Ode to Names
“Fancy a cup of Rosy Lea?”
“Thanks, but I have to point Percy at the porcelain”. This conversation looks quite odd, which
might be due to the fact that it is rhyming slang and hence somewhat mysterious to non-initiates. A second reason why it
might strike you as weird is because what seem to be proper names do not refer to real persons, as you would naturally
expect them to. Instead, these two names indicate a typical English beverage (Rosy Lea = “tea”) and a euphemism: the
delightfully alliterating to point Percy at the porcelain means “to take a wee”, a code similar to Jimmy Riddle – which rhymes
If you think about it, Cockney rhyming slang is not the only place where names occur in an unusual context. It is interesting, for instance, to see how people have come up with names for names themselves. Consider nicknames and pen names (or, if you like it fancy, noms de plume); eponyms and pseudonyms; alias, aka, soi-disant; malapropisms and misnomers, and so on. If you are the happy owner of a name that comes with a pet form, you might want to know that the (mildly alarming) official term is hypocoristics. The varied terminology provides a glimpse into the diverse applications of names, and the distinct attitudes, associations, and conventions they bring with them. By exploring the way they pop up in unexpected places and how usages differ, I will try to show that names are more than simply tags that you use to gossip about the neighbours.
Whereas rhyming slang is restricted to a certain group, there are a bunch of idiomatic phrases containing names that you have probably all heard of. Bob’s your uncle and Nosey Parker are possibly not among your daily tweets, but you would recognize them. These idioms show that names need not refer to anyone in particular, a feature that is perhaps best illustrated by the expression your average Sheila, where Sheila indeed means any female in general. This phrase is not the result of a historical instance of an extremely “average” Sheila, nor is Percy intrinsically connected with the loo.
Contrastingly, some names are eternalised in ways that still link them with a specific person. Everyone who passed Literature 1B can guess at the meaning of the idiom to raise Cain: the guy was a pretty vindictive person, so logically the expression promises trouble. The sword of Damocles refers to a king of the past, and thanks to Brad Pitt anyone can guess that Achilles’ heel is a weak spot. But names also appear outside fixed contexts: I would not gobble up a Lord Sandwich unless I was truly ravenous, but a sandwich sounds appetising for sure.
More than once in the course of history proper names were used for related concepts. When I feel like dancing, I won’t necessarily think of a French acrobat, but perhaps I decide to wear my favourite leotard. Names may be so embedded as features in our vocabulary that they are no longer proper nouns only, but get a counterpart in the adjective category (Dickensian), sometimes even losing their capitalised status, as has happened to quixotic, herculean, and gargantuan. These expressions and eponyms, some more transparent than others, show that a person can have such a lasting influence that their names are used for something they were renowned for or associated with, long after their owners started pushing daisies.
In idioms, expressions, and adjectives, names can meet two different fates: they are either extracted from the individual and applied to the general; or they feature as remnants of the persons they used to belong to. There are other seemingly conflicting sides to names. Take the phrase Richard of York gave battle in vain, which helps you remember the colours of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet). In fact, the idea of using a name as a mnemonic device is quite ironic. Perhaps the inventor didn’t realise that the majority of us are terribly bad at remembering names. Unless two strangers are clever enough to repeat each other’s names at the start of their acquaintance, preferably accompanied by a reassuring handshake − the way Obama does it − they will most likely not focus on the new name, but whether their own hair looks neat and tidy.
If you do remember a name, you might be tempted to judge on the basis of its sound. In its usual context, referring to real people (and not snacks or tight costumes), a proper name is the first thing that defines a person. Some parents like to give their children names that might ensure success in life, or somehow guarantee wisdom – at least that is what I hope parents of a 21st -century Seneca were thinking (true story). Perhaps the Romans were right to say ‘nomen est omen’: names may not predict one’s future, but they do raise expectations. It is in any case peculiar that even without an obvious meaning (like Charity or Angel), names have the power to create certain images. They appear somehow young or hopelessly old-fashioned; they sound decidedly male – Bob − or female – Christine (Crystal 153). Sometimes a name evokes a mental picture of a person that you have never even met before.
