Cratylic Names.

Cratylic names (I have just learned) are what I thought of as “speaking names” (from the German term sprechende Namen); they are so called from Plato’s dialogues with Cratylus about the truthfulness of names, and you can read Erin Somers’ post about them here. I have found the most amazing collection I have seen of such names in the first paragraph of Thomas Keymer’s LRB review (8 February 2018) of two books by Thomas Love Peacock:

Marilyn Butler​, whose Peacock Displayed was published in 1979, wasn’t the first to connect Peacock’s name with the showy wit of his satires. It started with Shelley, his friend and patron, who joked in 1820 about ‘the Pavonian Psyche’ (pavo: peacock), as though Peacock himself had the kind of name that he specialised in giving to his characters. In the seven novels he produced between Headlong Hall (1815) and Gryll Grange (1860), names are rarely hard to decode. Anyside Antijack is a time-serving Tory politician; Cephalis Cranium, a phrenologist’s brainy daughter; the Revd Mr Grovelgrub, a sycophantic tutor; Dr Harry Killquick, a hit-or-miss physician; Sir Bonus MacScrip, venal member for the borough of Threevotes; Peter Paypaul Paperstamp, the sinecure-seeking poet of Mainchance Villa; Sir Simon Steeltrap, scourge of poachers on his hunting estate at Spring-gun and Treadmill. Some of the names indicate real-life targets such as George Canning, the Tory statesman who started out as the attack dog of the Anti-Jacobin, and Wordsworth, whose acceptance of a government post as Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland in 1813 confirmed his apostasy from radical politics. Other names aim at several targets, or are simply generalised types. Occasionally Peacock adds a twist. In his third and now best-known novel, Nightmare Abbey (1818), Mr Glowry, the ‘atrabilarious’ patriarch of the estate, employs only servants who reflect his melancholy by means of ‘a long face or a dismal name’: Raven, Crow, Skellet, Mattocks, Graves. When in need of a new footman, Glowry jumps at the opportunity to hire Diggory Deathshead. But Deathshead turns out to be ruddy-cheeked and cheerful, and is promptly fired.

Cephalis Cranium! Diggory Deathshead! I don’t know if I want to actually read the novels, but I’m deeply impressed.


  1. I remember watching a filmstrip in fourth grade about effective techniques in creative writing, and it talked about how naming characters can affect how they are perceived. It mentioned using names with definite meanings, but it also talked about how just the choice of sounds in a name can insinuate quite a bit about a character. “Ebenezer Scrooge” was cited as a very effective name, by which Dickens (certainly a master of aurally suggestive names) indicated a hard, uncompromising character.

  2. David Marjanović says

    A colleague of mine is named Peecook. Discuss.

  3. I’m not going to Peecook’s house for dinner.

  4. Hat says, “I don’t know if I want to actually read the novels.” The only one I’ve read myself is Nightmare Abbey, but on the strength of that I’d say Yes you do.

    There’s also The Misfortunes of Elphin, which includes “The War Song of Dinas Vawr”:

    The mountain sheep are sweeter,
    But the valley sheep are fatter;
    We therefore deemed it meeter
    To carry off the latter.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    Dinas Vawr

    Ha! an egregious schoolboy howler. Dinas, as any sheep can tell you, was masculine in Middle Welsh. These modern poets …

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    Nɛ ya bʋriasʋŋ! to everybody, by the way.

  7. Tolstoy’s surname is a clear hint of the size of his novels.

    Merry Christmas to everyone!

  8. And the same to you!

  9. January First-of-May says

    Tolstoy’s surname is a clear hint of the size of his novels.

    Which one? I think one of them only wrote short stories…

  10. I never thought of Mattocks as dismal; it was the name of the shop across the road that sold postcards & ice-cream on the cold & windy Norfolk coast where my family spent so-called summer, but now I find it was also a farm tool. If they were ever amusing Dickens’ names like Gradgrind or Dotheboys Hall are now way past their best and the Peacock ones are even sillier. I’ll make my own mind up about people’s character when I read, thanks. Anything else is way too boring, like reading the important safety notes in an instruction manual. There’s a quite good new version of A Christmas Carol on BBC television, but it’s AWFULLY SLOW.

