What’s in a Name?

Imagine this: you’re the vocalist in The Pink Phylloid psychedelic tribute band.  Tonight’s gig? A chateau near St Tropez. The usual dressing room routine: paisley, kohl, crushed velvet, hot thyme. DSC00841

Your manager bursts in. Le Twitter’s aflame. Not as you’d planned…

The elderly Dowager Baroness Émilie has eloped. With her latest blacksmith. Performing See Emily Play in the family chateau tonight would seem indiscreet.

Ditch the song and your fans won’t forgive you. Sing the song and the family won’t pay you.

So, pick a different name. Something that suits the song but won’t offend the family. A girl’s name, 3 syllables or so. How hard can it be? There’s nothing special about Emily. Is there?

You went to public school, so you don’t know any girls. Your manager eventually remembers his ex-wife: Egberta.  Perfect: 3 syllables, starts with E, then a consonant and ends in a vowel sound. Just like Emily. Or is it? Try Egberta and see if she fits:

What do you think? Does Egberta work? Everywhere in the song? How about when you get to Float on a river for ever and ever, Egberta, Egberta – how does it feel? Light and ethereal? Or slightly ridiculous?

You’ll need to find a different girl’s name. Three syllables or so. Something to substitute for Emily. Consider the ‘weight’ of the name, its beginning, its middle, its ending and its stress pattern. Don’t give up. There are other names that work in the song.

I don’t want to complicate matters by mentioning the image that the name Emily conjures up, but you’ll need to keep it in mind.  What kind of girl do you imagine when you hear the name Emily? For me, Emily sounds young, floaty, pretty and innocent. There’s a Victorian, Alice in Wonderland flavour to the name, especially as Syd Barrett enunciates it and with the lyrics that he’s woven around her. Would Eglantine stand in for Emily then? Or Margaret – popular as a baby name in the 1890s. Does it have the same flavour as Emily?

I’m going to leave it to you to choose your best replacement name. Remember:

  • Your replacement name needs to fit, not only where Syd sings See-ee-ee Emily play – where any old name can be squeezed into place – but also where he sings Emily tries, but misunderstands and Soon after dark, Emily cries. Those are trickier positions to fill. Not all three syllable names have their stress on the first syllable, as Emily has. That early stress is part of the musical pattern of the song. If you choose a name with a different stress pattern, you’ll have to juggle the other words into place. Possible, but is the alternative name worth it?
  • Your replacement name needs to flow smoothly and lightly, as Emily does. Hard consonants anywhere in the name will be a challenge to sing. Possible, but a challenge.
  • The name Emily has a wonderfully airy ending – which is echoed by play, way, May, day, ever, forever, tomorrow and sorrow. The spacious vowels of ground, float, gown, gazing or dreams are all part of the hazy, gliding atmosphere of the song. That’s something to think about when you choose your substitute name. Does it float? It’s not just the final y that does it – think of Kimberley or Chastity.
    Would they work as well as Emily?
  • Is the name psychedelic enough? Most 3 syllable names have an internal musicality that can sound as trippy as necessary, but Harriet or Meredith would be troublesome choices.
  • Do you need to choose a name that sounds as quintessentially British as Emily? As a tribute band, you need to think of that.

What name would you have chosen in that St Tropez chateau? A name to please your fans and to please your French hosts. All suggestions most welcome in the comments section. There’s no real right or wrong answer. If the name fits the song for you, then that’s enough. Syd Barrett didn’t have to take an exam when he first chose Emily instead of Egberta.

If English isn’t your first language: this should be an interesting exercise in understanding the stress pattern of English lyrics. Try out some other names in the song. Jemima, Beverley, Tabitha or Cicely, for example. Try to work out why one word ‘works’ in a line, when another word, with exactly the same number of syllables and a similar sound definitely doesn’t.

If you’re not sure how a name, or any other word, would sound in English, type it into Google Translate, under English and click on the listen symbol in the bottom right hand corner of the screen.

Remember: in English, vowels can be squeezed or extended, like accordion bellows, to fit the music of the spoken language or of song. Cordelia, even though it has one more syllable than the other names, fits into exactly the same space as Emily. Try it. What do you think? Which name would you choose to sing?

P.S.   Names are always important in songs. They’re usually chosen to fit the music and the meaning, not to remember a real person. Have a look at Jolene here and Hit the Road, Jack here.

© Sing Better English, 2014


3 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?”

  1. “Names are always important in songs. They’re usually chosen to fit the music and the meaning, not to remember a real person. ”
    So true!
    Such a great quote!

    Thanks for insert the links for open in a new window.
    I don’t lose the main post in this way.

    Thank you again,

    Kind regards, ❤


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