way he treated Joseph in death.

I thought about speaking up when the English ladies decided not to receive you anymore. You tried so hard to make things right. I wished, many times, that we could all go back to France. Now you are going, and I am staying here.

I wanted to say something the night you made sure, for the first time in years, that I was dressed and barbered properly. Your eyes were the first to look upon me as a woman looks upon a man whom she admires.

I wanted to tell you whenever I watched your kindness to the people of the Opera Garnier. You never failed to smile and say a kind word, even though I knew your misery.

Oh yes, I knew your misery. I watched your cousin François … my brother-in-law … take everything you had. He did the same to my sister; she died giving birth to his child. He lived in my home, but made it clear I was there at his sufferance. I became a servant in the home that should have been mine: your cousin’s valet. After all, how could a man with a twisted leg manage the affairs of a cattle ranch?

I watched François beggar and ruin you, and I could say nothing. He sold your home, just as he did mine. Damn those laws that say a man must control a woman’s property. Those same laws gave my sister’s inheritance to François; he squandered it all.

The closest I ever came to speaking my mind was the night I learned you were married, when Erik pressed his wedding ring into my hand and sent me to the little cottage where you awaited your newlywed husband’s return. Francois even tried to take him from you.
That night, I said that I was your man. You presumed that I meant only to help you. The truth was, I meant that and more. I wanted to be a bold chevalier: a protector. Yet, you barely knew me; I was your cousin’s valet, after all. It would have been unseemly to say more than I did on that night.

As it was, our lives were never the same.

Claire, I said nothing because I am a coward.

How could I say “I am in love with you,” even as you were preparing to return to France with your dying husband? Erik was as good a friend to me as he could be, and you chose him.

How could I say “I have loved you from afar,” without looking like a madman?

How could I consider casting myself at your feet and begging you to stay in London? And yet, that very thought crossed my mind as I watched your coach disappear.

How like you, in your compassion, to ensure that I would not be destitute in this strange land, since circumstances prevent me from going back to France with you.

There were times when you thought me so brave, Claire, but I am not. Only a craven would fail to speak these simple truths.

So, now I have done so, in a letter that no eyes but mine shall see. Perhaps one day, when I am in my dotage, I will tell my grandchildren about it. Perhaps, by then, I will be brave enough. I will live without you because I must, but your face will always live in my heart.

I am, your humble servant,
Gilbert Rochambeau


Gilbert blotted the ink and folded the paper carefully. He swiped a hand across his eyes, wiping away tears of regret, and tucked the letter into a desk drawer. He thought of glancing through the sketchbook there, but had felt his share of melancholy for the night.

Using the blue-knobbed walking stick, a gift from Claire at Christmas, he rose to his feet. He tried to keep his halting footsteps quiet as he made his way to the bedroom where his wife slept, peacefully unaware.