They snap, crackle, and pop—which is one reason why alliterative names are so widely used for the characters in children’s stories—from nursery rhymes like ‘Wee Willie Winkie’ to picture books like Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel to Young Adult book characters like Harry Potter‘s Luna Lovegood.
Here, the distinguished name scholars Don and Alleen Nilsen present some of the many examples of alliteration, consonance, rhyming and other wordplay they have found in the names of kid-lit characters.
We were just pondering The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, Leo the Late Bloomer by Robert Kraus, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny by Beatrix Potter, Peter Pan by James Barrie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, and Maniac McGee by Jerry Spinelli and we were wondering how often authors repeat the sounds of their vowels and consonants in their character names.
We soon thought about Lewis Carroll’s Pig and Pepper, his Frog and the Footman, and his Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and this led our thoughts to The White Knight and Humpty Dumpty two more characters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Then we thought of a set of characters in Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth that includes The Duke of Definition, the Minister of Meaning, the Earl of Essence, and the Count of Connotation.
The protagonist in Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi is Piscine Patel. His name is shortened to Pi Patel, and he has to explain to people that pi is 3.14 as he draws a large circle and slices it in two with a diameter to evoke a basic lesson of geometry.
In Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, there is a John–John. In Cynthia Kadohata’s Weedflower there is a Takao who goes by the nickname of “Tak-Tak.” In Robert Cormier’s After the First Death there is a General named Mark Marchand, and in his The Chocolate War, there is Larry LaSalle who changes his name to “Lieutenant Laurence LaSalle” when he becomes famous. In Polly Horvath’s The Canning Season, there is a character named Aunt Pen Pen, and one named Ratchet Ratchet Clark.
In Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, the only girl in the Salamander Army is named Petra Arkanian, but she is called Baby Butt and Petra the Poet by her friends and in the Lemony Snicket books, two of the guardians of the Baudelaire children are named Montgomery Montgomery, and Dewey Denouement.
In How Angel Peterson Got His Name, Gary Paulsen has a character named Orvis Orvisen. M. E. Kerr has a character named Dinky Hocker (who shoots smack), and another character named Mud Rudd. A new boy at school named Duncan is first called Doomed as an insult, but this name gets lovingly changed back to Duncan and it ends up as Dunc. Kerr also has characters named Little Little, Belle La Belle, Carolyn Cardmaker, Dirtie Dotti, Buddy Boyle, and Gloria Gilman (nicknamed Gee Gee). In Louis Sachar’s Holes there is Derrick Dunn (the bully), and Zig Zag, and Barf Bag, not to mention Kissin’ Kate, and Stanley, whose last name is Yelnats (Stanley, but backwards). In Where the Sidewalk Ends, Shel Silverstein has a character named Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout, who would not take the garbage out.
But the best author we know of for using alliterated character names is J. K. Rowling. In the Harry Potter books, there are teachers named Filius Flitwick, Minerva McGonagall, Madeye Moody, and Severus Snape, and House founders named Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Ravenclaw and Salazar Slytherin, and students named Cho Chang, Dedalus Diggle, Viktor Krum and Luna Lovegood. And they encounter other people named Bathilda Bagshot, the Bloody Baron, Dudley Dursley, Gellert Grindelwald, and ghosts named Moaning Myrtle and Nearly Headless Nick.
Don and Alleen Nilsen, former co-chairs of the American Name Society, are Professors of English at Arizona State University and the authors of an interesting book that further explores this subject, Names and Naming in Young Adult Literature, (The Scarecrow Press, 2007).
What do you think of alliterative names? Would you use repeated first and last initials for your child’s name?