Claiming names

In my Finnegans novels, one of my two central characters — Greg Finnegan — had been a university English professor for three decades in Kansas City. For nearly as long as I’ve had this notion, I had named his school “Osage University.” I like the First Nations connection since it grounds the fictional college in actual regional history, the Osage Indians having figured in the history of western Missouri. (My original, original name for the place was “McKinley College” after a professor I had in graduate school, but that was always only a working title.)

Alas, I recently learned that the University of Missouri has named one of its extension schools “Osage University.” It seems I had made a good choice originally, but they got to claim it before I could. (Can you claim a name?)

So this has resulted in my casting about for a new name for my fictional school. I wanted it to have some regional authenticity, and I liked the First Nations reference idea. The Missouri Indians were prominent in the area in their day, but there is already a university system with that name. So too with the Kansa Indians.

I wanted something unique, certainly something that wasn’t already being used by anyone else. I feared that I would have to resort to some totally made up name and then have to cobble together some history for it to make it seem authentic (in a fictional world, of course). But as is often the case with these things, the revelation just popped into my head one afternoon.

Greg Finnegan taught for his thirty years at Wyandotte University! The Wyandottes (or Wyandots) are an existing tribe with many members currently living in the Kansas City area. There is even a major street in our city by that name. Thus I have found my name, carrying as it does all of the regional connection and historic authenticity I had hoped for. And it has another nice quality: no one else is using it.

I therefore lay claim to the name “Wyandotte University.” (And also to “Wyandotte College.”) Ye institutions of higher learning and scribblers of fiction: It’s mine!

Greg Finnegan has a smoldering case of self doubt. He is haunted by the notion that he is not good enough. Not good enough academically to have found work at one of the “major” universities in the country. Not good enough to ever attract the interest of a woman. So forth. Of course over his lifetime he shows all of this to be unfounded, but he still believes it about himself. In any case, early in his academic career at Wyandotte he comes up with the self-deprecating reference to it as “the little college at the end of the alphabet.” I like that. It’s the kind of tag line that could come up casually in each of the novels he appears in. A cast away line, but one that is softly memorable. And one that illustrates, even in an oblique way, something about my protagonist

And thus I feel good about my need to rename my fictional school.

Update May 15, 2011: I’ve since evolved the school’s name to Wyandot University (and prior to that, Wyandot College). Leaner seems cleaner to my eye in this case.

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2 Comments on “Claiming names”

  1. Pete Says:

    My novel-in-progress is set primarily at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I attended. I kept the real name of the school (nothing in the text is libelous against the school, other than a slight jab at its underfunding of the humanities) but I invented new names for other real institutions near campus. All of the new names were close enough to the originals for any UI grads to decipher.

  2. Beth Says:

    I struggled with a similar situation, naming a Boston area college for one of my characters to teach at. I had originally thought of “Fenway University” but the initials were rather unfortunate…it’s now tentatively called “Fenway College”.

    I like the tag line–a humorous touch.


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