Discovered or Improvised?

Back when I was at school, algebra was taught as a symbolic language. Over the years, the emphasis changed and, by the time I left mathematics teaching, it was being introduced through arithmetic patterns. Somehow I got the best of both worlds: I was equally at home with algebra as a language or as a system of recognising numerical relationships.

These two ways of thinking about the nature of equations could not be more different but I was fortunate in being able to move from one system to the other without missing a beat. Despite the disdain of modern mathematics educators for symbolic language, I’m deeply grateful I was brought up with it. Because the day came when I realised that, once you are fluent in one symbolic language, you have the essential grammar of them all.

Dream symbols operate according to the same rules of language as algebra; literary symbols often do too, especially when those symbols are ‘invented’ names within a ‘made-up’ plot.

In Discovered or Invented?, I looked at the question which perplexes some very eminent mathematicians: Is mathematics a construction of the human mind or does it exist somewhere ‘out there’, just waiting to be found?

In Discovered or Imagined?, I looked at a similar question in relation to fiction: Do storytellers make up their ‘secondary worlds’ or do the stories exist somewhere ‘out there’, just waiting to be told?

On an even deeper level: Are the names we think we ‘make up’ for characters simply a random conglomeration of suitable syllables or are they already ‘out there’, just waiting to be exposed?

This is not a philosophical question of no particular importance. Depending on your answer, the names you choose for your storybook characters are either completely meaningless or pregnant with meaning and purpose. (The same incidentally is true for names you choose in other contexts: children, pets, online identities.)

Eugene Peterson in The Message translates Romans 9:28 this way: God doesn’t count us; he calls us by name. Arithmetic is not his focus.

Now, ignoring entirely the mind-blowingly idiosyncratic translation of this verse (click here for other options), let’s just take the sentiment as it stands.

Nothing, in my view, could demonstrate more clearly the nature of modern mechanistic and rationalistic thinking: names and arithmetic are separate entities.

Rightly so, you may think.

I can’t agree. Brain-warping and mind-bending as the thought is: names are equations; they are a symbolic language. Names are power, the ancients said, and naming is a sacred trust because written into a name is a prophecy speaking out a destiny.

As for arithmetic not being God’s focus, this is a culturally–biased statement which unfortunately does not come across as utterly absurd. We have inculcated so much of Greek thinking we have lost the sense of relationship between all things. This statement suggests God separates what was once indivisible: word and number. The people who copied the Scriptures in ancient times were the Sopherim. Their name means ‘the counters’, though we call them ‘the scribes’. Words and numbers were not always seen as they currently are.

As for names: I believe, when it comes to stories, they truly are ‘found’ things. That each one tells us, not just about the story, but about ourselves and what we face in the real world. And by ‘real’, I don’t just mean the physical and material world.

In Be Thou My Vision, I spoke of discovering that the most famous bearer of the name Dallan I’d chosen for one of my characters was Dallan Forgaill, the blind bard and friend of St Columba. I knew Dallan meant blind but I didn’t know there was someone by that name who had written Be Thou My Vision.

Subsequently, I have discovered in a book about Inishowen that Dallan also means standing stone or perhaps even godstone. This all suggests there’s a lot more going on in my story than even I thought. (And believe me I’d already reached the conclusion there was a fair bit more going on than I realised consciously.) The character whose name I thought meant servant from the French, apparently could mean the mouth of god in German. And there are two names I would have sworn I made up—except they are real and they have exactly the meanings I assigned them. One of them is Uller and I decided it was to mean winter. Which ‘ullr’ does in Old Norse.

This scared me at first when I found it. But now I think nothing of it: I expect that what I find, if I am serving the God of all stories properly, should be a true word. And that it should apply to me and my situation and my spiritual dilemma.

I mention this because I’ve met several writers recently who believe stories are discovered, not invented, and that perhaps names are too. But they baulk at the idea that the names in their own stories are revelatory of anything. They agree they are ‘found’ but not that they are meaningful. There’s no personal significance in them.

I spend a lot of time investigating symbolic languages in literature. It’s a world of mathematical grammar, fortunately for me. One thing I can say in all this is: the names we choose in our stories have intense personal significance. And the meaning of those names tells us as much—and probably the same—as the interpretations of our most vivid and intricate recurring dreams.

A woman named Beverley came to me recently asking what her name meant. She was convinced that there was an issue in her life, to do with her name, that was coming between her and her destiny. What does every book say about Beverley? Basically that it means beaver’s field. But did you know the word for beaver and for beverage come from the same root? And that, as a symbol, beverage for many centuries indicated the making of a covenant?

The question for her now is: what kind of covenant? Covenants, after all, are forever. Until they are renounced.

And, just recently, I’ve begun to wonder if numbers are embedded in the very nature of covenants. Sure, it’s a strange thought to connect arithmetic and covenants but there’s something odd at work: the words related to threshold covenant (words like cephas in Hebrew and petros in Greek) are far too close to words for counting (and therefore, of course, scribing) to be able to say there’s no relationship.

So, have you ever ‘made up’ a name you later found significant? I love to collect instances of this phenomenon, so please let me know if you have.


  1. Anne,

    As usual, your understandings and perceptions are fascinating. Though I’ve had the experience of naming as an intuitive thing, though I feel ALMOST fluent at this, I can’t recall discovering later that these ‘purely invented’ names (could that ever be? – think you’d say ‘no.’) had existence in this world, that is, that I could discover them somewhere and learn their meaning.

    Your experience of learning/teaching Algebra as symbolic language or as arithmetic (I only get part of this) is interesting. The most important experience for me was exposure to several languages, and I think they mingled in my mind in ways difficult to comprehend and of course state. And because of this, voila!, naming became perhaps easier for me than for some persons. Not you!

