Most of us started our name blogs as a way to store and share our information, or as an extension of our online activities in forums, or even on a whim. Kay started her blog, Nook of Names, to promote the book she was preparing for publication: Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Names: For Pagans, Witches, Wiccans, Druids, Heathens, Mages, Shamans & Independent Thinkers of All Sorts Who Are Curious About Names from Every Place and Every Time.
That’s an impressive title, which embraces a wide spectrum of people who will want to read this book. If you are not a Pagan, Druid or Shaman, I hope at least you fit under the heading of being an Independent Thinker Who is Curious About Names. Slavish Non-Thinkers Who are Incurious About Names should leave now …. and in fact, how ever did you get here in the first place?
Because Kay has both a book and a blog, I am going to attempt to review both of them simultaneously. It sounds an insane plan, but in my defence I did try to do them separately. In the blog review, I kept needing to refer to the book, and in the book review, I needed to keep referring to the blog – the two are so intertwined that I felt compelled to combine them.
Kay started blogging on Midsummer Eve last year; although she says it is her first attempt, it is a beautiful and professional-level name blog. The Misty theme is a perfect match, the colours are soft and natural, and the background design from the book’s cover suitably mysterious. I must pay tribute to the illustrations for the blog; they are sumptuous and lovingly chosen works of art.
Nook of Names was set up to whet our appetites for The Complete Book of Names, with great success. The first post introduced The Complete Book of Names, the second explained why it wasn’t just for Pagans, and then began the process of providing some sneak peeks into the book’s contents based on names of people who connected to her on Facebook. For example, the entry on Estelle, also covers Stella and Esther, and hints that looking up the entries for Ishtar, Hester, Easter and Vanessa will prove rewarding.
Kay addresses the fact that a Complete Book of Names cannot ever literally contain every single name ever given on earth, and Nook of Names is thus her way of covering many names that couldn’t be included in the book. As a result, the blog has a huge number of names, and they are all indexed, from Abel to Zygus.
Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Names was published at the start of this year, and is available at Amazon and Amazon UK, as well as other good bookstores. UK-based readers can buy a signed copy of the book directly from Kay through Paypal. Australians can buy it from Angus and Robertson, which is rather pricey; if you don’t mind a longer waiting period, The Book Depository has free postage.
I have had my copy since the end of January, and for over a month it has been my constant bedtime companion. It’s a hefty tome – nearly 800 pages, and weighing almost 2 kg. It contains thousands of names, and a wealth of information for each one.
Massive reference books often come in small print, presumably in the belief you will only be looking something up for a few minutes, but Llewellyn have been very generous, and The Complete Book of Names is easy and pleasurable to read. The print is large and black on very white paper, and although there are many codes used to save repeating the same phrases, they are so commonsense that you can probably figure most of them out without consulting the key every time.
(I must confess to not actually using this key, as it is easy enough to decipher that ESW means English-speaking world, and Hist means historical – although having a quick glance at it now, I see it might be possible to confuse yourself, with Lat meaning Latvian and not Latin).
Each entry contains much more information than the usual “name book”, providing not just origin and meaning, but a mini-history of the name, with links to related names which may provide further elucidation. You may wonder what makes the book particularly Pagan; although there are plenty of “ordinary” names, like Henry and Katherine, and “modern” names like Sienna and Chase, the CBM includes many names from world mythologies, and also more nature names than are usual in a name book.
Pagans of all sorts are united by their love and respect for Nature, and so it is not surprising to see unusual name suggestions from the natural world, such as Paprika, Chaffinch, and Hypericon. Names of plants and gemstones often have magical associations, and it is fascinating to read that Parsley was dedicated to Persephone and used in funeral rites, or that Bears were sacred to Artemis, so that young initiates to her cult were called little she-bears. This gives a much deeper understanding of the “meanings” of such natural names.
Kay’s qualifications for writing the book are impressive. According to the back of the book, she is a scholar of history, Assyriology, Latin and Greek; a graduate of the University of Cambridge; and knows a number of modern and ancient languages. She also belongs to the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, and is a member of the British Pagan Federation. In other words, she is a pagan name expert.
Kay has her own theories on names, and that’s one of the things I most appreciated about her book. There’s nothing more annoying than looking up a name and being given the unhelpful entry: “meaning unknown”. I always feel like saying, “Surely you must have some idea?” Kay does have some idea, often several of them, and she’s happy to share her thoughts as to the most likely derivation of an obscure name. When the meaning is lost beyond all finding, she can still help explain its cultural context, and thus what it “means” on another level.
Despite her interest in languages and etymology, this is not just a “name dictionary” which gives a definition of a name. Although it is certainly a valuable reference work, it is intended to be used in choosing real life names, whether that be a name for yourself, a pen name, a name for a baby, names for literary characters, or even a name for a pet.
Although I’m sure most readers will be eager to dive right in to look up their favourite names, or skim through it for more name ideas, it’s worthwhile to read the excellent introduction. It contains a history of naming in the western world which I think everyone who is interested in names should read, and also has thoughtful advice on choosing a baby name. Even this has a certain Pagan flavour – most name books don’t suggest that you might like to consult an astrologer, or seek guidance from your tarot cards or rune stones!
And yet most of it is sensible advice that anyone would benefit from. Although Kay feels that Pagans are more likely to think deeply about their name choices, I’m sure most people do choose baby names with care, and certainly all of us should think deeply about it, and follow our intuition, even if we don’t necessarily use rune stones to do so. One of Kay’s principles of naming is that we don’t so much select a name for someone as undertake a journey to discover it, which I think is a wonderful way to see it, and also puts you in the right frame of mind and heart to find the perfect name.
