Names have been used for eons, though not always; there was a time in history when there was no linguistic need for personal names. In the modern world though, names are essential to to individual. While most people have a vague idea what their own name means, few give it much thought. Many parents will carefully select names with meaning for their children, either rooted in family tradition or bourne of carefully considered meaning. Authors treat their works similarly, putting much thought into choosing names of characters, in the hopes of expressing traits or habits of the character by deciding on a name that epitomizes that character themselves.
The study of names is called onomastics, a field which touches on linguistics, history, anthropology, psychology, sociology, philology and much more. When referring to the “meaning of a name” however, they are most likely referring to the etymology, which is the original literal meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary defines etymology as “the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history”.
The development of character identity is essential to understanding individual motive; It has been suggested that, often, authors will select names for characters that will reflect actual traits of or decisions made by the character themselves. This not only adds meaning to the work of literature but adds an element of realism to the characters.
Names are universal in human language; according to Alego, proper names were the “original kind of word, due to an uncritical acceptance of a romantic view of the savage as a simple, uncomplex soul, given to concrete thinking […]” (11, Alego). At one time anthropologists thought that certain peoples were so “primitive and unorganized” (Feldman) that they didn’t even use names. However, as time passed and cultures evolved, language was created in order to prescribe meaning to the world around us. As names eventually became a standard way to identify ourselves and others, names have been passed down through family lineage as a form of respect for the individuals who have bore the name; but in writing there is no lineage to base characters on. In literature, it is the authors’ responsibility to craft a name worthy of the character they have brought to life. In literature, a name can mean everything.
The historical debate between naturalists, who see the name as revelatory of the thing named, and conventionalists, who believe the name as an arbitrary designation, has continued through the centuries and is still very much alive today. Alego has suggested names to be “without signification” (53, Alego), meaningless marks by which one thing is distinguished from another. On the other hand, Alego also purports that it would be “contrary to man’s nature to name the objects of his thoughts by sounds which conveyed no meaning to him or others” (58, Alego). In this regard, it can be maintained that, if only based on the meaning within man’s own mind, there is still meaning behind the selection of names, either for people or for things.
It has been suggested by Shook that “some names resulted from considerable thought, while others came about in a more casual fashion” (xi, Shook). While some names are chosen deliberately and with much fanfare, others come about almost by accident. In an essay written by Cather, she asserts that the writer “accepts, rather than chooses” the theme of material, suggesting that one will instinctively choose character names rather than purposefully. But, even when naming is in some sense “instinctual” (11, Alego), there is no reason to expect we can ever identify the “instinct” that underlies it. Feeling can be reason enough to capture and create valuable meaning.
It is implied that “names simply refer to their referents […] indirectly, by specifying a condition which their referent uniquely satisfies.” (1, Hughes). For example, in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, character Lily Bart throughout the novel embodies a physical appearance comparable to the lily flower as well as a countenance that parallels the traditional meaning of the lily flower. The Lily flower has for centuries been a symbol of innocence, purity, and beauty, dating back to the Victorian language of flowers. In the novel, Lily is “naturally fitted to dominate any situation in which she [finds] herself” (Wharton, 69). This adaptability is a key part of her; Wharton writes that Lily is “a pliable substance [that] is less easy to break than a stiff one,” and “inwardly as malleable as wax” (Wharton). Wharton is right to point out that Lily’s floral adaptability can also be read as fickleness, which explains why she “works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she over-sleeps herself or goes off on a picnic” (Wharton). Like the character Percy’s rare Americana, and like the flower, Lily, too, is a rare object to be collected, admired, and publicly displayed. Every man in the novel – even Selden – at one point or another views her as a nice decoration for his social mantelpiece. As early on as the first line, Lily realizes that she is “no more account among [her social circle] than an expensive toy in the hands of a spoiled child” (Wharton). Even at the end of the novel, when Simon has morphed into a likeable, kind man, he still offers to save Lily on account of her value as an object, akin to a delicate flower. Throughout the entire novel there are parallels to be drawn between the Lily flower and the character of Lily herself, indicating that Wharton purposefully chose such a name and deliberately wrote the character as an extension of the flower itself.
Similarly, in Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, the character of Jim Burden embodies traits suggested simply by his naming. The word “burden” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a “heavy load, a weight”; coincidentally, Jim’s character in the novel serves as a catch-all for burdens that may or may not be his own. Jim becomes a confidant to Ántonia, listening to her troubles while helping her through her own burdens. Cather builds tension into Jim’s thoughts about Ántonia in order to deconstruct the myths about women to which he subscribes (Rosowski 89), which serves to burden himself with romantic hopes and disappointments. He becomes a solace for his grandparents, taking on their burdens of labor by physically helping them to work their lands. Most importantly, Jim himself feels burdened – burdened by the limitations of his home and by his prescribed notions of women.
