What’s In a Name?

January 17, 2013 § 6 Comments

When you feel like, and call yourself, a writer but you don’t make your living from it, how do you keep your writing-self tuned in and engaged during those hours when you’re necessarily focussed on your pays-the-bills-job?

My job as a lowly processing assistant at a mortgage company keeps me busy busy — but with tedious, repetitive work that’s not exactly intellectually taxing. A squirrel could be trained to do what I do. So while my hands and the nut part of my brain are very active, there is also room to daydream and wander.

One daydream, while I perform my daily duties, is reenacting Julia Roberts in Notting Hill but as a temp:

“I’m just a girl standing in front of a human resources assistant asking them for an employment verification of a co-borrower….”

In another, I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore as I dwell upon a degree in English and Anthropology, a Masters in Gender and Women’s Studies, a backpack full of travels and adventures and… and… what am I… how did I… how did I wind up here? How did this happen?

I make elaborate escape plans as I remove the staples from a bunch of papers, photocopy the pages, then staple two bundles back together again: the copies and the originals. I think about what I can do that’s more related to “my field”. Teaching? Bookstore cashier? Squirrel.

I order another Flood Insurance Certificate. I address a million envelopes. I begin to think that I’m losing hold of my dream.

And then, a name pops out at me as I scribble. Sublimity. Sublimity, Oregon.

Sublimity, Oregon? Sublimity, Oregon.

I stare at the envelope. I can’t get over it.

“Did you know that there’s a place in Oregon called Sublimity?” I ask a co-worker at the fax machine. “Uh-huh” she says and walks away.

Did you know there’s a town called Battle Ground in Washington?

I didn’t. I thought places like the Bottom and Silk were literary flourishes, metaphors in Toni Morrison novels. But there is a Happy Valley here in Oregon and by all accounts it’s as irony laden as the Bottom was in Sula. Though, Boring Oregon may very well be so.

Call it delusion. Call it desperation. But suddenly this dull ass squirrel job is a veritable mine of interest and inspiration to me.

Take Battle Ground.

It wasn’t one.

The story takes place in 1855 where soldiers from Fort Vancouver are away fighting an uprising by the Yakima Indian tribe. To keep the Klickitats from joining the fight, their tribe is rounded up into the fort by settlers but some of them manage to escape and are pursued by one Captain William Strong who convinces the Klickitats to return to the fort but somehow – reasons are vague – their leader, Chief Umtuch, was killed.

The Klickitats promise to return to the fort after they perform a burial ceremony that lasts several days, which means Captain Strong had to trust them but also return to the fort ’empty-handed’.The settlers at the fort had been anticipating a battle and are somewhat unimpressed when Strong returns sans blood on his hands. Lore has it that the women in the settlement made him a petticoat of mockery! And at some point, the place where no battle took place, became known ironically as Battle Ground.

Is that a great story or what? I love the history, the story, behind that name. And Strong! Talk about a name.

I did a little bit of reading about names this week, one evening after I’d run some kind of name check on a borrower and the name had stayed with me for some reason.

(Don’t ask me what I was checking for. I have no idea. All I do is enter borrower’s names into this search engine and print off the page that – every single time – says “No Results Were Found For This Search”. Every time! It’s not at all exciting and I have to find the smallest of things to thrill and entertain me. I make mental notes of loan applicants with literary names: Carver, Byron, Caulfield. And the other day somebody with the most ordinary of names – it wasn’t quite John Smith but close – well, his middle name was Hercules. Hercules! That was pretty cool. I thought.)

And the surname Ransom. And Boatsman.

I’d never considered names and surnames before, never given them much thought.

But now, surrounded by them all day long, I’m oddly intrigued and like I said, I did a bit of reading…

I won’t bore you with all of what I read but it’s really interesting. Ireland, apparently, was the first country in Europe to use fixed surnames. Family names came to England with the Normans, were first adopted by the feudal nobility then spread to the rest of the country. What is now an unquestioned identity was once a consequence of the beginning of private taxation. It’s fascinating how physical and mental attributes of certain people became family names that endure today: Strong, Coward, Hardy, Whiteman, Brown.  Woods and Ford are names of people who once lived in those places. The Potters and the Coopers might now be doctors or software engineers but once they were just as they’re named, one’s occupation and role in life was one’s identity-marker: Baker, Boat Man.

It’s so obvious and yet so full of interest to me, I don’t know why. I’ve been struggling with naming characters in a short story that I’m writing and it’s helped a little to think about the subtle and not so subtle meaning and origin of names.

For one particular character, I’ve settled on Ruth. It’s a Hebrew name whose biblical name means friend. But I also like the meaning of the word ruth which means a feeling of pity, distress, or grief: compassion for the misery of another; sorrow for one’s own faults. From Middle English, ruthe, from ruen: to rue.

One of the loan officers in work calls me Ruth. She really thought it was my name and now it’s sort of stuck. I don’t mind what anyone calls me, as long as it’s consistent. Though I was strangely sad when someone said “we can’t just call you the Floater forever, let’s call you a Processing Assistant…”

Anyway… it comforts me that even when I’m not ostensibly working on the things I want to, that I’m not entirely disconnected from it either. My mind is always moving towards words and stories. I cannot help but see the world that way. Even the tedious banalities of the mortgage office world. And believe me, it’s dull. Which is the Scottish sister-town of Boring, by the by.

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§ 6 Responses to What’s In a Name?

  • What a clever idea for a post! My favorite job pastime is noticing errors and grammatical flaws in media and stuff like that. I spend much time transferring my job and writing skills to other arenas in this way. What do you want, it’s a living! (I do it in my spare time too, constantly correcting the English of the announcers and witnesses on the tv channels. It drives my flatmate crazy!)

    • My favourite ever spelling/meaning mistake was on a bus-ticket dispenser that was out of paper so couldn’t print tickets. It apologized profusely for the convenience. Man I wish I’d had my camera with me.

  • maryles1 says:

    Great post! I can’t believe those are real names!

  • This post was like looking into a mirror for me. Thank you!

  • Jamie Peterson says:

    Deborah, I’m intrigued by everything that intrigues you!

    And I’m just named after some guy’s son. Peter, actually. I wonder who Peter was…

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