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Neil Gaiman Names: It’s not just Coraline

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By Professor Don L. F. Nilsen, Arizona State University

Adult and children’s book writer (and beyond) Neil Gaiman is dear to the hearts of name lovers as the creator—or at least promoter– of the name Coraline.  But beyond that, the prolific and inventive Gaiman is a highly creative character namer.

Name expert Don L. F. Nilsen, professor at Arizona State University and former co-president of The American Name Society, offers his thoughts here on names in Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and we’ve added some names from other of his books as well .

Since I am a linguist who is especially interested in names, I paid particular attention to the names when I read Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.

The first thing the 18-month-old boy needs when he arrives in the graveyard is a name.  Caius Pompeius, who was buried in the Graveyard one hundred years after the Romans first came to England, wants to name him Marcus, because he looks like Pompeius’s Proconsul.  Josiah Worthington suggests the name of Stebbins, because he looks like his head gardener.  Mother Slaughter, whose tombstone is so weathered and covered with lichen that it now reads only LAUGH, thinks the boy should be named Harry because he resemboles her nephew.  But Mrs. Owens, who has agreed to care for the boy, says firmly, “He looks like nobody.”  And Silas, who is a kind of leader in the graveyard, concurs, “Then Nobody it is.  Nobody Owens.”   In everyday use, the name is shortened to Bod, sometimes misheard as Boy.   Madame Lepescu calls him Niminy.

Bod’s only living friend is a little girl who wanders into the graveyard while her mother sits and reads on a nearby bench.  Her colorful name is Scarlett Amber Perkins and together they meet The Indigo Man, whose “skin was painted (Bod thought) or tattooed (Scarlett thought) with purple designs and patterns.”

Bod’s guardian is Silas, perhaps named after that other famous caregiver, Silas Marner.  When he decides that it’s time for Bod to learn to read, he brings in two alphabet books and The Cat in the HatThen he has Bod practice his lessons by finding each letter of the alphabet on a headstone.  It’s lucky for Bod that Ezekiel Ulmsley’s tombstone is still readable.

The Graveyard Book is filled with onomastic play as when the Poet Nehemiah Trot gives the adolescent Bod advice about his relationship with Scarlet:  “Oh!  You must go to her and implore her….  You must call her your Terpsichore, your Echo, your Clytemnestra.  And thus…shall you win your true love’s heart.”  In another part, the Hounds of Heaven that come from the Ghoul Gate are identified as the Duke of Westminster, the Honorable Archibald Fitzhugh, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, the Emperor of China, and the 33rd President of the United States.  Elizabeth Hempstock was killed and buried as a witch and so was given no headstone.  Bod sets out to get one for her and when he asks what should go on it, she replies, “My name.  It must have my name on it, with a big E, for Elizabeth, like the old queen that died when I was born, and a big Haitch, for Hempstock.”

Chapter 7 is entitled “Everyman Jack.”  I like the way Gaiman plays with such names as Jack Frost, Jack Tar, Jack Dandy, Jack be Nimble, and Jack Ketch because they made me think of Charles Dickens who, in his Tale of Two Cities, writes about “everyman Jacque” and even has a Jacque One, Jacque Two, and Jacque Three.  It is because Jack is a term for the common man that we have such modern words as jackhammer, jack knife, car jack, hijack, and even jacket.  In Gaiman’s book, his Jacks of All Trades are the assassins.

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So now let’s look for some of the more interesting names in other areas of the Gaiman oeuvre.

In the 1999 fantasy novel Stardust, released as a film in 2007, we find:

Tristran (renamed Tristan in the movie), Yvaine,  Dunstan and Una, and also seven brothers (some alive, some not) numerically named Primus, Secundis, Tertius, Quartus, Quintus, Sextus and Septimus.

We see the full range of Gaiman’s naming imagination in The Sandman comics, as exemplified by:

Auberon

Azazel

Barnabus

Barnaby

Basanos

Clarice

Duma

Eiderick

Goldie

Lucien

Lyta (Hyppolyta)

Nuala

Odin

Remiel

Ruthven

Thessaly

Titania

Gaiman’s most recent book is The Ocean at the End of the LaneIn it we find Lettie, Ursula, Japeth and Ginnie.

Coming back to Coraline, that name was actually the result of a typo, but Gaiman said he”…loved the name — the way it was like, but not like, the name Caroline, the way it reflected, that it was about coral, which is both beautiful and hard and hidden…”

And now to end with a somewhat ominous name quote from Coraline:

“What’s your name,’ Coraline asked the cat…..’ I’m Coraline. Okay?’
‘Cats don’t have names,’ it said.
‘No?’ said Coraline.
‘No,’ said the cat. ‘Now you people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.”

Are you a Neil Gaiman fan?  Do you have a favorite character name?

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