Thursday, July 8, 2010

Names and Unintended Humor

As an author of speculative fiction, I create lots of names. Create is not always accurate, sometimes I find them. One thing I have learned, both from the names I find and create and from other languages I have had contact with, is that you have to be careful that you don’t give a character an unintentionally funny name.

Even with real world names you can run into trouble. At my day job, name after name passes my eyes from all sorts of ethnicities. Some turn out to be quite amusing. Some of the most amusing are what parents do to their children or what people do to themselves. I can think of one woman in particular who decided to hyphenate her name with her husbands. The unwitting result is a name that to those with minds in the gutter (and this author admits to finding his there frequently) is great sport. I’m afraid I can’t provide the exact one I have encountered, but there is a close second that came to my creative mind - Melinda Wang-Carr - that should give you some idea.

And parents can be far worse to their children. I have encountered names that make me wonder what chemicals their parents were on when they came up with the name. I’m sure everyone knows what I am talking about. I have seen the silly, the ridiculous, the off color, and the simply embarrassing names so often I have lost count.

Then there are linguistically funny names. We English speakers find them in what some call ethnic names, but speakers of other languages can often find them in ours. One that stands out is the name of a car dealership in the Denver metro area. Kuni Lexus sound innocuous, but to speakers of Pashto (which includes parts of both Pakistan and Afghanistan), it sounds really, really bad. Not a name you would buy a car from. So if your target is going to be an ethnicity that you do not belong to, you need to be careful that the names you use, for all your characters, don’t have any unintended meanings.

As a writer, I strive to avoid landing my characters in this situation. Having a mind that frequents the gutter makes filtering the names I create easier. But there are also cases when a writer may want a name that does has a humorous connotation. These are either crafted and subtle or blatant and obvious depending on the purpose and comedy level desired. It can be done very effectively. I’m of the opinion that unless you are going for the laugh factor in a name that it is best to shy away from anything that can be taken in an unintendedly humorous way that might detract from the story.

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