What’s in a Name? Writers and Their Anthroponymy

Othello, Alice, Pumblechook—these characters are etched in our minds. But how much meaning are in names? By Anthony Paletta.

In Plato’s Cratylus, perhaps the first text on that slippery question of names, one interlocutor, Hermogenes, argues for the arbitrariness of names, while the other, Cratylus, for their weight and meaning. What is in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but if we called it a “landfill” then we’ve certainly changed something. And we all know what a rose smells like; skip to proper names and we’re radically unmoored. Tybalt by another name is simply someone else, no matter how he smells. (Likely not great.)

Hitler is not a classically Cratylic name—not like Chastity. But are you going to casually name your protagonist’s cousin after him because you turned to that page in the encyclopedia? Not to mention that Patty Hitler has already been claimed. In the introduction to Literary Names: Personal Names in English Literature, Alastair Fowler notes the philosopher Wittgenstein's quest for a firm connection between meaning and an associated word, for "the chimeric, fundamental particle of reference—the irreducible name" and quickly declares the quest hopeless, all the better for us, for the sake of the rest of the book's subtle exploration of the many facets of naming in literature.

Associative naming is about as old as the printed word itself, and the practice was in ready evidence long before there were any author’s notes to confirm the fact. Mythological and biblical names have offered a ready stock of prepaid connotations for centuries, and the allusive warehouses that supplied these names have continued to do a brisk business ever since.

Shakespeare looms large in this account. Long before there was a Denmark, the Roman Emperor Claudius married his niece (and was poisoned). Helena, in a Midsummer Night’s Dream, never seems to be in love with others at the point that they’re in love with her—does that remind you of another Helen? Shylock’s circle boasts names that are biblical and Hebraic. Multiple characters in Twelfth Night possess names referencing saints’ days that fall within or near festival seasons. And cruder devices certainly deepen the effect of a name; Caliban is a rough anagram of “cannibal,” and Cassio contains an “ass.” The “rude mechanicals” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream have names directly related to archaic, rude mechanical professions, like Snout and Quince. And there is, of course, Mistress Quickly.

Naming isn’t purely a question of setting an allusive meaning from the start; at times naming is fluid throughout a plot. Caius Martius becomes Coriolanus. In Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Sir Gareth makes a point to avoid offering his name to Arthur, given his foremost aim: “never to claim respect he has not earned by merit.” In Paradise Lost, the fall entails a new hell of namelessness, as Fowler quotes Milton: “Cancelled from heaven and sacred memory, Nameless in dark oblivion let them dwell.”

These explicit connections of cognomen and reputation fall away toward the contemporary era, but obvious care in naming continues unabated. Thackeray’s principal characters held relatively realistic names, and marginal figures have fantastical ones like Lady Kicklebury and the Schlippenschlopps. Conrad’s Nostromo, whatever his crime, is still “our man.” Is there a more clumsy unspoken concealment than Hyde’s in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Fowler points out the interest even in a corpus of willfully effacing names—aside from Mr. Knightley, Austen’s employ of willfully unevocative names looms as a distinctive appellative strategy of its own in an era of Cratylic abandon.

Analyzing literary names is not just a guessing game. As we draw nearer to the present, Fowler benefits from the availability of much clearer accounts of just how authors considered these questions of naming. Dickens paid exquisite care to the problem, preferring to fix a name before he wrote about a character. Before settling on Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens went through Sweezlebach, Cottletoe, Sweetletoe, Pottletoe, Spottletoe, Chuzzletoe, Chuzzlebog, Chubblewig, and Chuzzlewig. And to Fowler, Oliver Twist is about as bountifully evocative as four syllables can get:

In the slang of the underworld he would soon enter, “twist” meant “appetite” and “hang by the neck.” So when the pangs of “twist” (hunger) make Oliver ask for more, Mr. Limkins predicts “that boy will be hung” (will “twist”). To underline the point, Noah Claypole “announced his intention of coming to see him hung.” As for his first name, Oliver, it meant “sky-lantern,” moonlight as a hindrance to crime. And sure enough, when the alarm is raised at the Maylies’, what should Oliver do but drop his eponymous lantern, fatally hindering the burglary.

Dickensian names are unmistakable, and repeatedly pay little heed to real-world plausibility; you won’t find yourself sitting next to a later-day Pumblechook on a flight to Heathrow. Henry James, unsurprisingly, was playing a subtler, but still heavily determined game. In his notes for the unfinished novel The Ivory Tower, he wrote of the quest for a perfect name:

... I want her name moreover, her Christian one, to be Moyra, and must have some bright combination with that; the essence of which is a surname of two syllables and ending in a consonant—also beginning with one … I want, above all, a single syllable. All the other names have two or three; and this makes an objection to the Shimple, which I originally thought of as about odd and ugly enough without being more so than I want it …

And yet this wasn’t merely a quest for syllabic euphony; the Romantic precedents for Roderick Hudson are legion and undeniable. There is Sir Walter Scott’s gloomy and passionate Roderick Dhu in his poem “The Lady of the Lake,” Robert Southey’s poem “Roderick, The Last of the Goths,” Edgar Allan Poe’s Roderick Usher, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Roderick Elliston in the short story “Egotism; or, the Bosom Serpent.”

James’s likely precedents raise an intriguing point: in the slippery realm of popular knowledge, good luck on your names’ connotations remaining significant for long. I had never encountered half of these Rodericks and I don’t imagine that most readers have. Allusion is an endlessly shifting canvas and the right reflective light is fleeting. We’re unlikely to forget the significance of Ulysses or Noah, but who would recognize Othello’s possible allusion to Thorello, a jealous husband in an early version of Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humor, a play that Shakespeare acted in? And we might err in the other direction, assigning significance to names that weren’t once particularly curious; Fowler notes that in the 14th century, “one single English county had six people named Ribald.” It may have simply been a bawdier age, but then again, maybe not.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

And we’ve not even addressed Nabokov, or Waugh, or Trollope, or Wodehouse, or any number of authors whose feats of naming stand outsized in literature. While the French classicist and philologist Isaac Casaubon is an obvious referent for George Eliot’s dour scholar Edward Casaubon in Middlemarch, as well as the occult connoisseur protagonist in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, there is no key to all mythologies when it comes to naming. It is rather a fascinating and vertiginous landscape full of chimeras, mirages, and truths in plain sight, differing from every perspective, but illuminated in the best fashion in Literary Names. For a final word, just ask Lewis Carroll:

'Must a name mean something?' Alice asked doubtfully.

'Of course it must,' Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: 'my name means the shape I am—and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.'

And indeed she could.