By: Jay Duret
I have often used these pages to discuss writers’ craft; today I turn to watercraft.
I live in San Francisco, within smelling distance of the Bay. The international orange of Golden Gate Bridge is visible as I cruise through my day. Here a boat is a rich promise of brilliant sun split evenings on the Bay, Alcatraz to the rear, Angel Island starboard. Here the urge to own a boat is a riptide, an undertow, and to that current I have succumbed. But with a new boat comes the challenge of a name.
Naming a boat is serious business. All boats need to have their name and home port painted on their hull. The key concept: a boat name is actually painted onto the the boat. Not a sign or quarter board that can be removed on a whim. No, the boat name will be with you for as long as you own the boat. A bad boat name is a hair shirt; a good boat name, the nautical version of good feng shui. One must choose a name with care.
The study of names is called Onomastics and it is an ancient and difficult discipline. Fortunately, all writers are onomasticians. Few professions are so frequently called upon to choose names for the people and things around them. Most parents only select a handful of names in a lifetime; even those with 5 or 6 or 10 kids hardly have a chance to become skilled in the art before their breeding days have passed. But an author, a novelist, may name 50 characters in a single book. Onomastics is in an author’s sweet spot.
As an onomastician, it properly fell to me to consider possible names for the boat. I began by surveying the work of those who had preceded me. I found there are awful boat names. In fact, there are so many bad ones they can be put in categories: There are the sophomoric ones:
“My Assiss Dragon”
These are actual names of boats. While frightening to realize, nevertheless it is true that there are boat owners who not only thought Breaking Wind was a good name, but thought it was such a good name that it did not matter it had been already used a dozen times before.
There are boat names that exalt intimate relationships:
She Got the House
There are names that fall into the vast category of nautical puns:
Buoys in the Hood
There should be a subcategory of names that are So Bad They Are Actually Good:
Cirrhosis of the River
Never Again 2
Slipless in Seattle
After studying the names already floated I was able to draw some broad ground rules for naming a boat.
Rule # 1:
The key to a good boat name is to steer far away from cute names and puns. You’ll have a boat for a long time and, no matter how clever, the joke will get old and stale. Rather you want a name that may not be a knee-slapper but has a significance that will ripen and take on added meaning as it comes to stand for all the experiences you have with your boat. You also want a name that has some dignity. In this sense naming a boat should be like naming a dog. When your dog has gone missing, you will have to stand on the street in front of your neighbors and yell his name out loud five times in a row. You don’t want to be yelling “Daddy’s Little Vixen, please come home Daddy’s Little Vixen”.
Moreover, boats have feelings and you don’t want to insult your boat with a name that suggests the boat is an object of comedy. Boats have long memories. Respect, deference, love. Those are the ideas that best describe the relationship of a person to their boat.
Three-word boat names are always a mistake (“Hot Ruddered Bum“, “A Crewed Interest“. “Blue Vein Throbber” to name but a few examples).
Two-word names are not invariably bad, but two-word names can draw you into trouble. Two-word names make you want to pair an adjective with a noun and that may lead you into a search for superlatives (“Hot Stuff“) or bad puns (“Nauti Lust”). For that reason I think it is much better to find a simple single word – a word with dignity that will grow richer and more profound as you use the name in conversation.
Were that all there is to it, naming a boat would be easy. But as the owner, you want the word to have significance. You’ll have to explain why you chose that name a hundred times. So you want something that is meaningful but not schmaltzy. Original, but not cute. You are the person who selected the name. You have to own it, of course. But the name owns you too. You’ll always be the person who thought that the name you chose for your boat was a good name. Do you want to be the person who selected Irritable Bow or Dixie Normous?
Not absolutely essential, but desirable, is that the name be freighted with reference to the sea. It is a boat, not a truck.
You must research how your proposed name is understood and viewed by others. In this respect the Internet provides us with tools that make gathering this type of information a breeze. There is a website called “Behind the Name” http://www.behindthename.com/name that collects, measures and rates the connotations of a name. Here, for example, are the connotations of the name “Piers”:
Ratings and impressions for Piers
|Good Name||69%||31%||Bad Name|
With a tool like this in the hands of a skilled onomatician, one may come to understand how the selected name will fare in the marketplace of names. Will your boat be seen as weak-chinned and limp? Or will its rugged seaworthiness scowl at the sad-eyed dirt dwellers left, forlornly, in the distance as you stream past?
The Proposed Names
Against this background I offer three names for your consideration.
