“Sinclair” Is The New “Smith” (Or So It Seems)

Trio at the Outer Banks

Naming is a tough job, whether it’s for real life or for fiction. We agonized over our daughters’ first names, wanting to find names that appropriately conveyed our heritage without increasing the likelihood that they’d be bullied at school. We even put thought into their last name—my name, my husband’s name, or a hyphenate hybrid—because the American tradition of passing on the paternal name wasn’t a given in our household.

Similarly, with Two Lovely Berries, my characters’ names changed throughout the drafts, from Audrey to Aubrey and Alex to Nora, and their last name was “XXXX” for an embarrassingly long time. I ended up settling on the last name “Daley” because it reflected their heritage, but any number of other names would’ve been equally good.

The difficulty I’ve had with naming makes me particularly interested in the names that appear in the books I read. Was it just a fluke, as it was for the Daley twins, or was there a clear purpose behind it, as was the case for Charlotte Brontë’s Lucy Snowe?

Lately, I’ve been wondering about “Sinclair,” a surname of Scottish origin that I’ve come across a few times in popular fiction:

three books with sinclair(1) First, I saw it in The Flight of Gemma Hardy, Margot Livesey’s homage (or ripoff, depending on how you look at it) to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The new Mr. Rochester is Mr. Sinclair, a Scottish landowner.

(2) Then, I came across it again in E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars, narrated by Cadence Sinclair Eastman, the fragile heir to the wealthy Sinclair family of New England.

(3) Finally, I came across it yet again last week in Diann Ducharme’s The Outer Banks House, a historical romance featuring Abigail Sinclair, a Confederate planter’s daughter shortly after the Civil War. The book takes place in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where I spent last week with my family (see the pictures above and below).

I know more fictional Sinclairs than real-life ones. All of these characters come from socioeconomically advantaged backgrounds, but otherwise they are quite different from each other. I wonder what it was that prompted these authors to choose that last name. Mr. A.M.B. recommended searching the Google Ngram Viewer, which indicates that “Smith” is indeed declining a bit in English-language fiction, but that Sinclair has been mostly steady. Graph here:

Screen Shot 2014-09-29 at 7.05.20 AM (2)_Sinclair

Still, it seems like a trend in the fiction I read, which, as far as I know, Google hasn’t analyzed specifically to sell ads to me. 😉

Has anyone else come across a particular first or last name more often in literature than they have in real life?

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16 thoughts on ““Sinclair” Is The New “Smith” (Or So It Seems)

  1. Pingback: Size Doesn’t Matter | The Misfortune Of Knowing

    1. Yeah, it’s a lot of fun! I’ve been wasting too much time on it. I suppose one use is to check the popularity of names before giving it to a character or a kid (in the US, we check the popularity of names through the Social Security office: http://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/#ht=2). There are some people who might be disappointed to learn that a name is either more or less popular than they thought it was.

  2. I’ve noticed a commonality in leading man names in my genre; they are always unusual. Problem is, everyone is using the same names, so their uniqueness quickly fades. 😉

    I give a lot of thought to a main character’s name, but I pull the ones for supporting characters out of my butt as needed… and often, they are better than what I’ve come up with for the lead. Weird, huh?

    1. There are definitely some names that are unusual in real life but common in literature. It’s interesting how that happens. I really like the names of your characters, particularly Harper.

      1. A perfect example of a name I pulled out of my butt. 🙂 Didn’t research it, didn’t go through the online name lists, simply needed to call her something, and it popped into my head on the fly.

        (I like Harper too!)

  3. Literary Feline

    Since my daughter was born, I see her name everywhere (fiction and otherwise)–and to think my husband went through great pains to choose a name that wasn’t supposed to be that common (and it’s not in young people).

    I’m trying to think if I have come across any particular name frequently these days. Elinor, like you mentioned. Maggie. Julia. Max.

    1. That’s interesting. I wonder if it’s that your daughter’s name is more common in literature now or that you’re more likely to notice it than you were before. Did you try typing it into the Google Ngram Viewer?

  4. This is such an interesting post! I can’t say that I have noticed a trend in the literature I read re: names but personally I do tend to mull over a characters name – particularly if it doesn’t “suit” them! Maybe that’s just because I have an interest in the origins and meanings of names!

    1. As Katie of Words for Worms said in her comment, Alice is a lovely name. It seems to be rising in popularity in fiction (check out the link I added to my responses to Katie and Mshannahw), but it’s still nowhere near as common as Smith. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. I have noticed there are a disproportionate number of Alices in fiction!

    What surname/combo did you go for for your kids? My son has a hyphenated last name, which is pretty rare here in the UK (I only know of one other family who did this for their kids, & none where the kids have the mother’s name alone, even when they are separated from the dads). It seemed a no-brainer to me, I am as important a part of his heritage as his dad is (plus my surname is more unusual!); but here most people don’t seem to consider anything but the paternal surname (I get the impression there is more variation in the US?).

    1. YES on the Alices! I read about zillions of fictional Alices but know very few in real life. It’s a lovely name, though. I also just read two books in fairly rapid succession that used the name Elinor, which isn’t the spelling I ever expect to see, I always think Eleanor. I haven’t paid much attention to surnames.

    2. We actually ended up giving them my husband’s last name. I ended up choosing their first and middle names, which reflect my heritage. I think it was a nice compromise. A hyphenated last name was appealing, but we thought it would be too long (thanks to his last name; mine is pretty short).

      As for Alice, yes there are lots of them in fiction: https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=Alice%2CSinclair%2C+Smith&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2CAlice%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2CSinclair%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2CSmith%3B%2Cc0

      Thanks for the comment!

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