What’s In a Name?

What’s In a Name?

I have always been fascinated with names. Growing up in a mostly Pennsylvania Dutch area with a name like Bronwen Chisholm, it only makes sense. But somewhere along the way, I developed an obsession with the meanings of names. I was so excited when I got pregnant with my first child because I had a legitimate reason to buy a baby name book. (This was pre-internet and before I had given in to my desire to be a writer.)

Later, when I first began writing, I would just pick a name for a character. Some worked, others not so much. Then I started thinking about who I wanted that character to be and researched the names a bit further. I wrote a story that is still being tweaked and retweaked where the main character was named Beth, not because I felt that was the best name for her, but because I had a friend at the time who I talked to daily named, you got it, Beth. When it came time to rewrite this story, it just didn’t work. Beth means “house of God.” To me, the house of God is strong, a force to reckon with, but this character questioned herself constantly even though she had an iron core. Yes, she had the potential to be strong, but it did not become apparent until she was placed in a situation that “birthed” it. After MANY different attempts, she was renamed Renee meaning “reborn.” It works.

When this topic came to mind, I wondered how Jane Austen chose her names. Certainly, there are several names that seem to find their way into more than one of her books, so let’s start with Jane. It means “God’s mercy” or “God is gracious.” and it is the feminine version of John. (Side note: what is it with families naming children different versions of the same name? I understand it is a sign of respect, like a son named for his father, but, forgive me, there are times when it just seems like a lack of imagination to me. My brother-in-law is named John, his father is Jack, and his nephews are Sean and Ian. I don’t get it.) Sorry about that. Back to Jane/John. Jane Bennet (Pride & Prejudice) and Jane Fairfax (Emma) give credence to the meaning of the name. John Dashwood and John Willoughby (Sense & Sensibility)? I don’t think so. (Oh, it should be noted that John is the most popular boys’ name since the 17th century, so it is an easy fall back.)

Susanah Harker portrayed soft-spoken Jane Bennet in the 1995 BBC production of P&P.

Anne seems to be another name that Jane Austen favored. It means “graceful.” Though I am certain we could see Anne Weston (Emma) or Anne Elliott (Persuasion) meeting this description, Anne Steele (Sense & Sensibility) and Anne de Bourgh (Pride & Prejudice) maybe not so much. Of course, Lady Catherine would remind us that Anne de Bourgh could have been graceful if her health had allowed her to be.

Just a couple more. William! Sometimes I think it is a name which was simply stuck in her head, using it more than once in one story. Of course her grandfather was William Austen, so perhaps he was the inspiration, although I am uncertain if it was a compliment. Sir William Lucas and William Collins of Pride & Prejudice and William Elliot of Persuasion are not necessarily characters I would want to have named after me. William Price of Mansfield Park might redeem them, but I read a blog recently which mentioned an actual war hero during Jane Austen’s lifetime named William Price who may have inspired the character. Oh, William means “determined or resolute guardian.” (Random thought: If Jane Austen was not impressed by a William in her life, what would be her take on JAFF authors using William as Darcy’s nickname? For that matter, what would be her take on JAFF? Hmm.)

Since we are speaking of Darcy, let’s move on to Elizabeth or Eliza. Jane used the name in some form in most of her stories. Elizabeth means “promise of God” or “God’s oath, God’s satisfaction.” Starting with Sense & Sensibility, we have Betty (Mrs. Jenning’s maid), Eliza Brandon, and Eliza Williams. Of course, Pride & Prejudice has Elizabeth Bennet, but Mansfield Park has Betsey Price and Persuasion has Elizabeth Elliot. Such varying characters to share the name!

Phoebe Nichols as Elizabeth Elliot

Charles is another well used name. It means “free man,” though I did see one definition which was “manly, strong.” Of course, Jane Austen’s dear brother Charles was probably the inspiration. Everyone thinks of Charles Bingley (Pride & Prejudice) but Jane used the name three times in Persuasion: Charles Hayter, Charles Musgrove, and Charles Smith. Oh, and we must remember the Charlottes that grace her works since that is the feminine version: Charlotte Palmer (Sense & Sensibility) and Charlotte Lucas (Pride & Prejudice).

 

Most every member of Jane’s family had their name used at least once: Henry (Tilney – Northanger Abbey), Francis (Frank Churchill – Emma), Edward (Ferrars – Sense & Sensibility), George (Wickham – Pride & Prejudice), James (Rushworth – Mansfield Park). But where is Cassandra? One must wonder if either her mother or sister requested their name not be used. Hmmm.

(Oh, the definitions (in order): ruler of the house, independent, fortunate protector, farmer, supplanter, and confuser of men.)

Are you fascinated by names and their meanings?

13 Responses to What’s In a Name?

  1. I could relate to everything in this post including living in a Pennsylvania Dutch area. When I was in elementary school, I spent my birthday money on a “name you baby” book. I loved looking at all the names and the meanings and would compose lists of my favorite names. I love authors who put a great deal of care in naming their characters.

  2. Same here. When I had my kids (esp the first one) I consulted books and now the internet) to see what the names mean. I do hope they will live up to their names meaning.

    I did notice that Ms Jane Austen is fond of certain names… Elizabeth, William and Charles. I wondered before why, thought it may have been related to some of her relatives/family or friends/acquaintances.I am not sure with Mr Bingley if he did real justice to the meaning of his name – strong. I guess in the end he did.

    • We did the same with our first. When I was in Edinburgh in high school, I saw so many war memorials with Alexander Chisholm on them and decided my son would be named Alexander Chisholm (married name). My husband wasn’t having it so our son is Nicholas Aaron. 🙂

  3. Great post!

    Miss Austen also liked variations. She has an Eleanor (the most common spelling) in Northanger Abbey and an Elinor in Sense and Sensibility.

  4. Cool post! Interesting how Jane’s characters live up to those definitions! My name Cindi e means bringer of light.

  5. I enjoyed this post, Bronwen! I think Jane Bennet was aptly named; and, for me, Mr. Darcy will always be Fitzwilliam and not merely William (a much too common name for my favorite romantic hero).

  6. Very interesting! I rarely see my own name as a character in a book. I did have two friends named June when I was in my teens/twenties, and we would run around together and confuse people.

    You left out a Charlotte – Charlotte Heywood, the heroine of the unfinished Sanditon.

    • Amazingly enough, there was another Bronwyn in my school. She was a year younger, but we were in choir together. I made life easy for her by teaching the teachers how to pronounce our name. 😉

      There were several that I left off as I decided to stick to the 6 books everyone knows best. There were 2 Charles in Lady Susan; Betty, Charles, Elizabeth, and Jane in The Watsons; and Jane, William, and Charlotte in Sanditon.

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