Lemony Snicket Names

We are honored to have as today’s guest bloggers Don and Alleen Nilsen, recent co-chairmen of the prestigious American Name Society, writing about the clever use of literary allusions in the thirteen Lemony Snicket books.

As long-distance grandparents, we are constantly on the lookout for books that we can enjoy listening to on CDs while we commute to work and can then forward to our children to enjoy with their children while they make their own commutes.  Daniel Handler’s thirteen Lemony Snicket books have been the all-time winners in this category, and one of the reasons is Handler’s skill in recycling the names of literary or pop culture figures to make playful allusions.

Humor scholars use the term Wabbit literacy (from “that wascally wabbit” in the Bugs Bunny cartoons) to describe the flip-flop process in which children become acquainted with the names of classical figures through pop culture allusions prior to meeting the  same names in “the original.”  The Lemony Snicket books are a superb illustration of this process as children meet Dr. Georgina Orwell, an eye doctor who hangs an ever-watchful eye over her door; Uncle Monty, who as a herpetologist cares for a huge python; a villainous couple named Esmé and Jerome Squalor who live at 667 Dark Avenue, c.f. J. D. Salinger‘s short story “To Esmé with Love and Squalor,” and Mr. Poe, who has a son named Edgar and is the appointed guardian of the children’s inheritance which is placed in the Mulctuary Money Management Bank.

One of his fullest allusions is to the author Herman Melville.   In The Wide Window, Aunt Josephine‘s house is destroyed by Hurricane Herman; in The Grim Grotto, the orphans are brought aboard a submarine named The Queequeg; and in The Austere Academy, half the students play on the Herman Melville team while the other half play on the Edgar A. Guest team.  Our favorite dark allusion occurs in The Miserable Mill, where poor Phil gets his leg mangled in a stamping machine and another employee gives him a coupon offering “fifty percent off a cast at the Ahab Memorial Hospital.”

Handler’s allusions are always made at a slant so that readers can move on with the story whether or not they understand the allusion.  Readers can choose how deeply they want to dig into Handler’s names.  For example, his naming of a couple Isadora and Duncan Quagmire, reminded us of the bizarre story of Isadora Duncan, a pop culture figure of the roaring twenties who was tragically killed when her long, fashionable scarf got caught in the spokes of the open-air roadster in which she was riding.   In a similar way, his pairing of the names of the two orphans, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire, made us think of the most sensational news story of the 1980s about Claus and Sunny von Bulow.   Because diabetes runs in our family, we had paid extra attention to this gruesome story in which Claus was accused of injecting his wealthy, diabetic wife with an overdose of insulin.  Because of this almost subconscious connection in our minds, the line probably meant more to us than to some readers when Klaus says in a melodramatic moment in The Hostile Hospital, “It doesn’t take courage to kill someone. . . It takes a severe lack of moral stamina.”

With such allusions as these, we wondered if Handler might be hinting to his readers that the bizarre and melodramatic twists and turns of his plot were really not so far off from real life.

Don and Alleen Nilsen are Professors of English at Arizona State University and the authors of a fascinating book that further explores this subject, Names and Naming in Young Adult Literature, (The Scarecrow Press, 2007).

We’re wondering…did you have any favorite storybook characters that affected your naming preferences–or even the name you chose for your child?

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13 Responses to “Lemony Snicket Names”

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phaedra Says:

March 31st, 2010 at 8:29 am

Great post! I read the whole series, but must confess that I missed most of these references, I was so involved in the plot. The books definitely contain some awesome names.

Kerri Says:

March 31st, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Re: did you have any favorite storybook characters that affected your naming preferences–or even the name you chose for your child?

I loved the Outlander series of books by Diana Gabeldon, Jaime, Claire, Ian, etc… are all great characters. My husband wouldn’t agree to Jaime, but did go for Ian after I told him it meant the same as John (his father). So yes, a book definately influenced my naming choices!

Sachiko Says:

March 31st, 2010 at 3:17 pm

My husband and I both read Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, among other fantasy books, which led to us finally agreeing on a name for our oldest daughter: Bronwen.

My family are staunch Orson Scott Card fans, and I swore for years I’d name my children Peter, Valentine and Ender. Needless to say, none of my children are named these things, which is good because admitting the names to Orson Scott Card at the fan conventions I’ve gone to would have been….embarassing.

My current youngest is named after a samurai renowned for the book he wrote–Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings. We call him Moose for short.

My sixth grade teacher read aloud Jane Yolen’s Dove Isabeau to us, and I’m STILL in love with that name. Reading it or hearing it makes m y heart skip a beat, and I’m planning on naming a future daughter Dove Isabeau.

Sachiko Says:

March 31st, 2010 at 3:19 pm

You know, I’d never thought about it until you asked about how books have influenced my naming practices, and am only now realizing that the names I choose derive at least 90% from books–

–from works of fiction, from scriptures, or from famous writers or translators, like William Tyndale.

Great blog. Great question!

babynamesrule Says:

March 31st, 2010 at 5:10 pm

You guys are awesome grandparents! Well done!

babynamesrule Says:

March 31st, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Also, to answer your question…I loved Madeline as a kid and always thought I’d choose Madeline for my daughter. It’s still possible, I guess.

Nephele Says:

March 31st, 2010 at 7:11 pm

Thanks for a great blog entry! I just checked my public library’s online catalog to see if we have your book, Names and Naming in Young Adult Literature. It’s in my library’s collection, and I intend to check it out! As for the question regarding naming preferences from favorite storybook characters… Actually, if I had a child, I think I’d be inclined to choose a name from classical mythology.

EvanescenceDolly Says:

March 31st, 2010 at 11:00 pm

Well reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice made me very sure I was going to name my first daughter Jane. I still adore Jane but I’m not sure if I will name my daughter that.

Charlotte Vera Says:

April 1st, 2010 at 1:20 am

Fabulous post! I haven’t actually read the series (although I saw the movie — I know, not the same thing), but I love Wabbit literacy. Any good homage or allusion to classical figures in pop culture can always make my day. Maybe I’ll have to give Lemony Snicket a chance after all!

m Says:

April 2nd, 2010 at 12:57 pm

It’s a fairly popular name, but my daughter is named after Jane Austen’s “Emma.”

Dublin Says:

April 2nd, 2010 at 5:16 pm

I am also reading the Outlander series and have come to love the name Ian as well. My husbands name is Jon and we love that Ian is the Scottish form of his name (he is Scottish and my parents live in Scotland). Ian has definitely moved to the top of our list lately. We will probably use it as a mn, and if we have a girl then it will probably be Claire as a mn. By the way, our first name choice for a girl is Fiona, which is also a character in the Outlander series, though we loved it before reading the books. Marsali is also a good name from the series, and Hamish, Roger and Callum are growing on me.

medvedik Says:

May 9th, 2010 at 2:27 pm

I love these books, but I didn’t notice my favorite literary reference mentioned. Lemony Snicket’s lost love, the woman he dedicates each book to, is named Beatrice. Her name is taken from Dante’s love, Beatrice Portinari. Like Dante, the author never had a chance to be with his Beatrice. Beatrice is my grandmother’s name and one of my favorites, for so many reasons!

molly_locket Says:

July 29th, 2010 at 5:46 pm

Looking over my list of favorite names, I can link Harry Potter to every one. 🙂

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