  11. I’ve enjoyed Michael Ondaatje’s use of names in recent novels too. Merry Christmas! What books did you get?

  12. Dinas, as any sheep can tell you, was masculine in Middle Welsh.

    To be fair to Peacock,The Misfortunes of Elphin is set in the pre-Old Welsh period; the Dyfed appearing in the poem should therefore be whatever Old Welsh name underlies the Latin Demetae.

    Peacock clearly drew on Welsh sources, many of them not translated, some not even printed in Welsh at the time. Even by modern standards he handles them respectfully, and a number of the poems in Elphin are translations of bardic poems (though not this one). So he was either himself a Welsh scholar or had the help of one, most probably his wife.

    I note with interest that he was a colleague of J. S. Mill at India House.

    If they were ever amusing

    Most 19C humor is heavy-handed by modern standards, I think; jokesters tended to want to Make Sure You Got It. But I have a soft spot for the Duke of Omnium (whose seat is Castle Gatherum, because) in Trollope (an amusing name in itself).

  13. Stu Clayton says

    Trollope (an amusing name in itself)

    # The surname Trollop(e) is locational in origin, from the former name of the place called Troughburn in Northumberland, which was named from the Old Norse “troll”, imp, supernatural being, with the Olde English pre 7th Century term “hop”, small, enclosed valley, patch of enclosed land. Locational surnames were acquired especially by those former inhabitants of a place who had moved to another area, usually to seek work, and were thereafter best identified by the name of their birthplace. Early recordings of the name include those of Androwe Trowlopp, and Thomas Trollopp in the 1525 Sussex Subsidy Rolls, while one John Trollope is listed in the Norfolk Musters of 1577. A family of the name Trollope trace their descent from John Tro(w)lope, who lived at Thornlaw, Co. Durham, and before 1390 had acquired the manor of Morden in that county. The novelist Anthony Trollope (1815 – 1882), was one of his descendants. # Surname DB: Trollope

    Note “Olde English” as a semi-successful reflexive stab at ancienneté. I suppose it’s hard to keep these reflexes down – like Dr. Strangelove’s arm.

  14. What books did you get?

    I’ll post about it at end of day!

  15. Trollope is surely funny because of trollop (from German Trulle from ?)

  16. David Marjanović says

    German Trulle


  17. Plain lower-case trollop is probably also from troll ‘move without purpose’. Kipling uses it as a verb: “We haven’t a camelty tune of our own / To help us trollop along.” Like slut and slattern it originally referred to bad housekeeping rather than sexuality.

    For the -op, the OED2 refers us to the similar doublet wallop/gallop, which is Normand/French respectively, but < a compound of Germanic origin: w-something followed by *hlaupaną ‘leap’. From this comes another doublet in English, native leap and Norse lope, G laufen, Goth ???????????????????????????????????? ushlaupan. (I really wanted to put some Gothic script in here.)

  18. David Marjanović says

    That’s a Google search for trollop. But Trulle is real and means “messy woman”, “woman I generally dislike”. It is “probably” related to troll.

  19. David Marjanović says

    Gothic script

    Whoa, it had never occurred to me how hard u, h and p are to tell apart. Such a young script, and already in need of diacritic dots or something!

  20. Kate Bunting says

    Dolly Trull is a character in ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ (along with Betty Doxy, Molly Brazen et al.).

  21. Could “Dinas Vawr” be a construction like “Custennin Gorneu,” “Myrddin Wyllt” etc.? Not that I know what to call that.

  22. David Eddyshaw says

    I think that’s only found after a personal name as part of a larger set personal name (as with those examples, and of course all the time with fab ~ ab ~ ap “son of …”)

    I wasn’t really dissing Peacock. It’s just that opportunities for saying that dinas was masculine in Middle Welsh don’t come along all that often, and I feel that people really need to know.

  23. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Yes. I don’t know how I’ve managed all these years without knowing the gender of dinas in Middle Welsh.

