As a child, one of my prized books was a book of baby names and their meanings. Not because I was planning names for my own children, but because I found it fascinating to discover what people’s names ‘really meant’. I thought it gave me insight into their true character. It also gave me a certain type of power, coming to school and announcing to other children what their names meant.
My name is of Hebrew origin and means ‘Gift of God’; I tried to read as much as I could into that. I told James at school he had a very bad name, as his name means ‘Deceiver’. I wondered how anyone could call their child James, knowing this.
And then there was Matthew C., whose name was Greek for ‘Gift of God’. I always wanted to be his best friend, and I thought this linked us in some special way. I told him this theory, but he was not entirely convinced. When he moved to Iceland, he didn’t reply to the letter I sent him.
Perhaps I have disabused myself of some of the primitive notions I had about names as a child, but not entirely. Instinctually, I still feel that other ‘Nathans’ should (a) be friendly to me and (b) have some trait of Nathanness to them. Time has proven neither of these things to be true.
Just as important as the ‘meaning’ of names has been the antecedents for names. I have always loved the tension present in my given names – Nathan David – from the Old Testament figures with those names. Nathan is the brave prophet who rebuked the poet king for adultery and murder. David is my father’s name; that irony interests me too.
‘Nathan’ used to be a fairly rare given name, of which I was very proud. ‘Hobby’ is uncommon too, and it was strange when another family of Hobbys moved to our country town when I was eleven. We didn’t think they were related; years later we discovered they were second cousins, separated from our awareness by family secrets.
One of these Hobbys was called Joshua, and was about the same age as my brother Joshua. I didn’t know what to make of this idea – would it be like having a twin brother to have someone with the same name? Or did it make a person un-unique, did it compromise their specialness, their distinctiveness in the world? I leaned toward the latter interpretation, and thought it a terrible cruelty to be a Smith, or even worse a John Smith.
In the year below me at high school, there were two Laura Smiths. Different years were never known beyond vague rumours, and it took me a long time to work out they were talking about two different Laura Smiths. One of them I knew by sight; the other I didn’t. A year after I graduated, one of them died in a car accident. I wondered if it was the one I knew by sight, or the one I didn’t, and tried not to think of it as sadder if it was the one I knew by sight. I wondered what the surviving Laura felt, if it seemed a close call.
And then, finally, last year I met, in a manner of speaking, the only other Nathan Hobby I know of in the world. I found him on facebook. He’s younger than me and into football, from what I can gather about him. I thought there would have to be something essentially similar about us. But of course, there didn’t have to be. I still get a shock on my facebook feed when I read statements like ‘Nathan Hobby is no longer in a relationship’.
But then perhaps the more remarkable twin, an almost Borgesian one, is my literary twin, Nathaniel Hobbie. When I was working in a public library in 2004, his book arrived about the same time as my book came out. It was called ‘Priscilla and the Pink Planet’ and it’s about a little girl obsessed with pink. His career has been more successful than mine so far; he’s followed up with four other books about Priscilla.
It sounds like a Vonnegutian alter ego for me; I even started a novel called Lazarus the Pacifist Superhero with Nathaniel Hobbie as the main character. It makes it seem there must be some power to names and that out in the world are variations on each person.
Do you have a twin out there in the world?