Tom Maremaa

Notebooks

Some random notes, blog posts, memories and reflections

What’s in a Name? Origins of the Name Maremaa

The origin of my last name — Maremaa — has been a source of interest among folks coming to my books. Where did it come? What does it mean? How do you pronounce it? 

The roots of the name are Estonian: Mare, which is a girl’s first name, and maa, which means land. You’ll see it as a suffix for the island off the coast named Saaremaa, or the National Parks Soomaa and Lahemaa in different parts of the country.

I pronounce it the way my older brother did: MAIR-rem-aa. The accent falls on the first syllable, with a bit of emphasis if possible, as in German or Japanese.

Technically, in Estonian it would be pronounced: MAR-EH-MAAHH, without the accent on the first syllable. The two ‘a’s at the end are there because Estonian is a purely phonetic language, that is, spelled exactly the way it’s spoken, unlike English or French.  

The origins of the name itself, how and why it came about, traverse the boundaries of time, going back almost one hundred years (no exaggeration). Most names, of course, have deeper roots, spanning centuries, as my wife’s name does (which spans at least a millennium, if not longer). 

Years ago when I was starting out as writer my agent, Perry Knowlton, the President of Curtis Brown, Ltd., asked me how I pronounced my name, and when I told him, he liked it. Sounds good, he said. I can work with that. He knew it and could present it to publishers: he liked writers who were different, a bit out of the mainstream, individual in their thinking and tastes. No one questioned origin or meaning of my name, and it didn’t seem to matter. For some reason, now it does. Why, I’m not quite sure. Brands are everything, right? Your name is your brand, like Stephen King or John Grisham, the name equals bestseller, a known product, reliable, genre-specific, serving its readers’ purpose as well-consumed entertainment or enlightenment: take your pick. Writers must be brands, with the superpower of moving books off the shelf, and delivering the goods to a mass audience of readers. If you’re a Coetzee or a Pamuk, both with names that are different to pronounce or figure out, you have built up a readership through the quality of work, which isn’t the same book written over and over again (as with most bestselling authors). 

As a writer, there’s always the temptation to find a simpler name for popular consumption, a Ford, Jones, Smith, or Williams, and then perhaps add a cool first and middle name, like Martin Cruz Smith. I almost yielded to the temptation, thinking I could shed skin and find a new readership for my work with a different nom de plume, like John Le Carre, rather than David John Moore Cornwell, or George Orwall, rather than Eric Blair. You can find a long list of pen names on Wikipedia and some are quite interesting: George Eliot was really Mary Ann Evans, Lewis Carroll was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Mark Twain was really Samuel Langhorne Clemens. 

I can understand the impulse to make the change. That said, I was persuaded otherwise some years ago by a remarkable person whose real name shall remain private. That person told me that Maremaa was a one of a kind name, particularly with those double A’s at the end, and I should think twice about opting for a nom de plume that was shorter, simpler, yes perhaps, but not really unique. To me, uniqueness is at the core of whatever I compose, fictional, technical, or otherwise. 

Tom Maremaa