The prejudices and expectations that names generate disagree with our frequent inattentiveness when hearing them for the first time. Why are names used as substitutes for offensive phrases, but at the same time the one-term answer to the question: “who are you?” Apparently, sounds can be equivalent to identity. What is more, in some cultures, names play a pivotal role in communication. A rule of the so-called “avoidance style” of indigenous Australian languages determines that you cannot speak a name of a (recently) deceased person, nor words beginning with the same syllable. “When a man named Djäyila died in 1975, the common verb djäl- ‘want’ became taboo in his community, and was replaced by duktuk-, apparently borrowed from a neighbouring language” (McCollMillar 48). It seems almost incredible, but names can effectively dominate the vocabulary of an entire community.
So, after looking at names in expressions and “real life”, let us take a look at the realm of fiction. One of the troubles of an aspiring author is coming up with good names. Fortunately, there are lots and lots of bloggers willing to help you out:
Just some comments from a reader's perspective: please, for
the love of all that's holy, give your characters names that start with
different letters. If one character is Alethea and another is Alexis, I
don’t care how different they are, I will confuse them in my mind.
Is this just an example of a lazy reader? It might be, but it is not unnatural to associate words that start with the same sound. In some cases it poses a problem, but it is also crucial to the way alliteration works. Alliteration stitches the text and concepts together: because words start similarly, we unconsciously link them as being related.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man like Mr Wickham from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is not to be trusted; how conspicuous that his counterpart in Sense and Sensibility, Mr Willoughby, has a name that sounds equally wicked. You could argue that this is just an isolated instance, and point at the widely disparate characters of James Bond and James Moriarty – one a famous hero, the other a cunning villain (hero obviously being the right association with the name James). However, Sherlock Holmes’ archenemy does have a significant last name: Moriarty has something in common with other popular antagonists: Mordred (King Arthur’s opponent), Morgan le Fay, Morgoth (the dark lord from the Silmarilion), and − dare I say it – Voldemort, are not only famous epitomes of evil, they also sound ominous. Like the words mortal, morgue, moribund, mourn, mortuary, morose, morbid, and mortification, names containing -mor almost literally carry death with them. We tend to evaluate quickly, labelling others “right” or “wrong”, “good” or “bad”, judging on the basis of those vital first impressions − and if we cannot rely on a real life encounter, names will have to do instead. Occasionally, authors give their readers a hand in this “labelling-by-name” process, as we saw with Wickham and Moriarty. But there are other, less subtle instances were names give away a character’s personality. Dickens in particular shows a fondness of using puns and sound symbolism when naming characters, as David Crystal’s analysis suggests. Readers are invited to make a link between character and name as they encounter Mrs Paragon and Lady Snorflerer, professors Snore, Doze, and Wheezy, Mr Blight and Mr Bumble. Dickens is not alone in his love for playing with names. Others have followed his example and many others before him were just as inventive, like Shakespeare (obviously). Interestingly, a character without name is not interesting at all, an insignificant filler of a fictitious world. That is, unless it is stressed that he or she is Nameless, in which case the absence of a name proves its importance.
In the end, we can say that the way we look at names is just as varied as the characters and personalities they belong to. They are used properly and inappropriately, they occur in slang and they are glorified; they might be eternalised in an expression if one does something incredibly heroic, but they will also be shamelessly forgotten. In some cultures however, they have huge implications and affect the language as a whole. Even in the Western world they are used to manipulate behaviour. Why else would authors prefer to have a pseudonym on the cover of their latest novel? Perhaps they are afraid that their real names will be forgotten before you have turned the Jimmy Horner.
by Maj Hansen
Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Davidson, George, ed. Roget’s Thesaurus. London: Penguin, 2004.
Millar, Robert M. C, and R L. Trask. Trask's Historical Linguistics. London: Routledge, 2007.