Friday, 3 July 2009

Boy/Girl Name/Game

As a writer of erotica, my life is filled with profound questions. Like: Why is most of my spam in dodgy French?* Why, if it takes the average man 2 minutes to masturbate to orgasm, are the individual scenes in porn films so interminably long? And what the hell is it with NAMES in fiction?

Here I go reading a mainstream novel. The first female character we meet is called, say, Liz or Jan or Zoe. The first male character ... will he be called Paul or Rob or Ed? Will he hell. He'll be called something like Corso or Flashman, Poirot or Bennet.

The convention seems to be: women are indentified by their forenames, men by the surnames**. In ER we have have Carter and Pratt, but Abby and Neela. In Jurassic Park the two main male characters are Malcolm and Grant (both surnames) but the female scientist with a doctorate all of her own is called Ellie.

Huh? Where does this come from? (It can't all be Michael Crichton's fault, can it?) Is it a military/police thing or just a literary conceit? Does it reflect genuine US usage, do guys all over America routinely address each other by their surnames ("Hey there Armstrong!" "Hi Tchaikovsky!"). Because in my entire working life I have NEVER called a man by his surname and would consider it spectacularly rude to do so; if my working relationship with a man is that formal and hierarchical then I'd call him Mr Rillington-Humperdink, but in actuality in almost every case what I'd use would be his forename.

So why is the literary convention so strong that when I'm writing a character named, say, Joe Bloggs, I genuinely cringe from calling him Joe when narrating? Why do I want to name my men Grissom or Taggart, or at a push a forename that sounds like it should be a surname, like Tyler? Why does it feel slightly wrong to call a man by his given name in writing? Can't we take Pauls seriously? Is "Andy" too intimate? Is Nigel not cool enough?***

Anyone know?



* "Le plus grand penis du monde" "Pour faire votre plaisir."
** Yes, of course this is a generalisation and there are plenty of exceptions.It just seems to be the default literary setting. In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling is refered to throughout as Starling by the author, but that's quite striking.
*** Okay, fair enough in that case.

15 comments:

Jeremy Edwards said...

As a former U.S. schoolboy, I can attest that it was common for us to call each other by our surnames (or rude variations thereof). So if you're reading American novels written in 1975 by schoolboys, then mystery solved. I think girls called me by my surname, too, (as in, "No, I don't want to see your etchings, Edwards, you pipsqueak"); but I don't remember if, as a boy, one typically returned the favor—or if the girls used surnames amongst themselves.

Then of course we have the recent trend of surnames (or even state names) as given names. As in, "No, I don't want to see your etchings. Vanderbilt and South Dakota and the other girls are taking me out for my birthday tonight."

Eloise said...

Your mention of Grissom made me think - in that CSI, Grissom (usually Griss) is the only one of the major characters solely referred to by his surname. Conrad Ecklie, Jim Brass, Warwick Brown, Nick Stokes, Sara Sidle, Greg (had to dredge my memory for..) Saunders, Catherine (also had to dredge my memory for...) Willows. Hodges is mainly referred to by surname, but some call him David, new boy Ray Langston (despite being a doctor) gets both. Dr. Robbins is mainly called Dr. Robbins, but occasionally Al. The lab techs get a mixture - I knew Wendy Simms, but had to look up whether Archie has a surname - I don't ever remember it being used, despite him being male.

It makes me wonder if there's an age divide in place, or if, (somewhat understandably) the character dislikes the name Gil and asks to be called Grissom or Griss by preference?

Having consulted with a mutual friend who went to an all boys' school, he commented that when he was at school in the 70's and 80's everyone called everyone by surname only. He can still remember many surnames of school friends, and very few forenames. He also remembers when introducing himself to someone of a similar age as a young teen "Hi, I'm Lewis" was asked for his forename as they were on a friendly basis here. However we both agree that we use forenames or nicknames at work.

The exception would be someone you referred to by title - Captain Brass, Doc Robbins, etc. and there that applies across genders, my (female) GP is Dr. Smith, whilst my optician is "Ruth".

As for why you feel uncomfortable, can't answer that one. You shouldn't - non-literary usage wouldn't go for it normally.

Oh, and one other place it might crop up. I know the surnames of all those who live in the flats around me. I seem them on letters regularly. I know a mix of forenames (again mostly from letters) and that seems fairly random. Upstairs used to be a Mark and a "C" but they were both Webbers. Next door I know the surname of the current female and the surname of the previous male tenant, and so on.

