Category: literary baby names
By Linda Rosenkrantz
It always strikes me as somewhat curious when a name that has been hidden in plain sight for decades—or longer—attached to a significant literary or real life character will suddenly pop into the zeitgeist and take off. Sometimes the contributing factors are obvious—sharing with a more recent celebrity (looking at you, Ms Johansson) or its discovery by the parents of a starbaby. And sometimes, it just remains a mystery.
Some prominent examples:
Atticus. The Harper Lee novel To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, and the movie, starring Gregory Peck as principled lawyer and role-model dad Atticus Finch, was released two years later. Between then and now, the book has been a mainstay of English class curricula, working its way into the collective consciousness of future baby namers, while Atticus Finch was voted the greatest hero of American film by the AFI.
Caspian is a character in C.S. Lewis’s fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia. As a young boy in Prince Caspian, he had to fight for his throne against his usurping uncle to become king of Narnia, and as a youth in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader he led a daring expedition to the end of the world. In The Silver Chair, we meet him as a very old man, having reigned wisely and well, but also suffering personal tragedy. Because of his great sea voyage, he is known as Caspian the Seafarer. Perhaps because of this connection, Lewis named his character after the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest inland body of water; Caspian is a romantic geographic name which sounds rather like Casper with a Latin -ian ending. Actress Neve Campbell used it for her son.
Dexter Morgan is the protagonist of the Dexter series of psychological thrillers by Jeff Lindsay. Dexter works for the police as a forensic blood spatter analyst, but is a serial killer in his spare time–though only killing murderers, rapists, and other criminals. Dexter is an English occupational surname for someone who dyed cloth, literally “dyer” in Anglo-Saxon. The word was originally feminine, but Dexter has overwhelmingly been used as a male name. Dexter also happens to coincide with the Latin for “right handed,” with connotations of being skilful. The books have inspired a popular television series, with Michael C. Hall in the title role, and since Dexter began airing in 2006, the name (which was about to slip off the Top 1000) has gone steadily up in popularity in the US; it is currently #362. It may seem strange that a serial killer could save the name, but Dexter Morgan is an oddly sympathetic murderer and (perhaps slightly worryingly) female viewers find the character very attractive. Dexter fits in the surnames-for-boys trend, and has a cool X sound in it.
Dorian Gray is the protagonist of Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. An extremely handsome young man who wishes his portrait could age while his own beauty remains changeless, his narcissistic wish is granted, and he spends his life in debauchery while retaining a youthful appearance, as his hidden portrait bears the mark of his every corruption. It is usually assumed that Wilde took the name Dorian from the Dorian people of ancient Greece–the Greeks did have names from this source, such as Dorieus and Doris. However, Dorian is also an Irish surname from O’Deoradhain, meaning “son of Deorain.” Use of the name predates the novel’s publication, and in Eastern Europe it may be a pet form of Teodor. Dorian is sometimes used for girls. Despite Dorian Gray being an evil character, the name has remained in use, and is #558 in the US, and #549 and rising in the UK.
Heathcliff is the male lead character in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, the foster-brother and love of Catherine Earnshaw. The novel explores the deep and obsessive love that Cathy and Heathcliff have for each other, and how the thwarting of that love turned Heathcliff into a tortured monster, though many think of Heathcliff as the Byronic hero and romantic lover whose passion lived beyond the grave. In film, he has been portrayed most memorably by Laurence Olivier. Heathcliff is an uncommon English surname meaning “heath on the cliff”; it doesn’t seem to have been used as a personal name before Wuthering Heights, and only rarely since. Actor Heath Ledger was named after Heathcliff (and his sister after Catherine!), and as Heath is a fashionable name at present, Heathcliff doesn’t seem too bizarre as a long form, although admittedly a bold choice.
Huckleberry “Huck” Finn is the protagonist of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the best friend of the hero in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The son of the town drunk, a neglected vagabond who lives a carefree existence until he is adopted and “civilised,” he runs away with an escaped slave named Jim, and the two travel down the Mississippi River by raft in search of freedom. Huck has been portrayed on film by Mickey Rooney, Ron Howard, Elijah Wood and others. Huckleberry is North American dialect for the bilberry, although in practice applied to several wild berries. The word has long been part of American slang, usually to suggest something small and insignificant – the perfect name for Huck Finn, a child of little consequence in his town. Later it came to mean “companion, sidekick”. Huckleberry was in occasional use as a personal name prior to the publication of Twain’s novels. This would make a sweet, offbeat name, while Huck is a hip short form.
Rhett Butler is the love interest of Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. A black sheep, he becomes entranced with the spirited Scarlett, and admires her will to survive. Although viewed as a cad by polite Southern society, Rhett is tall, dark, handsome, charming, intelligent, and has a very good understanding of human psychology – especially female. He is the only person who can stand up to Scarlett, and beat her in a battle of wits. In the 1939 movie, the biggest box office smash in history when adjusted for inflation, Rhett is played by Clark Gable. Rhett is a surname which comes from the Dutch de Raedt, meaning “counsel, advice”. Mitchell seems to have chosen the name as an allusion to her first husband, “Red” Upshaw, on whom the character of Rhett Butler is based (with a dash of Rudolf Valentino). Rhett is a sexy bad boy name; in the U.S. it is #508 and rising.
This is an adaptation of a blog on Anna Otto’s site Waltzingmorethanmatilda.com. You can see the full, expanded version here. Anna blogs about a wide variety of Australian names, and Aussie name trends, at Waltzing More Than Matilda.
