Names, and Why to Use Them

Last year, my essay "Atomic Tangerine" appeared in The New Quarterly. In it I reckon a bit with names of things. 

When I moved here a dozen years ago, I wanted to learn everything about this place, and learning names seemed like a good start. 

Then I started to ask why--why did it matter whether that wildflower was a butter-and-egg or a marsh marigold? 

And after that came "so what?" A reader could probably guess that a butter-and-egg would be yellow (butter, eggs...)...and the point is??

I've been thinking about the "so what?" issues around names as I continue revising my novel, which is set in northwestern Ontario. Perhaps a character notices that the types of trees in northwestern Ontario are different from those nearer Toronto. Why bring it up at all? What does that say about him? Does he even know the names of the types of trees? 

I've recently read Melissa Harrison's novel All Among the Barley, a coming-of-age story set in farming country in East Anglia in the 1930s. One of my favourite elements of the story is how Edith, the fourteen-year-old point-of-view character, walks through their farm describing what she sees. 

I can't necessarily see what she sees from the names she uses. (I had to research to learn that the fabulously named wildflower "jack-go-to-bed-at-noon" is gold, for example. Well worth the time to learn it.) But the names mean something to Edie. She can see them--she knows this landscape, she's grown up in it. So of course she uses the names.

Another example: The family (I typed that "farmily" originally, which I like) has named their fields and meadows: Broad Field, Great Ley, Long Piece, Far Piece, Newlands. When Edie looks out over the farm, or walks among the fields and meadows, she names them casually, because to her, that's what they're called, in the same way someone might refer to Main Street or Broadway. 

In that book, that's one of the "what for?" answers; there may be others. It's a rich book, scarily prescient as to politics, and well worth reading.

It remains to be seen in my own work why characters name things--which is (part of) the fun of revision. Or so I tell myself.