Accordingly, Jim’s grandparents also embody the idea of burdens as strongly as Jim. Josiah is a strongly religious man, silent and given to hard work, while Jim’s grandmother, Emmaline, shows great concern and compassion throughout the novel; all members of the Burden family seem to illustrate and capture the essence of being burdened with something, and all hope to transcend their burdens and the burdens of others throughout the novel. The quest of the Burden’s is an attempt to un-burden himself of his past by freeing himself of that past.
In the passage about the “world’s cornfields” Jim comments on his grandfather’s ability to collapse history and see the farmland generations later. Although regarded as an uncommon ability, this destinarian vision was not peculiar to Grandfather Burden. At a fundamental level, it is the most American of capacities. As essential a contribution to success as investment capital, this prescience provides the psychological impetus and comfort necessary to undertake any new venture in peace and war, especially homesteading. Only because Jim inherited this disposition from his grandfather can he tell the story of My Ántonia. This proves that, though Jim may not share his grandfather’s first name, he has that last name of Burden, subsequently inheriting the family name as well as the family purpose.
Some of the names chosen for characters in My Ántonia and The House of Mirth humorously and ironically depict the characters; for instance, it is funny that Wick Cutter would be a money lender, or that Tiny Soderball would become the biggest and most well-known name of all the characters in Black Hawk. Carry Fisher is known for introducing newcomers into society, by “carrying” them in by taking them under her wing or reeling them in, similar to a “fisherman”. And, arguably, Gerty Farish is a very compassionately “fair” woman throughout the novel.
Character names are not the only names which enhance meaning. Names of places, too, imply importance and can provide context clues about the significance of a place. The fictional Nebraska town of Black Hawk in My Ántonia., for example, provides the reader with an idea of what the town values, represents, and embodies. According to Oxford, the hawk is a bird of prey, metaphorically emphasizing an ability to lead and influence others. When the hawk is present in your life, it could signify that it’s time to take more initiative and being active, which is exactly what the citizens of Black Hawk do. Hawks traditionally symbolize the power of observation; coincidentally, gossip is a trait that many characters within the town actively embody. By prefacing Hawk with the color black, a color suggestive of mystery, secrets, and despair, the town is immediate given a dark connotation. In conjunction, the town of Black Hawk suggests a town of desolation and darkness amidst hard work and strong leadership.
In certain situations and depending on the situation, “names are in some sense connected to those who bear them or are assigned by convention merely” (1, Alego). In Herman Melville’s short story Bartleby the Scrivener, names help us to assign importance to characters as well as illustrate for the reader traits of characters. “Nicknames are older than surnames, and they are stronger: the relationship is something like that between a parent and offspring” (xi, Franklyn). The Oxford English Dictionary defines a nickname as “a name or appellation added to, or substituted for, the proper name of a person, place, etc.”, but according to Franklyn, nicknames are not names: “Nicknames are not by-names, nor are they to-names; they are not pet names, neither are they diminutives, all or any of which may be added to, or substituted for, proper names” (xii, Franklyn). The distinction between primary and secondary names is “delicate” (70, Alego), as we see in Herman Melville’s short story Bartleby the Scrivener.
Almost immediately we meet “first, Turkey; second, Nippers; third, Ginger Nut.” We notice at once that the lawyer is nameless and that the employees have nicknames; for Bartleby alone is a true name reserved. This serves not only to highlight the importance of Bartleby to the narrative, but alternately, it suggests the lack of importance of the minor characters. Nonetheless, the nicknames they are prescribed allow readers a glimpse into their personalities and simultaneously the personality of the nameless narrator who calls them by these non-names.
The sense of personal identity and uniqueness that a name gives us is at the heart of why names interest us and why they are important to us as individuals and to our society as a whole. Regardless of “whether names in general can be said to have meaning or whether they are empty labels” (1, Alego), names will and do ultimately reveal characteristics about those named, whether learned or given.
Alego, John. On Defining the Proper Name. Gainesville: Storter Printing Company, 1973. Print.
“Burden.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2015. n. page. Oxford English Dictionary. 27 April 2015.
Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. Boston: Dover Publications, Inc., 1994. Print.
“The Novel Démeublé.” The Willa Cather Archive. Ed. Andrew Jewell. N.p., May. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.
“Etymology.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2015. n. page. Oxford English Dictionary. 29 April 2015.
Feldman, Harold. “The Problem of Personal Names as a Universal Element in Culture.” American Imago 16 (1959): 237-250.
Franklyn, Julian. A Dictionary of Nicknames. London: Hamish Hamilton Ltd, 1962. Print.
“Hawk.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2015. n. page. Oxford English Dictionary. 27 April 2015.
Hughes, Christopher. Kripke. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004. Print.
“Nickname.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2015. n. page. Oxford English Dictionary. 27 April 2015.
Rosowski, Susan J. The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather’s Romanticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska. P, 1986.
Shook, Michael D. By Any Other Name. New York: Prentice Hall General Reference, 1994. Print.
Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2002. Print.