What's in a Name?
At Merriam-Webster we know that words have the power to shape worlds both real and imagined. And we know that writing is hard work. To distill a story, its characters, and all the associated emotions into a single word is no small feat.
That’s why we’ve partnered with eleven of our favorite authors who have shared the story and significance behind their one-word-title books.
The book began with a word - the title - Possession. Earlier novels have begun with characters, or themes, but Possession began when I was watching the great Canadian Coleridge scholar, Kathleen Coburn, working in the British Museum and thought - "she cannot have had a thought that was not his thought for the last 30 or 40 years." And then I thought - "and what I know about him is mediated through her - she edited all his notebooks, checked the sources of the quotations, etc."
And then I thought, "I could write a novel called Possession about the relationship between a dead poet and a living scholar." And the word possession would have all sorts of senses - daemonism, ownership, obsession……
I was working on Henry James and The Bostonians and Hawthorne — The Blithedale Romance – at the time, so spiritualism and those senses of possession came to mind too.
Several years later, working on the Brownings, I had the crucial idea of two poets and two scholars, which brought in both the sexual meaning of the word possession and the ideas of feminism, and the different attitudes to love and romance in the nineteenth century and now.
Order a copy of Possession here.
When I was writing Queenie, the character herself had no name, and the working title was Trauma until my agent told me that I was doing a total disservice to a novel that, while it explored the various traumas of my character, was actually very funny. And so, it was back to the drawing board with character name and title. I was sitting with my mum one day, who is both the funniest and most irritating person I know, and I turned to her and asked ‘…what name would you give a girl that is ultimately nice, but she might be annoyed by?’ and she paused for a second, then said ‘Queenie?’ and so I had a sort of Eureka and/or lightbulb moment through my mother because suddenly I realised that this character, this young black girl who is trying to reign the crumbling land that is her own life, should have a name that says as much. It mainly felt exactly right given that black women have been using the term Queen to define, express and empower ourselves in a way that we haven’t been able to. So even though my character’s path is a bit of a reckless one, through the novel she begins to understand her true value and lives up to the name that she’s been given.
Order a copy of Queenie here.
Flâneuse [flanne-euhze], noun, from the French. Feminine form of flâneur [flanne-euhr], an idler, a dawdling observer, usually found in cities.
That is an imaginary definition. Most French dictionaries don’t even include the word. The 1905 Littré does make an allowance for flâneur, -euse. Qui flâne. But the Dictionnaire Vivant de la Langue Française defines it, believe it or not, as a kind of lounge chair.
I called my book about the liberating power of walking in cities Flâneuse because I wanted to queer the flâneur, so to speak, with a change of gender reclaiming the concept of urban idling from a normative mythologized figure into one of rebellion and difference. The flâneuse is not merely a female flâneur, but a figure to be reckoned with, and inspired by. She voyages out, and goes where she’s not supposed to; she forces us to confront the ways in which words like home and belonging are used against women. She is a determined, resourceful individual keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk.
Order a copy of Flâneuse here.
When I’m writing a book, I like to know the title beforehand. It’s reassuring in the way a life ring is to a person who’s fallen overboard.
A good title tells you what the book’s about. It reminds you, when you lose heart, why you started writing it in the first place. I saw an interview with Francis Ford Coppola once where he said that he likes to boil down his films into one word. For The Godfather, the word was “succession.” Whenever Coppola decided something, even a small thing like a costume detail, he reminded himself of his theme in order to make everything cohere, from the storyline right down to the gangsters’ hats.
With two of my novels, The Virgin Suicides and The Marriage Plot, I knew the titles before I even started writing. I wasn’t so lucky with Middlesex. For years I had a terrible working title for that book, so bad I won’t even mention it here.
It took me something like eight years to write Middlesex, and by year five, I still didn’t have a good title. The novel begins in 1960 with the birth of the narrator; then it goes back to 1922 and slowly works its way back to 1960 before telling the story of the narrator’s life. The narrator of the book, Cal Stephanides (formerly Calliope) is intersex. As a result of an inherited genetic mutation, he has a condition called 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome. Cal is raised as a girl; later on, after puberty, he assumes a male gender identity.
One day as I was writing about Cal’s early years and recalling my own childhood, it occurred to me that the street I’d grown up on, in Grosse Pointe, was called Middlesex Blvd.
Americans name a lot of things “Middlesex.” When I lived in New Jersey, the next county over was Middlesex County. I stayed at a hotel once that had a conference room called “The Middlesex Ballroom.” “Middlesex” sounds classy to us.
And so for both these reasons, my intersex narrator and his suburban upbringing, I realized that I had found the perfect title at last. It had been there ever since I started third grade: on the street sign at the end of my block.
Order a copy of Middlesex here.
With Misery, it was the name of writer Paul Sheldon’s main character (he wrote bodice-rippers about a hot chick named Misery Chastain), and the situation he found himself in as Annie Wilkes’s prisoner. So the title was pretty much a no-brainer.
Order a copy of Misery here.
