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Morphemes and the Creation of Character Names and Words
By Pat Martinez
When you name your characters, are they randomly pulled from your favorite list of friends, children, old loves or relatives? Or do you craft them as carefully as plot and characters?
I found an article by Alleen and Don Nilsen that has caused me to re-think how I name my characters. These educaters take a critical look at the Harry Potter characters and JK Rowling's brilliant or well-thought out name and new word construction. From the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy*: Rowling creates her new words from familiar elements that empower her readers to connect the meanings of the new words with words they already know. She mixes and matches morphemes, a process that happens in natural languages more often than most of us recognize..."
Morphemes are the smallest units of language that have meaning--you are familiar with them-mal, un, non, less... Rowling cleverly uses word familiarity in new ways. She doesn't provide a glossary, but readers are empowered by the little effort it takes to make meaning. This may be in part why reading the Harry Potter series is so enjoyable. A few examples: Professor Dumbledore's Pensieve Bowl. Readers may see the word pensive and connect "thoughtful musing" where others may see "seive" and realize this is how Dumbledore sifts and sorts his experiences. Even though pensieve is a new word, a reader still understands.
Concerning names: Voldemort--literally the French translation is "flight of death." But vol, de, & mort have Latin roots and we are familiar with mort as having to do with death. So right away, a reader feels the blackness of his name.
Draco Malfoy is another name that at first glance sounds evil. We may not know immediately why, but Rowling has played on our senses-Draco--draconian, dracula,and of course Malfoy begins with the morpheme mal-literally in French bad, but a common Latin root used in negative words such as malcontent.
In my middle grade historical novel that takes place in the Paris Lost and Found, the original name of the curator was Monsieur LaCroix, a very suitable French name. But Monsieur LaCroix secretly desires to be a Cabaret comedian. After a thoughtful search, I renamed him Monsieur Rigolo, because the French word rigolo means comedic or funny.
So next time you name a character, consider his character, his temperament and purpose to the story and make it a thoughtful and meaningful choice.
*Nilsen, A., & Nilsen, D.F. (2006, October). Latin Revived: Source-Based Vocabulary Lessons Courtesy of Harry Potter. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 50(2), 128–134. doi: 10.1598/JAAL.50.2.5