This is a book that anyone who cares about names will want to own, and consult again and again. It’s filled not only with fascinating information on each name, but contains a multitude of creative naming ideas, including lists of names grouped together by meaning or theme. It may be written from a Pagan perspective, and no doubt fellow-Pagans will find it suits their needs better than any other name book, but it is a book for almost everyone. In short, I don’t know how any name aficionado or name blogger can live without this book.
Now with the book out, and hopefully walking off the shelves, does this mean that Nook of Names has served its purpose and will be laid to rest? There are no signs of it, because there are so many names out there in the world still waiting for Kay to document them. Besides, I bet she’s already working on a revised edition of The Complete Book of Names!
There’s a lot to discover at the Nook of Names. There are essays on onomastics, such as one on Surnames as First Names, which has generated alphabetical lists of English surnames which could make unusual and interesting personal names. There’s Pagan Name of the Month; these always show the pagan roots or pagan connotations of commonly used names such as Aidan or Ruby, making them pagan-friendly populars. Pick of the Week looks at a less usual name; it’s impossible to pick a favourite, but the one on Coventry stuck in my mind.
A series inspired by the runes gives interesting lists of names, there’s names from the world of fiction, including a two-parter on characters in Dickens (lots of cat names!), and inspiration from travel, such as this essay on the sacred landscape of Somerset. British name bloggers, perhaps because they are surrounded by such richness of history, seem remarkably skilled at finding name inspiration wherever they go.
There’s plenty of Paganesque entries, such as ones of names from Nature, names for Pagan festivals such as Imbolc, and names from the history of the Salem witch trials. Kay seems to enjoy starting a new Category as much as I do; however, like me, she sometimes bites off more than she can chew, and Witch of the Week still seems to be a work in progress. It’s an excellent start though, and the entry on Ceridwen was especially lovely, bringing in plenty of first-hand information from Wales, where Kay lives.
Many of these posts are a chance for her to expand on the entries in Complete Book of Names, so if you are a fan of the book, then Nook of Names is essential reading. On the other hand, if you can’t get enough of the blog, then you need to get yourself a copy of Complete Book of Names at once. Then curl up in a cosy nook, and lose yourself in Kay’s magical world of names.
Q & A WITH KAY
Name: Kay Michelle Sheard
Have you ever wished for a different name?: Frequently! I’ve come to like Kay more, as it has a lot of meaning when you start to dig. But I don’t like Michelle. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s never felt “me”.
When did your interest in names begin?: Like a lot of name buffs, I used to collect names as a child – not just first names, but surnames and place-names too. The whole concept of naming and how names began and evolved really fascinated me. It all goes hand in hand with my interest in etymology and social anthropology in general.
How did you first decide to write a book on names?: Writing a book about names was always at the back of my mind, but its birth was sparked by two things in August 2009. I was lamenting the lack of a really comprehensive book of names for Pagans/alternative-minded folk. Meanwhile, one of those Facebook apps offered to tell me what my name meant. I knew already, but did it for fun, and it came out with something so outrageously wrong that that was that!
How long did the book take?: The whole process has eaten up the best part of two years.
How did you find a publisher?: Finding a publisher was very straightforward. I approached Llewellyn in October 2009 with the idea, and was offered a contract in December.
Hardest thing about writing a book: Keeping a balance between work and everyday life. There were times when I ended up having to work on it virtually round the clock, and on more than one occasion I ended up working through the night, snatching an hour or two’s sleep when sheer exhaustion took over.
Your favourite blog entry at Nook of Names: Incan Inspiration – it was great fun to research and write. Plus, my sister-in-law had just got back from a trip to Peru and very kindly let me use some of her amazing photos of llamas.
Your pet naming peeve: Top of mine has to be the school of thought that tries to frighten people into choosing “safe names” with prophecies of doom and disaster, or howls of derision over the choice of something more unusual. The former, I feel, perpetuates the tendency to put the blame on victims for things like bullying, rather than on the perpetrators. And the latter demonstrates ignorance.
Your favourite names: My favourite names are those of Greek and Latin origin, especially those from Greek and Roman mythology. A close second are Welsh names, and names from Welsh mythology, born out of my Welsh heritage and love of all things Celtic.
Your least favourite names: Michelle – for reasons already stated (poor Michelle!). Other than that, I can’t say there’s anything I really despise, except, perhaps those that make a really strong statement about the parents’ world-view, like Neo-Nazis calling their son Adolf Hitler, and truly outrageous stuff like Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii.
Names you love, but can’t use for some reason: Ptolemy. Its meaning – “war” – I can’t embrace, no matter how much I try to persuade myself that the word has a broader meaning than just physical fighting, and that Ptolemy as a name has accrued many positive associations.
Your child’s name: I deliberately keep Small Child’s name private, as it belongs to her, not me. But I will reveal what she would have been called had she been a boy: Octavian Theodore Rhufon.
Did you and your husband/partner have any issues agreeing on names?: Not a great deal; we share similar tastes and attitudes. We came to an agreement that if Small Child was a girl, he’d get to choose her first name, and if it was a boy, I would. I was happy with that, as we both approved each other’s choices, and I got to choose all middle names regardless.
Names you are considering for future children: We probably won’t have any more, but if we did, there really are too many for me to say. However, I think it would be a safe bet to assume that his or her first name would probably be Greek or Latin, and they’d have at least one Welsh name too.
The one piece of advice you would give to someone choosing a name for their baby: Listen to your intuition – your heart – and don’t pay too much attention to what others say, be it family (other than your partner, of course), friends, books, articles or online forums. I can’t help feeling there is something in the notion that there’s a name that’s exactly right for each of us – unfortunately, not all of us get that name because our parents bowed to those external pressures, and that’s a shame.