Arrietty Clock is a teenage “borrower” from Mary Norton’s classic children’s fantasy book series, The Borrowers. The borrowers are tiny people who live by “borrowing” everyday items from the Big People they call “human beans.” Because of the spirited Arrietty’s curiosity, she and her family have far more adventurous lives than the average borrower. The borrowers’ names have also been “borrowed,” and used in new ways. Arrietty is reminiscent of the word arietta, meaning “little song, a small aria” in Italian. It is also similar to the name Harriet, and the short form Etty. As Aria and Harriet are quite popular, and Etta very hip, Arrietty is one of those invented names which we are half-surprised wasn’t used before the books’ publication.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy novel, The Lord of the Rings, Arwen Undómiel is an Elven princess, said to be the most beautiful of the last generation of the High Elves. She is the lover of the hero Aragorn, and because she is an immortal, Arwen must sacrifice a great deal to be with her love. In the Elvish Sindarin language created by Tolkien, Arwen is said to mean “noble maiden.” However, Tolkien did not invent the name itself, which is a modern Welsh name. It may be a feminine form of Arwyn, which I have seen translated as “very fair, greatly blessed, splendid.” In the UK, Arwen began charting around the time The Fellowship of the Ring came out, and is currently #654 and rising.
Bellatrix Lestrange is an evil witch in the Harry Potter series, the Dark Lord Voldemort’s most faithful follower. Bellatrix was born into the Black family, and like all members of that clan, she is named after a star. Bellatrix is the common name of Gamma Orionis, a bright star in the constellation of Orion. Its name is Latin for “female warrior.” Bellatrix Lestrange’s name is apt because she is a skilled warrior for Voldemort, and has won many duels. It sounds very usable, because it has the popular Bella in it, and the -trix from hip Beatrix. However, while the Harry Potter character has raised the name’s profile, it’s also a stumbling block, because the character is evil – and not in a cool “strong yet misunderstood woman” way. Bellatrix is a fanatical racist with a love for murder and torture, and a starstruck Voldie fangirl with an annoying little-girl voice. So on one hand: great name. On the other: horrible association.
The Lorelei is the name of a famous rock on the River Rhine, and also that of a beautiful water sprite or siren associated with the rock, who is supposed to lure men to their doom. The character of the Lorelei comes from a nineteenth century German ballad which poet Heinrich Heine turned into a poem called Die Lorelei, where a golden-haired siren unwittingly distracts men with her beauty so they crash onto the rocks. The poem has often been set to music and is part of German popular culture. The name Lorelei is a combination of German dialect and Celtic, and means “murmuring rock,” and is the name of the alluring blonde in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, played on screen by Marilyn Monroe. The name also features in garrulous gabfest Gilmore Girls, where both mother and teen daughter share the name Lorelei (the younger goes by Rory). Pronounced LOR-uh-lie, it is #531 in the U.S.
Pollyanna Whittier is the title character of the Pollyanna books by Eleanor H. Porter, an eleven-year-old orphan who is sent to live with her Aunt Polly in New England, where her sunny disposition soon teaches her stern relative, and the whole town, how to play the “Glad Game” – where you always look for something to feel glad about. While many are charmed by the heroine’s upbeat view of life, cynics find her too syrupy and her philosophy simplistic. Because of this, the word Pollyanna has entered our language to mean someone optimistic to the point of naiveté. This would be a difficult name to give a child in many ways, but would make a sunshiney middle, and easily shortens to Polly.
Velvet Brown is the heroine of Enid Bagnold’s novel, National Velvet, about a teenager who rides to victory in the brutally difficult Grand National Steeplechase jump race. The story is about the ability of ordinary people to achieve great things – Velvet is a plain, rather sickly girl from a working-class family, and the horse she wins on is a piebald. The movie version chucks most of this inspiring message aside so they can show a radiantly pretty pre-teen Elizabeth Taylor galloping about on a chestnut thoroughbred. Velvet is a fabric that was originally very expensive to make, and therefore associated with nobility and royalty. The word is from Old French, from the Latin for “tuft, down”, because of velvet’s distinctive texture. It has been used as a name since the nineteenth century, and has been given mostly to girls.
This is an adaptation of a blog on Anna Otto’s site Waltzingmorethanmatilda.com. You can see the full, expanded version here. Anna blogs about a wide variety of Australian names, and Aussie name trends, at Waltzing More Than Matilda. Boys’ names will be coming soon.
So for our Question of the Week, we’d like to know: What are your favorite girls’ literary names?
Consult our master list of literary names for girls for inspiration. And please feel free to add wonderfully-named heroines we’ve overlooked.
And please tell us about the heroine, the book, and why you love it and the name so much!
Thanks, Hanniekitt, for posting this great question in the forums that we’re taking to the blog: What are the names in the book you’re currently reading, and what do you think of them?
You can think of this as the Nameberry Book Club, where we talk not about plot and pacing and characters but about the characters’ names (sounds like our kind of book club, right?).
I just finished reading the new New York Times bestselling novel Orphan Train, by my friend Christina Baker Kline who’s blogged for Nameberry on naming her three sons (and making some mistakes along the way). Her characters’ names include:
Niamh — Vivian‘s original Irish name, changed when she was put on the orphan train because it was too “foreign and difficult.” Couldn’t help feeling that losing her lovely name was one of the biggest tragedy’s of the character’s difficult life!