  24. Ditto. They didn’t tell me about that in grad school!

  25. So he was either himself a Welsh scholar or had the help of one, most probably his wife.

    It occurs to me that a 19C female Welsh scholar may sound strange to some people, but Wales is the land of learned postmen. The linked thread also contains the delightful a priori Croque Monsieur and the a posteriori Scottish Gaelic.

  26. In the MythAdventures series of humorous fantasy novels by Robert Lynn Asprin (although in my frank opinion, it is probably of the least entertaining humorous fantasy series I have read), the characters all come from different dimensions. (“Demon” is supposedly short for “dimensional traveler.”) All the names of the various dimensions and their inhabitants are puns, most of them bad. However, the one that I did find genuinely very funny was the dimension of Trollia—the denizens of which exhibit a strong degree of sexual dimorphism: the men are trolls, and he women are trollops.

    “Slovenly trull” is also the lowest-end harlot that can be rolled up as a city encounter on the legendary random prostitute encounter table from the original Dungeon Master’s Guide. I have always imagined E. Gary Gygax wracking his brain to come up with as many synonyms as possible to fill out that table.

  27. Back in September of 2013 I blogged (link) a couple of Cratylic names that fall in the subcategory “Best Match of Editor’s Name and Subject”: editions of Catullus by Daniél Kiss and Othello by Julie Hankey. A commenter added “Jürgen W. Einhorn, the author of a rather exhaustive book on the religious significances, symbolism, and iconography of the unicorn, Spiritalis Unicornis: Das Einhorn als Bedeutungsträger in Literatur und Kunst des Mittelalters (München : W. Fink, 1976; rev. ed., ibid., 1988).” To what extent these scholars chose their subjects to match their names, and whether the process was conscious or subconscious or a bit of each, I do not know. There are examples of such names in other professions: I know of a dentist named Payne (or Paine? it’s been a long time) and a couple of gynecologists with downright embarrassing and utterly appropriate names.
    Five minutes later: Hmmm. Now that I’ve retired from teaching the young, I suppose I can add those names without getting in trouble with parents of web-stalkerly students: Seymour Hyman and Harry Beaver. When I looked a few years ago, I did not find much evidence on the web of their existence, but they would have retired long before it was invented. I’ve met several people who did not know each other but knew the latter as patients or (in one case) a colleague, so I am quite certain he existed, and went by Harry, not Harold.

  28. David Eddyshaw says
  29. I just remembered that there was an article in The Best of the Journal of Irreproducible Results that included a discussion of the effect of a psychiatrist’s or psychologist’s name on patients with certain conditions. Unfortunately, my hard copy of the book is thousands of miles away, and I cannot figure out from the table of contents which article* is the one I am thinking how. I put myself on the wait list to check it out from the Internet Archive though.

    I do remember finding it especially funny that my father’s boss, Dr. Swift, (the “physician in charge” at their office) was a psychiatrist whose name was on the list. It said that his name might interfere with treatment of men experiencing premature ejaculation.

    * One of the cover articles, “The Inheritance Pattern of Death,” I remember as having the funniest title, but I did not think the actual article was all that hilarious.

  30. David Marjanović says

    Aptronyms now?

    Am Rong (1929 – May 1975)[1] was a Cambodian soldier and filmmaker, who acted as a spokesman on military matters for the Khmer Republic during the Cambodian Civil War. Western journalists commented on the irony of his name as he gave briefings which “painted a rosy picture of the increasingly desperate situation on the ground” during the war.[2][3]

  31. article includes list of inaptronyms

  32. David Eddyshaw says

    I knew of a pair of house surgeons in the same unit at the same time, who were respectively Dr Kneebone and Dr Slasher.

  33. My actual favorite aptronym belongs to the most cited American jurist who never served on the Supreme Court,* Learned Hand.

    * That Hand was never nominated to the Supreme Court was basically a matter of personality politics. In particular, William Howard Taft (who was chief justice—which he preferred greatly to being president—from 1921–1930) disliked Hand intensely.

  34. Russian ambassador in Afghanistan was appropriately named Zamir Kabulov (which can be translated as “For peace in Kabul”).

