Would you believe that we recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of the publication of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye? To commemorate — a year after Salinger himself passed away at the age of 91 — here’s a look at the names of some of his protagonists:
Holden. Holden Caulfield is one of the twentieth century’s iconic anti-heroes. A surname in origin, Holden derives from a little place in Lancashire, England, meaning “hollow valley.” Salinger may well have chosen it because it sounds like “hold on” – just as Holden wanted to do to preserve the innocence of children, as “the catcher in the rye.” Holden has been gradually rising in use in the US over the past twenty-five years, and is now ranked at Number 316.
Phoebe. Holden’s little sister. From the Greek phoibos “bright, radiant,” very appropriate for the character Holden idealizes. Phoebe is also the name of a Titaness – a daughter of Uranus and Ge. It was not uncommon as a name in antiquity, and stumbled into The New Testament. In past centuries, Phebe was often the preferred form. The best know Phoebe is recent years is Phoebe Buffay, in Friends (followed by Phoebe Halliwell in Charmed). Ironically, it was the UK that felt Phoebe Buffay’s influence greatest, with the name mushrooming in use virtually overnight. In 2009, it was in 23rd place in the UK — but falling. In the US, it has been steadily climbing since the late eighties but is still far from common.
Sunny. The name of the young prostitute. English use of “sunny” as a given name dates to the nineteenth century. Sunny is the heroine of the musical Sunny (1925), and Sunny Baudelaire is a principal character in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. A real-life Sunny is the second daughter of Adam Sandler, born in 2008.
Many of Salinger’s short stories and novellas, particularly his last works in the sixties, feature the Glass family. Like Holden in Catcher, several of the characters walk rather out of step with “normal” society. They are seekers of truth, wisdom and happiness in a “phony” world.
Their names make an interesting sibset:
Seymour. The pivot of many of the Glass family stories – whether physically present or not, he was introduced in the 1949 “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Intellectually brilliant, and deeply spiritual, he commits suicide while on holiday with his wife by the sea in Florida. “See more glass” is how Sibyl, the prophetically named little girl to whom he tells the story of bananafish, interprets his name, and it is clear Seymour does “see more” than most people. His is a name barely met with today, even among the older generation. It peaked just inside the top 200 in the early 1920s, and fell out of the Top 1000 in 1947. It was originally the surname of an aristocratic English family (Jane Seymour was the third wife of King Henry VIII.)
Buddy. Seymour’s brother, and the one to whom he was closest. Like most early Buddys, his is a nickname – Buddy Glass’s real name is Webb, appropriate for the character regarded as Salinger’s alter ego. Buddy is the narrator in several of the Glass family short stories, and the surname Webb derives from the Old English webba “weaver” – in Buddy’s case, of tales. The choice of the cheerful nickname Buddy at first seems incongruous to the character. However, the name Buddy developed from “brother” in the nineteenth century, and that, in a sense, is one of Buddy’s main roles. Chef Jamie Oliver recently named his son Buddy Bear.
Boo Boo. The other sister, is featured in the 1949 short story “Down at the Dinghy.” Her real name is Beatrice, a form of the Latin Beatrix, from beatus “happy” and “blessed.” Beatrice last peaked in 36th place in 1910, and though it is now quite uncommon, is showing definite signs of a revival.
Walt. A straightforward short-form of Walter, for a straightforward guy. Walt was killed in World War II, and is encountered in the 1948 short story “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” which is more about his former girlfriend Eloise. Her name hints at one of the great legendary love stories, that of the medieval Abelard and Helewise, of which Eloise is a modern form. Like many of Salinger’s names, it was most popular in the twenties, but has recently started to make a comeback. Walter left the Top 100 in 1972, but in the last couple of years has also shown signs of revival, currently ranked 372.
Waker. A curious name for the most mysterious and little-known member of the Glass family. The English surname Waker is from Middle English meaning “watchful” but it is tempting to say Salinger intended it to carry the meaning of “someone who has awoken.” The name is – and always has been – rare.
Zooey. Like the rest of the Glass family, Zooey was a “child genius.” Featured in Zooey, this cynical and rather conceited young man ultimately manages to help his sister, now an emotional mess. Zooey is a pet form for Zachary, though perhaps Salinger chose it as Zooey is probably the most “worldly” of the siblings, the one most at home in the “zoo” that is society. Sadly, most nowadays see Zooey as a variant of the female Zoe, even though the pronunciation is different.
Franny. Seymour’s sister, who is first encountered in the novella Franny . Franny’s formal name is Frances, another old classic, extremely popular in the early twentieth century. It has been languishing for a long time now, in 782nd place in 2010, but now seems set for a revival. It derives from the Old German Frank, an ancient tribal name that is the source of the English word meaning honest and open, as well as an older sense of “free.”
And lastly, one of Salinger’s most popular short stories is “For Esmé – with Love and Squalor.” Esmé was first used by the aristocratic Scottish Lennox family in the sixteenth century as a variant of Aimé – for their sons; it began to be used as a girl’s name in the nineteenth century. Salinger’s Esmé has probably been eclipsed now by Stephenie Meyer’s Esmé Cullen, but – in unambiguous homage to Salinger – there’s an Esmé Squalor in Lemony Snicket.
For the name-seeker, Salinger’s work certainly offers a fascinating collection of vintage classics as well as more unusual and eye-catching (or should that be rye-catching?) possibilities.