Name # 1
I decided to begin with literature. There have been so many great books and poems that involve the sea. Think of the couplet from e. e. cummings:
For whatever we lose (like a you or a me),
It’s always our self we find in the sea.
Or the verse from Ezra Pound:
I looked and saw a sea
roofed over with rainbows
One favorite is this passage from The Tempest:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them — Ding-dong, bell.
How could one go wrong with a boat named by Shakespeare himself? And what glory awaits a boat that bears a name drawn from this beautiful passage?
Name # 2
My favorite work in literature is The Four Quartets and whenever I reach for a new name I usually start there. Eliot’s poetry was always involved with the sea and in no place was it so richly involved as in The Dry Salvages from whence these lines appear:
The sea howl
And the sea yelp, are different voices
Often together heard: the whine in the rigging,
The menace and caress of wave that breaks on water,
The distant rote in the granite teeth,
And the wailing warning from the approaching headland
Are all sea voices, and the heaving groaner
Rounded homewards, and the seagull:
And under the oppression of the silent fog
The tolling bell
Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried
Ground swell, a time
Older than the time of chronometers…
A name drawn from The Dry Salvages could only be understood to be a profound name, a deeply meaningful name. And in this case there could also be a special San Francisco twist added because the name would evoke the spirit of the master poem by Alan Ginsberg, first read in public at Six Gallery located at 3119 Fillmore Street in the San Francisco neighborhood known as The Marina, the very same neighborhood in which our boat shall be moored.
Literature is not the only possible source from which an onomastician may draw inspiration. I considered songs that would have significance. The obvious one, of course:
Sittin’ in the morning sun
I’ll be sittin’ when the evening comes
Watching the ships roll in
Then I watch them roll away again, yeah
I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooh
I’m just sittin’ on the dock of the bay
I liked this approach but in the end I thought “Dock of the Bay” was a bit clichéd and worse there is surely a cardiologist in the area who has a boat named “Doc of the Bay”
That led me to look for other songs of the sea. Of course there is a website that makes research like this a matter of ease. Some classics:
Cry Me a River
Down By the River
Sea of Love
Sea of Joy
But nothing in that crew had the right combination of sounds and smells.
I gravitated back to single word titles. I was taken with the word Gravity. I love the song. It has a stately pace and dignity that I can’t get enough of. And I love the lyrics:
Gravity is working against me
And gravity wants to bring me down
Oh I’ll never know what makes this man
With all the love that his heart can stand
Dream of ways to throw it all away
Oh, gravity is working against me
And gravity wants to bring me down
The problem with Gravity as a boat name is that it doesn’t have a connection to the sea. I tried expanding it to Gravitas, which I like, but that name stuck me as a bit smug and perhaps even ridiculous for a boat owned by a grown man who writes stories and draws cartoons.
I looked for other words with the density and dignity of Gravity but more of a connection to water. I floundered a bit but then I remembered the Van Morrison song and things fell into place:
This is a song about your wavelength
And my wavelength, baby
You turn me on
When you get me on your wavelength
When I’m down you always comfort me
When I’m lonely you see about me
You are ev’ry where you’re ‘sposed to be
And I can get your station
When I need rejuvenation
I heard the voice of America
Callin’ on my wavelength
Tellin’ me to tune in on my radio
I heard the voice of America
Callin’ on my wavelength
Singin’ “Come back, baby
A lot to like about this name. Rich with dignity. Invoking but not rubbing your face in the sea and its mystery. Not a shred of cuteness. A word that connotes connection. And that crazy verse at the end about America calling – what a sweet bonus!
According to Wikipedia:
“Wavelength” was recorded in spring 1978 at the Shangri-La Studios in Malibu, California. …
In his biography, Brian Hinton states that it is, “a love song about the mysterious and unspoken communication between a couple” and also refers to the singer’s adolescent years when he would listen to the Voice of America and the sounds of his favorite artists such as Ray Charles singing “Come back baby, come back”. In the song Morrison refers to his first solo hit single “Brown Eyed Girl“, using the lyrics “Won’t you play that song again for me, about my lover, my lover in the grass”.
What a rich and nuanced backstory.
I close with a request for input. Please let me know which of these three names you like best. For while art and skill are important, a good onomastician always has a focus group.
– Jay Duret
Jay Duret is a San Francisco based writer and illustrator. His first novel, Nine Digits, is available from Indigo Sea Press. Jay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
 – This apparently stands for **** You Jane, I’m Moving Out…