  35. J.W. Brewer says

    There have been two other federal judges to date surnamed Hand (one was a cousin of Learned’s; the other AFAIK was no relation), who predictably ended up at risk of being dubbed “Unlearned Hand” by anyone who didn’t like one of their decisions.

  36. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    At school my daughter was in class with a black girl called Blanc.

    25 years there were two Fréds (Frédéric) in our department, with surnames beginning Ba… and Bo…. We called them Fréd Ba and Fréd Bo. Fréd Ba was the shorter, but the obvious mnemonic failed as he was also the more beau.

  37. Александр КАРХУ, первый заместитель главного редактора, генеральный директор издания.

    После окончания биологического факультета МГУ Карху трудился в Палеонтологическом институте Российской Академии наук, где с блеском защитил диссертацию, посвященную эволюции ископаемых птиц.

    A fitting surname for a biologist, karhu being Finnish for ‘bear’.

    I remember listening to some Yleisradio news where the newsreader discussed some environmental issues including fish with a person called Eino Kuha of Kuopio, which see:

  38. The list of Mongolian Prime Ministers in recent years contains names like Solid Treasure, Good Intelligence, Golden Armour, Strong Steel, Jubilation, Tranquil Steel, Tranquil Jubilation, Tranquil Goodness.

    With such auspiciously named Prime Ministers, Mongolian economy is obviously booming.

  39. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    25 years ago our plumber was M. Chaudeaux.

  40. David Marjanović says

    A fitting surname for a biologist, karhu being Finnish for ‘bear’.

    He doesn’t work on mammals, though.

  41. Let us also pause for a moment in memory of Frank G. Slaughter (1908-2001), prolific American novelist whose books were full of medical details. These he came by honestly, because he was also a brain surgeon. When I worked at a pharmaceutical company I had a colleague who once witnessed Dr. Slaughter perform an operation which began by opening the patient’s skull with a chisel. Every time he hit the chisel with his hammer, my colleague said, the patient’s whole body jumped.

  42. David Marjanović says

    Peter Schreier (“shouter/crier/screamer”), opera singer.

  43. A Cardiff lawyer called Andrew Bound considered partnership with the former Solicitor General, Dingle Foot and the American Judge Learned Hand, to be known as Bound, Hand & Foot. It must be true, it was in Bondage News (I buy it for tips on garden-twine knots).

  44. Anna Smashnova was a top 20 tennis player back in the day. It goes without saying that her overhead smash was very poor (as she was only 5’2.)

    (Also right now on the men’s tour there’s a guy named Tennys ….that y really comes across as some kind of weird taunt)

  45. Smash no va! (Did she drive a Chevy?)

  46. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Bound, Hand & Foot

    The physicist George Gamow, who was fond of practical jokes, had a student called Ralph Alpher. He asked Hans Bethe to coauthor a paper with him and Alpher (without telling him why), and there is thus a paper with authors Alpher, Bethe and Gamow. (For Gamow’s joke to work you have to pronounce β the American way ([‘bɛɪ̯də]) not the British way ([‘bɪjtə]).) (I know that Americans claim that the [‘bɛɪ̯də] is a [t], not a [d], but we poor foreigners hear it as a [d].)

  47. I’ve told this story as well, along with Gamow’s complaint that Robert Herman, also on the same project, “stubbornly refuse[d] to change his name to Delter”, but I can now add that Alpher’s father was born Ilfirovich.

  48. The Alpher-Bethe-Gamow paper was the first to argue for a cosmological origin for the chemical elements, which was why Gamow wanted the αβγ appellation.

    There’s an American crime novelist by the name of the Karin Slaughter.

  49. Bethe didn’t actually contribute anything to the paper. Gamow just added him as an author because he was a wiseacre. Gamow was an interesting scientist in many ways. His love of jokes made him an excellent popularizer of science, with One, Two, Three, Infinity, Mr Tompkins in Wonderland, etc. He also made a point of changing his research area every fifteen years or so, to keep his work from becoming ossified. After a career spent working mostly on different aspects of nuclear physics, he did his last work on superfluidity.

