Willy Wonka & Severus Snape: Alliteration in kids’ book names

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 JohnJohn.  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 DuncKerr 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.

In fact, the Harry Potter books are based on an acronymic onomastic riddle or Riddle, since the vowels and consonants of Tom Marvolo Riddle can be turned into “I am Lord Voldemort.”

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?

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23 Responses to “Willy Wonka & Severus Snape: Alliteration in kids’ book names”

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abbey Says:

July 29th, 2010 at 4:40 am

What a wonderful read!

In recent years I have come to regard alliterative names as rather glamorous and try as I might to match something I like to my husband’s last name, I’m afraid L doesn’t lend itself all that kindly to alliteration.

The only one I even vaguely like is Levi, but it’s not ‘the one’ if you catch my drift? I also like Leo but we already have a Theo. I like Leonora but again there’s the Theo issue. So yes I would use an alliterative name if I could find one which fit.

Eglantine Says:

July 29th, 2010 at 5:31 am

We are considering an alliterative first name, but because our surname is double barrel it probably lacks some of the oomph of, say, Willie Wonka or Mike Mulligan.

I am generally for them.

flowerchic Says:

July 29th, 2010 at 8:30 am

I used to dislike alliterative names, but the more I look into names, (and the more I noticed them in every day life), I have realized that alliterative names tend to be much easier to remember. They have that ring that makes them stick in your head long after you first heard them.

Sassy Says:

July 29th, 2010 at 9:00 am

I’m not planning on using an alliterative name when I finally conceive but I do like them. Before I was married I was Stephanie Smith. I know a few other people with the same first and last initial. I find they usually have a nice ring or flow to their names.

molly_locket Says:

July 29th, 2010 at 10:41 am

J.K. Rowling is a master of alliteration 🙂 Just want to be helpful and point out two mistakes: McGonaggal is supposed to be McGonagall and Huffenpuff, Hufflepuff.

linda Says:

July 29th, 2010 at 10:47 am

Thanks for catching those, molly_locket–they’ve now been corrected.

Samantha Says:

July 29th, 2010 at 11:47 am

molly_locket, I totally agree with you about J.K. Rowling! I think my favourite name of her creation is Lily Luna – such a lovely combo!!

Bella Says:

July 29th, 2010 at 11:58 am

I’m writing a YA fiction using a character- Scarlette Scarlet

QuirkFlower Says:

July 29th, 2010 at 12:01 pm

J’adore alliteration!! My fav combo that I’ve come up with so far is Poppy June Jemima. I love all of J.K Rowlings alliteration fun!

QuirkFlower Says:

July 29th, 2010 at 12:03 pm

Oh, on another note, my grandpa is writing a story about a Charlie Barley.

Kate Says:

July 29th, 2010 at 12:18 pm

I have an alliterative name, and most people don’t even notice! But I like it. My best friend has one too, with double L’s but for some reason she isn’t fond of it. I really like it, and my mother has even been known to say my friend’s name to herself outlandishly, clearly relishing in the alliteration.

Sachiko Says:

July 29th, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Oh, COOL, a mention of Ender’s Game. Awesome.

I love alliteration. I think the fastest way to make a first and last name sound like they go together is to repeat phonemes, and the easiest way to do that is to repeat the first phoneme of each name, alliteratively.

We did that with our oldest daughter’s name–Bronwen starts with a B like our last name, and has two syllable ending in an -n sound, like our last name. It’s a nice combo.

I’m planning on multiple middle names for my future babies and alliteration is how I’m going to ensure middle name flow.

whitman Says:

July 29th, 2010 at 12:39 pm

I also really love alliteration in names. It really adds something special to a name, and gives it more oomph then others. That’s probably why so many fictional character have them. In high school I knew a Gail Gardiner, and I thought she just had the most awesome name. Probably because it just had a famous ring to it after hearing names like Greta Garbo and Greer Garson.

Lisa Says:

July 29th, 2010 at 2:16 pm

I was against alliteration for our daughter, as it always sounded “comic booky” to me (Peter Parker, Clark Kent, Lana Lane, Lex Luthor, Bruce Banner…).

However, we ended up using Genevieve with our last initial being “J” and it flows quite nicely (biased though I may be). Having the varied consonant (G/J) sold me on the name, despite the repeated consonant sound (J/J).

Becca Says:

July 29th, 2010 at 4:45 pm

I think it’s kinda cool but my last name starts with W so there is not many names to go. Although I do like Willow for a girl! Not a fan of the name Will/William for a boy though!

TamaraR Says:

July 29th, 2010 at 5:23 pm

Even if the alliteration has a nice sound to it, I tend to be a little wary of how the repeated initials look.
One relative’s initials are K-K and she’s had to fend off questions about whether her middle name starts with K too (no, she’s not KKK, etc).

molly_locket Says:

July 29th, 2010 at 5:42 pm

I love Lily Luna, too; not what I would have guessed she would pick, but that’s another reason why I’m glad she wrote the books and not me- beautiful names 🙂

mmmmmmmmm Says:

July 29th, 2010 at 6:24 pm

My husband has a common last name beginning with M that we plan to use for our children. In trying to avoid first names that make the entire name identical to those of famous people with his last name, I’ve noticed an unusually large number of them have the alliteration MM.

Charlotte Vera Says:

July 29th, 2010 at 7:58 pm

My husband has an alliterative name and he’s been able to use it to his advantage over the years (e.g. when running for student council). My daughter’s first and second names are alliterative: Roseanna Ruth.

Jennifer Says:

July 29th, 2010 at 8:35 pm

I love these. My dad’s an MM and I think it’s great! Especially when our family rang in the year 2000, we put MM on everything. His middle initial is a G so it was also fun when we visited MGM studios.

Also wanted to point out that Dedalus Diggle is not a student, he’s an “other” (Member of the Order of the Phoenix, making him an adult).

Katie Says:

August 4th, 2010 at 6:32 pm

I never intended to have an alliterative name in the family… but somehow our daughter is Jade Genevieve (last name starts with J, too). It just fit, and we love it. 🙂

Potter Pedant Says:

January 27th, 2011 at 3:04 pm

Dedalus Diggle isn’t a Hogwarts student, and ‘Mad-Eye’ (with hyphen) is Moody’s nickname – his first name is Alastor. Likewise Nearly Headless Nick’s real name is Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington – but if you’re including nicknames then there are also the Fat Friar, the Bloody Baron and Moaning Myrtle.

Quirenus Quirrell, Bathsheba Babbling, Dilys Derwent and Poppy Pomfrey are also Hogwarts staff past and present; and as the trio never actually encounter Grindelwald, so it might just be easier to say ‘other characters include’ !

Pansy Parkinson, Peter Pettigrew, Parvati and Padma Patil, Bellatrix Black (maiden name), Colin Creevey and Gregory Goyle, are also Hogwarts students past and present, but Viktor Krum goes to Durmstrang.

Millamayhem Says:

February 1st, 2013 at 9:19 pm

My own name is an alliterative name as both my first (Tempanie) and last start wit T

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