It’s British election time and the air is buzzing with political people. You learn a lot about the natural rhythms of the English language when you look at the names and nicknames that settle gently around the shoulders of our politicians. Rarely by their own choice.
Public names are chosen by the public. To please the public ear.
Once a politician begins to attract public attention, we behave like presumptuous grandparents, trying out different versions of the names their parents gave them. Aided and abetted by the media.
The difference between us and the grandparents is that we have the melody of the politician’s full name (first name and surname too) on our minds.
You’re writing a song, in English, about a young woman whose life has taken all the wrong turns, most of them involving rock musicians:
Well, sometimes it seems impossible
That the game could get that rough
But the stage is set, the exit’s barred
And the make-up won’t come off
To fit the music, you need a two-beat, two-syllable name for your young, damaged woman. Something that begins with a young, clear-as-a-bell consonant, but dulls into a schwa sound. Better still if the end of her name is a thick, tongue-clogging l, so that you can drag her name down into the dirt when you sing it.
You think I make the choosing of names for songs sound mechanical or cynical? No name finds its way into a song unless its sound serves that song. Layla, Emilyand Janesuit the psychology of the songs where they appear. Each name is a sound picture.
To choose your heroine’s name, you start running through the alphabet and come to B. Two syllables, the second one a schwa followed by an l. Beryl. Beryl the rock groupie. Really?
If you’re a drummer, falling in love with a woman called Pattie can be inspirational. Pa-ttie, Pat-tat-tat-ie is percussion in female form.
But if you’re a guitarist? You can’t bend or stretch Pattie‘s vowels. You can’t wrap her round a guitar riff. Her double tt tethers her to the beat and to the ground. Her a is the short, tidy type. Her P is sharp and unforgiving.
They say all clouds have a silver lining. When Pattie’s married to your best friend, you have the perfect excuse for giving her a new, secret, improved name in a love-song. Something exotic and soft, something to curve and soar to the sound of your guitar. Something like Layla.
If I told you that 16th century English aristocrats created their own posher version of a French girl’s name, what kind of invention would you expect? Frideswide? Lettice? Josian? Wrong.
It’s a name that gives nothing away. At first glance, it’s plain. So plain that it’s become a byword for anonymity in the US. But it’s a name that camouflages a wealth of possibilities for songwriters – it’s easy to rhyme, its diphthong expands, it’s easy to sing.