    Alpher was less than happy about the joke. The paper, which is one of the foundational works of nuclear astrophysics, was based on Alpher’s dissertation and was overwhelmingly his own work. He felt that including the most distinguished nuclear astrophysicist of the day (Bethe was worked out the proton-proton chain of reactions* that powers the sun) would make his own contribution seem less significant.

    * As I commented on this Language Log post, regarding xkcd 1412, if you pronounce “proton-proton chain reaction” with the stress pattern of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song, you are actually saying it wrong. The reason is that, with stress on “chain,” you signify that “chain reaction” is a compound word. However, this is wrong, because the proton-proton chain is not a chain reaction. A chain reaction is the kind of reaction like that which occurs in fission bombs, in which the products from one nuclear reaction (specifically the excess neutrons) trigger further decays in other nuclei. Nuclear fusion works differently. It is a thermonuclear** reaction, meaning that each fusion event proceeds independently, provided the temperature is high enough to trigger the reaction.

    ** The “Let’s Build a Thermonuclear Device” article from [The Best of] The Journal of Irreproducible Results (which I linked to previously) gets this terminology wrong, since the instructions are for a fission device. That particular article was also infamous for having been found in a cache of Al Qaeda/Taliban documents in Afghanistan in the early 2000s.

  50. Alpher was less than happy about the joke.

    He is on record as continuing to resent it, if not until the day of his death, at least until age 80.

  51. Could have been worse: principal author Alpher was at least the first name in ‘Alpher, at al.’. If you have a name that fits with two other names to make a joke, and a particular order is required by the joke, there’s a two-in-three chance that someone else will be first, even if you did almost all the work.

  52. Another aptronym misled me for years. One of the greatest American paintings is The Gross Clinic, by Thomas Eakins. When I first saw it (not in person), my first thought about the name was “Eeeuw, gross! Medical students cutting up a body! That’s a good name, ‘gross’.” (I thought it depicted a medical-school autopsy, though Wikipedia tells me it’s actually a leg operation on a living man.) My immediate second thought was “That’s silly. Such a serious painting wouldn’t have a humorous title. This must be a class on ‘gross’ anatomy, examining whole organs and whole bodies. I wonder what they call the other kind, looking at tissues under a microscope – fine anatomy?” It was many years later that I learned that the distinguished medical-school professor at the center of the picture was Dr. Samuel D. Gross.

  53. It’s a very good painting, far better than I could do and doubtless it’s significant to surgeons in America, but my inner pedant says that Winslow Homer was also pretty good and it’s not in the league of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp.

  54. David Marjanović says

    He felt that including the most distinguished nuclear astrophysicist of the day […] would make his own contribution seem less significant.

    Astrophysicists use alphabetical order for authors, right? Because what the order implies to a biologist or geologist is exactly correct: Alpher contributed the most, making him first author; Gamow was Alpher’s supervisor, making him last author; and Bethe’s contribution was the least overall, making him second-to-last author.

    The reason is that, with stress on “chain,” you signify that “chain reaction” is a compound word.

    Spell it proton-proton-chain reaction with two hyphens, and watch the confusion evaporate before your very eyes.

  55. @David Marjanović: I don’t really know about author order for astrophysics papers back in the middle of the twentieth century, but today both conventions are used. My impression is that ordering by contribution is more common than alphabetical, but that is just my subjective impression from the papers I read; and moreover, the answer surely depends on what corner of astrophysics one is talking about. Sizable experimental collaborations measuring cosmic rays would use the alphabetic ordering common in experimental particle physics.

    As to the impression that the author list gave at the time: it is certainly true that, in a certain abstract sense, the Alpher, Bethe, Gamow ordering might give a correct picture of the relative contributions of the named individuals. However, there are still two big problems with this. First, the inclusion of Hans Bethe as an author at all implies that he made a substantial contribution to the work—which he did not. So just including him takes credit away from Alpher.