Jeremy Edwards said...

P.S. I'll ask my sister—Upper Hamilton County, Oregon—and my niece—Massachusetts Turnpike Extension—about their experiences.

Madeline Moore said...

I think the convention these days is to call all women and men 'Dude'.

Janine Ashbless said...

Calling each other by surnames is definitely something I would associate in this country with all-boy schools, and thus massively old fashioned. I wonder if that does have an effect on the writng habits of middle-aged ex-grammar-school authors...

I went to a comprehensive school(i.e. mixed sex, mixed ability, state funded) myself. So it's just something I've never come across in real life, only on the page.

Cora Zane said...

In school we went by surnames - both guys and girls - but ONLY in gym class. And the only time it makes sense to me in a book is if characters are in the military, at which point you are automatically addressed by your surname. (Unless, of course, you've managed to land yourself some insideous nickname like Private Dingleberry, or something like that.) :P

BTW, the French spam people apparently get around. They send me junk too. Nine times out of ten it's for chemises, and I have no idea why.

Saskia Walker said...

Oh my god... Cue eerie music. I've been having this very dilemma, today. My bad guy, should I be calling him by his surname, or first. Quizzed the man on it. He said surname -- which is what I felt -- but my PC steak was worried by this difference. My feeling is it's a shool throwback. Bad guy is also a policeman, so I went with surname because it fits that setting, but, jeez, had the very same gender based problem with doing that. Weird.

Dayle A. Dermatis said...

I think some of it may be a holdover from early journalism rules. When I was a reporter (um, math, 20 years ago), the style was to refer to men by their last names after their first full-name reference. But then what do you do if the article mentions both the husband and the wife? We'd gotten past wives being called "Mrs. Husbandname", so it would be "Male Lastname" and "Female Lastname" for the first mentions, and the "Lastname" and "Female" for the following mentions. (I think. It was a long time ago. I mostly just remember it being awkward.)

But I doubt that's the only reason. We also have women changing their names upon marriage, so there's perhaps less investment in their last name as part of their personal identity.

My husband and I had a similar discussion recently, about how fathers will refer to their sons as "Son" in conversation ("Hello, Son.") but mothers don't, and neither fathers nor mothers refer to their daughters as "Daughter" in conversation.

Interesting stuff!

Dayle A. Dermatis said...

Eloise, interesting note about CSI. For some reason, though, I always think of Ecklie as Ecklie and Brass as Brass.

CSI: Miami has the interesting bit that Horatio often refers to Ryan Wolfe as "Mr. Wolfe," but I don't think he does that for anyone else.

Danielle de Santiago said...

hm..actually i tend call my friends by their surnames..girls too..plus i tend to give them new names depending on events or something charackteristik about them...

@ jeremy edwards...what are etchings ??????

Jeremy Edwards said...

plus i tend to give them new names depending on events or something charackteristik about them

That's the best!

An etching is a type of artwork—I think, technically, it's a kind of print (i.e., a metal plate is created, from which an image is transferred to paper using ink ... do I have that right, art folks?). But it's an old clichĂ© that a man would entice a woman up to his apartment on the pretext of showing her his etchings.

Craig Sorensen said...

I too a familiar with addressing by surnames in high-school (being of a similar age to Mr. Edwards, whose etchings I'd love to see, but I don't think he was asking me.)

When I addressed my best friends in school, I almost always used first names or nicknames. I don't recall ever addressing girls by their surnames. First and last name, sometimes, but not by last name alone.

In the military last name was commonly used, sometimes using the person's rank as well in many settings (of course it helps that the surname was printed on our uniforms.) In work settings where we knew each other well, we usually reverted to first name unless there was a big rank differential.

I have known very few people who go by last name outside these specialized settings, though. Some prefer it for whatever reason.

So, perhaps this is too much information, but what the hell, I felt like expounding. :-)

Erobintica said...

Hmm, I must have grown up in a different place (California) - I only remember ever using first names - of course, I'm female, and maybe it was different for guys. Interesting. I think in terms of first names almost all the time.

Danielle de Santiago said...

ah thank you jeremy..:-))))

Janine Ashbless said...

Thank you everyone!

And Saskia - I love the synchronicity!