My novel Ash is a retelling of “Cinderella.” In many versions of the story, the main character sits in the hearth to keep warm, and thus is covered in ashes. This is why she’s named Cinderella (Cendrillon in French and Aschenputtel in German), implying a girl covered in cinders or ashes. In From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, Marina Warner called attention to the significance of ashes in the story, explaining that it was a sign of bereavement. Warner wrote: “Cinderella, in her rags, in her sackcloth and ashes, is a daughter who continues to grieve.”
Many people know “Cinderella” as the story of a poor servant girl who grows up to marry a prince, but the story begins when a young girl loses both of her parents. Grief and loss are the underpinnings of this tale, given symbolic expression by the way she sleeps in the ashes of the kitchen fire. Without this darker beginning, the true love that sets her free at the end wouldn’t have nearly as much impact.
I’m not sure when I chose to name my Cinderella character Ash, but it seemed crystal clear to me that it was the only name she could have. Her story might begin in darkness, but she rises out of the ashes of her grief like a phoenix.
Order a copy of Ash here.
A word is many things: its meaning, and its execution, the feeling it evokes, and the way it cuts across your tongue. Telling a story with no heroes, but many kinds of villain, I needed to find a word that linked them all. Vicious: two syllables, sibilant, but sharp, and undeniably evocative. A step beyond cunning, right of cutthroat, and left of cruel.
Order a copy of Vicious here.
My first novel, Prep, was published in 2005. It told the story of an awkward girl named Lee who left her home in Indiana to attend a fancy Massachusetts boarding school. Its cover was a pink and green ribbon belt, and its pages contained passages about crushes, English class, and embarrassing parents.
Seven years later, in 2012, the FDA approved a drug called Truvada to prevent HIV and AIDS in high-risk populations. The method is known as Pre-exposure prophylaxis…or PrEP. The big, wonderful thing this means is that now there’s an extremely effective way to prevent HIV infection. The tiny and personal thing it means is that sometimes I stumble upon headlines such as—this one ran in the New York Times last July—Why Don’t More Americans Use PrEP? In such instances, for about a second, my brain is befuddled. Then I realize, Oh, right, that PrEP.
As it happens, I didn’t come up with the title of my own novel; a friend of my editor did. Perhaps that’s why I don’t feel a particular sense of ownership of the word, and, if anything, am honored to share it with a medicine that literally saves lives. In general, I’m fascinated by the way language changes and evolves, sometimes rapidly, and how linguistic shifts can reflect shifts in society. For example: thirst trap. Enby. On fleek. Whenever someone says, by way of criticism, that a word is made-up, I always think, They all are! And that’s so cool.
Language doesn’t belong to any of us; Prep was never mine alone.
Order a copy of Prep here.
Finding the right title for the book was a long process with no immediate consensus. At the final hour, my publisher suggested In the Heartland. I mused, "How about just Heartland?"
The word doesn't appear once in the text of the book. It's not a term I use to refer to my rural Midwestern home. It's a loaded word, culturally--often used sentimentally by proud residents of "Middle America," sometimes resented by coastal or urban Americans as an implication that their home is peripheral to the country's metaphorical center. It's the name of many businesses where I live, from medical offices to beverage distributors to moving companies. "Heartland" can be a benign cliche or a weaponized political idea.
I wrote a book about where I come from in order to validate a place and experience long overlooked in news media and caricatured in popular culture. The truth in it, I hope, might dispel stereotypes, condescending narratives, and romanticized tales alike. So calling my book "Heartland" felt like an appropriate and satisfying reclaiming of a term. It's a beautiful word that, like the book, joins two parts: the deeply intimate and the broader environment. There is an edge of irony about it, too, when followed by the subtitle, "A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth." Only poetry can do so much with one word, so I think we made a poetic choice.
Order a copy of Heartland here.
Annihilation came to me as a title mysteriously—I cannot tell you what my subconscious was up to. But then my conscious mind thought about it and realized the novel was about a giving up of the self to something new. And in a sense that is an “annihilation”—a word we think of as a negative thing, but the more I thought about it could be a good thing. It speaks to the fact that science tells us the difference between self and not-self is more tenuous than we thought and the idea of the body being permeable means there’s less distinction between outside and inside, so to speak. An annihilation, then, could be a removal of an artificial barrier. And, of course, the title pertains to a specific moment in the novel but also to the annihilation of self imposed on the expedition before it enters Area X.
Borne features a giant psychotic bear, so borne being the past-tense of “bear” is a pun worthy of one of the other characters, named Borne, because as one character explains “I had to born him, but had to bear him.” What can be borne by what is born in a post-apocalyptic setting? What is burden? Why does a word that is about trials and tribulations in some ways contain the word for new life within it?
Wanderers was not always the book’s name. Originally it was Exeunt — which is a lovely-sounding title that nobody would ever be able to pronounce or spell, which, ha ha, is not the best way to sell a book, probably. And so came the search to find another title, and given that the book begins with an epidemic of sleepwalkers walking across the country to some unknown purpose, the line ‘Not all who wander are lost’ from Tolkien had a certain critical resonance, and given the epic nature of the story, it felt apt to use Wanderers as the title. Especially given how we are all wandering a bit, right now, trying to find our way in — and through— a time of upheaval.
Order a copy of Wanderers here.