    Second, when dealing with papers in theoretical physics, the amount of work put into a project may not necessarily be the best indication of the value of a participant’s contribution. Within the last few years, I published a couple of papers with a graduate student and another faculty member (the student’s formal dissertation advisor). The author order was: graduate student, me, other professor. The student was the first author, since she spent the most time working on the paper’s calculations. However, when other physicists talk about the paper, they clearly think about it (and often refer to it) as work by myself and my faculty colleague. A graduate student publishing a theory paper with two established faculty members is not likely to be seen as the driving intellectual force behind the research—especially if the two professors are among the best-known people in the field, as Bethe and Gamow were.

    Turning to your other point: Using “proton-proton-chain reaction” is a plausible solution, except that it butts up against another use of hyphens. Even without “reaction,” the name(s) for the (noncatalytic) fusion helium mechanism in a stellar plasma is the “proton-proton chain(s).” The hyphen already present there is common in descriptions of nuclear and particle reactions. For example, (since 1953, when the method was pioneered by Robert Hofstadter—father of Douglas) the most important technique for probing the internal structure of nucleons has been electron-proton scattering. One of the main mechanisms by which the Higgs boson is produced at the Large Hadron Collider is gluon-gluon fusion. My preferred solution for addressing cases like this would be to use a double hyphen, like so: “proton꞊proton-chain reaction.” The double hyphen is practically not used at all in modern English typography, so there should be no confusion with other meanings.

  56. Another alternative would be “proton-proton–chain reaction”, with an en-dash at the outer joining point.

  57. The N-dash would have to be set at hyphen height and spaced like a hyphen, obviously. (Normally, the N-dash, functioning as a “range dash” or “number dash,” is slightly lower than the other dashes and has less space on either end.)

  58. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    The double hyphen is practically not used at all in modern English typography,

    A good thing too! If at all possible I avoid multiple hyphens by rearranging the sentence. They do occur, occasionally in names: if I believe the Honours Boards at my school there was once someone called Francis Edward Hovell-Thurlow-Cumming-Bruce (actually I don’t need to believe the Honours Boards, because Wikipedia confirms that someone of that name was the last surviving British colonial governor of the Bahamas — now there’s a distinction to be proud of!). I am more modest: I only have one hyphen in my name.

  59. the last British colonial governor of the Bahamas

    Apparently, after declaring independence in 1973, governors of the Bahamas were renamed governor-generals of the Bahamas.

    No doubt this is a very meaningful distinction reflecting truly independent nature of the sovereign Bahamas.

  60. David Marjanović says

    except that it butts up against another use of hyphens.

    How? Adding more hyphens and more words is like adding more commas and more clauses.

    a very meaningful distinction

    The governor-general of Canada is just about completely powerless. I think the governors of Hong Kong had a lot more power.

  61. No doubt this is a very meaningful distinction reflecting truly independent nature of the sovereign Bahamas.

    The difference in terminology is small, but the substantive difference is not. The Governor of the Bahamas was appointed by the Queen of the UK on the recommendation of the UK Government and was responsible to that Government. The Governor-general of the Bahamas is appointed by the Queen of Bermuda on the recommendation of the Bermudian Government and is responsible to it.

  62. @ David Marjanović:

    Astrophysicists use alphabetical order for authors, right?

    No, astrophysicists generally use most-to-least-significant ordering, so first author contributed the most, and last author contributed the least. (The “last author = thesis supervisor/PI” mode that some areas of biology use is basically unheard-of.)

    As Brett points out, large collaborations may have purely alphabetical author lists, or may follow a “most-to-least-significant” order for the subset of authors who did the main work on a paper, followed by an alphabetical list for the remainder of the collaboration.

    (Mathematicians, on the other hand, apparently do tend to use strict alphabetical order most of the time.)

  63. To my American ears “the Queen of Bermuda” suggests Aradobo, the Dean of Morocco.

  64. The Queen of Bermuda is also the Queen of Solomon Islands.

    Amazing coincidence

  65. David Marjanović says

    The “last author = thesis supervisor/PI” mode that some areas of biology use

    is a natural outgrowth: the PI has typically made the smallest scientific contribution (usually the basic idea).

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