What’s in a name? Apart from letters, I mean.
For me it’s sometimes annoyance and occasionally some delight. I’m talking about people’s names, of course. There are too many nouns for named things to be a useful category to talk about. And people come by the most interesting names, often with help from their parents, a feature things lack for the most part.
I’m not the only one who finds names interesting. Just today in the Globe, Judith Timson took time out from roasting Tiger Woods to stumble over the name of Mrs. Woods’ lawyer: Sorrell Trope. She asks: “Is Charles Dickens writing this serial?” You have to admit, it’s a name with lovely resonances.
Dickens, of course, was the naming master. In a way, it doesn’t count if you get to make them up; but a fillip on names would be remiss if it didn’t cast at least one or two glances at the man who coined Pecksniff, Gradgrind, Uriah Heep, and Abel Magwitch, and who named his lawyers Grimwig, Tulkinghorn, and Sampson Brass.
Back to reality. And to one of my favourites, whose music I happened to hear recently: E. Power Biggs. You just know little Biggs had to swell into that name as he grew; and, of course, he did, shunning the piccolo and choosing instead the organ as his instrument. Then there’s that perennial favourite, Capability Brown. It’s a name that bounces gently, a name that inspires confidence, and one that suggests a colourful, internal struggle, given that he developed a green thumb the likes of which is seldom seen. (Pay no attention to the fact that his parents were unkind enough to call him Lancelot. This got corrected later in life, thankfully.) And for some reason I love the name Aphra Behn, perhaps because I know she was a 17th century spy and one of the first English women to make her living by writing. But I suspect it’s more to do with the fact that I hear echoes of alpha-bet in her name.
I have a charming book, Surnames, by a British philologist, Ernest Weekley (think what you will), published originally in 1916, in which you can find hundreds of English names, with snatches of history and sometimes fanciful etymology attached. It makes for great browsing. It also fails to contain the name Fodden. Speaking of which, I’m now old enough to acknowledge that when I lived in the prairies it was only right that when people learned my name they heard “silaged fodder” somewhere in a corner of their minds. I console myself by leafing through Weekely and reciting Burpitt, Dallicoat, Hurlbutt, Mainprice and others of that ilk.