Neil Gaiman Names: It’s not just Coraline

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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24 Responses to “Neil Gaiman Names: It’s not just Coraline”

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augusta_lee Says:

August 21st, 2013 at 11:30 pm

I’m a huge Gaiman fan, and he has wonderful names. How about October, from his short story October in the Chair?

alzora Says:

August 21st, 2013 at 11:32 pm

Gaiman’s name choices have such a whimsical, haunting feel to them. I also noticed when reading The Graveyard Book that the name Nobody Owens is a play on the phrase “nobody owns,” taken from the the epigraph in the novel that says (if I remember correctly): “Rattle his bones / over the stones / it’s only a pauper / whom nobody owns.” I like the names Owen and Coraline because of Gaiman’s works.

Maddylavyre Says:

August 21st, 2013 at 11:52 pm

This has made me fall in love with the name Coraline all over again.

alphabetdem Says:

August 22nd, 2013 at 12:20 am

Gaiman is one of those authors that I keep meaning to read and haven’t gotten around to yet. This blog really makes me want to now though! Coraline is obvs adorbs, but the description of the Graveyard Book is just stunning. Gotta find a copy, stat!

Of these, I like Coraline, Auberon and surprisingly, really really love Thessaly. Wow, so gorgeous!

augusta_lee Says:

August 22nd, 2013 at 1:05 am

Oh, and how could I forget Crowley and Aziraphale? Not to mention Anathema…

sparrowfinch Says:

August 22nd, 2013 at 1:13 am

Good Omens has some interesting ones. Anathema, Aziraphale, Crowley, and then the name of the anti-christ is perfectly normal: Adam. Most of those are not very usable because of their origins.

Then in Neverwhere, there’s a girl called Door and another called Hunter. Names are very functional for them.

I really enjoyed your analysis of the names in The Graveyard Book. So interesting!

LydiaHumphreys Says:

August 22nd, 2013 at 1:49 am

I know it’s really ridiculous, but i just love Door, from Neverwhere. I would never give anybody the name, but i love how poetic it is, how she commands doors, and how she is a door for Richard into her world.
The Graveyard Book made me like the name Scarlet, which had previously been to reminiscent of one Scarlet O’Hara, but now seems much more usable.
And of course, i loved the name Coraline since i read the book when it first came out, and was deeply upset when it was made into a movie and thus inextricably connected to it. Broke my heart.
Finally, since i first saw the movie (sorry it was the movie before the book with this one) i loved the names Yvaine and Tristan. They seem like fairytales and i can’t help but love them. Yvaine sounds like music and Tristan sounds heroic, and it helps it roots in Arthurian legend.

ottilie Says:

August 22nd, 2013 at 2:21 am

I’ve been a Neil Gaiman fan since 1994! I was 11. My list of favourite names from his marvelous universe is long. My favourite character is Death, but for obvious reasons this is not my favourite name… and the little Blueberry Girl. I was thrilled when I read Good Omens, and the main character shared my name. And Anathema is fabulous! The others have mentioned good some good ones.

From The Sandman I love Desire, Foxglove, Ishtar, Loki, Mazikeen, Orpheus, Pharamond and Vassily, and lots of others.

Pam Says:

August 22nd, 2013 at 5:47 am

Alphabetdem, I was thinking the exact same thing! Anyone who’s that creative with names must be a writer worth reading.

Katja Says:

August 22nd, 2013 at 6:10 am

Why is Ruthven listed as a feminine name?

maggiemary Says:

August 22nd, 2013 at 6:42 am

Thessaly is one my ‘love but don’t think I’d ever be brave enough to use’ list.

Erinm Says:

August 22nd, 2013 at 6:56 am

What a strange post!

EmmaF Says:

August 22nd, 2013 at 7:00 am

I love the name Door from Neverwhere. It’s just such a beautiful name, but practical. Maybe it’s just me.
Also, Nobody Owens is one of my favorite names, anywhere. Tho I would feel somewhat guilty naming a child Nobody.
And Coraline is brilliant. Love Ursula.

roseate6 Says:

August 22nd, 2013 at 10:54 am

You gotta love a sibset of Zorya Vechernyaya, Zorya Utrennyaya, and Zorya Polunochnaya.

Dantea Says:

August 22nd, 2013 at 12:56 pm

OMG Neil Gaiman! He’s one of my all time favorite authors. I can’t even say which names I like off this list since I like every freakin’ one! Heck, when I read The Graveyard Book, I even sort of fell for Nobody mm Bob but I know it’s impractical.

One of my favorites of his characters is Shadow from American Gods and Anansi from the same book and from Anansi Boys.

There’s too many for me to list because I love most of them. ^_^

Dantea Says:

August 22nd, 2013 at 1:03 pm

Back to say that besides American Gods, Neverwhere is my favorite of his books. From there, I like

Richard
Mayhew — this would great for either gender
Arch — Door’s brother
Marquis — even though I don’t like title names, I love the character so much I love his name

From American Gods:

Wednesday — who is Odin
Ibis — who is Thoth
Jacquel — like Jackel who is Anubis
Low-Key — of course, Loki

wesleyhallparker Says:

August 22nd, 2013 at 6:07 pm

Hi – Not exactly related, but I just thought you should know that the art you selected to illustrated this article is NOT Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. It is, in fact, Bill Joyce’s character the Sandman from the recent Dreamworks picture, “The Rise of the Guardians.” Please – credit art and artists, don’t just link without a credit. And link the right art with the right artists.

linda Says:

August 22nd, 2013 at 6:14 pm

Thank you very much–I have removed that illustration from the site.

wesleyhallparker Says:

August 22nd, 2013 at 11:16 pm

Terrific! Thanks 🙂

tori101 Says:

August 23rd, 2013 at 12:32 pm

@maddylavyre I totally agree this has made me fall in love with Coraline all over again

EmilyVA Says:

August 23rd, 2013 at 1:37 pm

I love this thoughtful and unique post! Totally adding Gaiman to my to-be-read list.

NameLovingWriter Says:

August 26th, 2013 at 9:35 pm

My cousin named his daughter Coraline nearly two years ago. He named her after the movie which was based on Neil Gaiman’s book. He calls her Cori.

cbmartin126 Says:

August 27th, 2013 at 4:10 pm

Urania from The Sandman. Rani would be a great nickname. Too bad my husband’s last name is also four syllables….

JossieChris Says:

June 3rd, 2014 at 4:46 pm

I stumbled across the name Sessiley in a Jamba Juice having read it off the pretty girls namebadge that was assisting me. She explained her mother had made up the spelling. Now I find the name Thessaly and I think I love it more in honor of my Greek heritage. Pair it up with Bell a tribute to my aunt Isabel and my Spanish heritage and we might have something here…Thessaley Bell. Thisaley, Thesily, Nn Thistle, Tilly, Sally, Sal.

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