    You did a wonderful job with this post.

    Bless you!


    • Hi Maria
      It’s only in retrospect that I understand that my understanding of algebra was key to many aspects of understanding names. Looking forward, I couldn’t even see the fitness of the names I had chosen. They simply felt right. For instance, Giyelmaere was picked from a name in a book of baby names – Giylemaere – meaning pledge. I was looking for a name that meant fire and didn’t want anything very common like Aidan. When I discovered Giylemaere, it seemed so perfect for a character whose word was a pledge of honour. I did change the spelling a little to make it more easy to pronounce (at least that was my rationalistic reason – after discovering a tendency to put the sound ‘el’ in names, I wondered about that!) Years after I first wrote Many Coloured Realm – but long before it was published – I discovered that Giyelmaere would be far more appropriately translated as hostage to a demon or hostage to goblins, which was a little too close to the character to be in any way coincidental.

      • Wow, Anne! For Giyelmaere to have this meaning is astonishing. It supports your premise that these things are out there waiting for God’s children to discover.

  2. Alison Collins

    “That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done. So, there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one might say, ‘See this, it is new’? Already it has existed for ages which were before us.”

    Ecclesiastes 1: 9-10 (NAS)

    Alison Collins

    • Hi Alison

      I couldn’t agree more that there is nothing new under the sun. However, I also think that knowledge can be lost for such a long period of time that, as it is being recovered, it appears new and novel and fresh.

  3. Goody, a place to say the following and not be misunderstood… While writing my last manuscript particularly, names for new characters came instantly without having to trawl books for ideas and once developed, when I checked their meaning, curiously they matched incredibly well. It is beyond intuition and reasoning, as the many layers beneath connected all too well, even characters who changed their birth name did not escape their inherent meaning.

    This sort of thing is fundamentally thrilling! God may be discovered everywhere and in everything.

    Thank you, Anne, for your lively post.

    • Hi Susan

      They will probably match on much deeper levels than you originally suspect. Names are multi-layered songs, not simple tidy definitions. You may find that, if your names have any mythological base (and many do), that your writing is tackling that.

      My favourite example is CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe which tackles the name covenant embedded in the word ‘Lewis’ meaning lion but derived from Llew Llaw Gyffes, the Celtic god of light, whose name meant the lion of the steady hand. Until we understand how significant name covenants are and how deeply they affect us, we won’t understand why we have such a strong intuitive sense of what names we think we’ve invented genuinely mean.

  4. Ken Rolph

    I believed I was making up wholly new names for a story I was contemplating. I was picking Scrabble tiles out of cups according to set rules for the balance of vowels and consonants. But after the randomness came the selection that I couldn’t avoid.

    One aspect was finding a name for a metal miner and smith (it’s a medieval style alternate world). I generated several possibilities, then floated them on an email list. I got a few dozen responses, and about 80% chose a single name: Bokran. Googling now tells me that this is indeed a name used across the Asian to Middle Eastern area.

    I do wonder, however, about the current trend of parents to pluck names out of thin air for their delightful children. Some of these are obviously pinched from other cultures. Some seem to be completely made up. What possible meaning could they embody?

    • Ken,

      You never cease to amaze me! Oh, what a perfect example Bokran is of this phenomenon!

      There are two categories of writers as far as I am concerned: those who are concerned with the covenantal aspects of identity and destiny encoded in names and those who aren’t. I regard the first kind of writing as inspired (regardless of its quality) and the second as just the outworking of a good idea.

      I thought you were the second kind but you’ve just revealed yourself as the first.

      To answer your last question, it’s necessary to consider that Paul says in Colossians 2:8 – See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.

      The phrase elemental spirits comes from the Greek word ‘stoicheion’ which means, amongst other things, the spoken sounds from which everything in the material universe comes; the fundamental nature of life, humanity and destiny. In other words, it doesn’t matter that parents make up names. They have a meaning within ‘stoicheion’. The assumption that humans assign meaning to names, rather than discover meaning within names, is widespread.

      However if stories are discovered rather than invented, mathematics is discovered rather than invented and names are discovered rather than invented, why should the meaning of names be any different? Long established names have had their meanings discovered; more modern unusual names will probably take longer.

      But let’s use a wonderful example of this: Bokran. Why is this so attractive as the name for a smith? Ignoring the fact it means something across Asia (which I was unable to discover), basically it’s the insertion of a ‘k’ into a word that fits the general idea of the great fabricator-gods or fire-gods of many ancient cultures. The fabricator gods are, of course, smiths.

      Where does the ‘k’ fit in? May I suggest that it comes from the name Ken. This might be a Celtic word but, as an example of stoicheion, it would undoubtedly go back to the Kenite neighbours of the ancient Israelies, the smiths and fabricators who traced their heritage back to the first metalworker: Tubal-cain. Their name comes from the second part of his name. Cain, qayin and ken were all related words for smiths, creators (in the material sense) and fabricators.

      Bokran is a perfectly splendid example of a ‘found’ name being related to the name of the author. This relationship is why such names resonate so strongly both with readers and the writers who pick them.

  5. Richard Kent

    The wind blows where it wills. We don’t know fully know where it comes from and maybe only get a glimpse of where it’s going. When it does blow, it stirs something inside. Are stories discovered or imagined? Sometimes we uses numbers to analyses it. Follow a structure which is influenced by social constructs; scrutinize it and conclude it is a great work. Other times it is one central spot of red. A seagull that captures your heart, thanks Jonathon, or living your whole life in one day and then encapsulating that experience in a character. Both I believe, discovery and freedom to imagine. Thanks Anne

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