If you're a writer yourself, you probably know how some characters just seem to have certain names that feel right for them. I'm dealing with one of these at the moment, as I write my fourth book. She keeps telling me her name is Ophelia.

(The fact that I'm talking about figments of my imagination as if they had independent existence probably tells you something about my mental state, but that's another issue.)

There's only one problem: was the name Ophelia used in ancient Greece?

This is a good example of how much tougher things can be for we poor historical authors. Any contemporary novelist would just use the name and be done with it, but I have to make sure I only use names that can be verified in use for my period.

So this is the perfect opportunity to show you another example of what book research can be like. (Ages ago I did another book research post, and used as my example whether Alexander the First of Macedon competed at the Olympics of 460BC.)

As it happens, Ophelia is Greek. It comes from ophelos which means help. Ophelia is a female assistant. Case closed? Absolutely not. Plenty of Greek words were never used as names. You probably don't know all that many people whose first name is Helper or Assistant.

A quick search revealed that Ophelia does not appear as a name in any of the classics. Yes, that's a quick search. Thank you, Perseus Digital Classics.

So I did what any sensible person would do. I asked twitter.

Both Elisabeth Black and Seth Lynch came back with the news that the name Ophelia was invented in 1504 by Jacopo Sannazaro for a character in his poem 'Arcadia'. Thanks to them both for finding that!

It's not looking good for my poor non-Ophelia. But as I pointed out a few weeks ago, you can't trust information on web sites. I'm fairly sure Elisabeth and Seth have found the first English usage, and clearly the web site doesn't know of any ancient use, but that doesn't mean it isn't there.

As Sarah Eve Kelly pointed out on twitter, I needed to try fuzzy spellings of Ophelia. Sarah Eve is not only an excellent writer, she's also a PhD student in mediaeval history. She knows all about the joy of variant spellings.

So next move is to trawl the inscription and name lists. Name lists are mostly harvested from the same classics I'd already searched. But there are also books with lists of inscriptions and names taken from funeral stele, so all was not necessarily lost. Oxford University's done a particularly good job at collecting such things.

And there I found that these names have been lifted from inscriptions:

Ophelandros (appears twice)
Ophelion (appears twice)
Ophellas (appears twice)

But no Ophelia. Nevertheless, these are all cognate, even the Ophelandros, because it's two words stuck together; the andros ending means man. The really good news is the appearance of Ophelion, because that is precisely the male equivalent of Ophelia.

So now we've entered a grey area. There's no known Ophelia, but there's the male version. Am I okay? I think I am, but not as okay as I'd like to be. We certainly don't know every name that was used in ancient times -- all we have to work with are surviving books and bits of stone with writing on them -- on the odds, Ophelia was an ancient name.

I guess I blew away about five hours nailing down that point. And of course, I could still be wrong.


Stephanie Thornton said...

Ah yes, the plight of us poor, abused historical writers. We really do have it rough!

Ancient Egyptian names almost killed me, mostly because trying to find one that's not a tongue twister is like looking for a needle in a haystack (or desert). Too bad for my readers, they got stuck with Hatshepsut, Thutmosis, and Senenmut.

Thankfully, Byzantine names are much easier to pronounce, at least for the most part. Plus, most of the characters in my book had no choice about their names because they're almost all real people whose names made it into the historical record. Almost.

Good luck with Ophelia! I hope she proves less troublesome in the future.

Meghan said...

Ophelia is an awesome name; too bad it's not common (there seems to be a lot of men who shared similar names back in the day though...Megakles...Megakles...Ariston...Kallias...Megakles...

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Yes, but its this attention to detail that makes your books so enjoyable.

Gary Corby said...

I'd probably be doing the attention to detail even if it didn't pay off. If nothing else, it's good for my soul.

Yes Meghan, there were common names, just like today is well stocked for Johns and Marks etc. It makes picking character names more of a challenge, but it's sort of fun too.

I don't know how you coped with the Egyptian names, Stephanie. They're even tougher.

Did anyone notice the dictionary of Assyrian has been completed?

AvenSarah said...

It seems to me that you're on pretty good ground with Ophelion, given how many fewer female names were recorded than male. With the male form attested, the chances than the female existed are pretty high.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Aven!

Yes, I think you're right. It's almost impossible to prove it in the negative, so I'm on solid enough ground.