Bertie Wooster cover

I have always revelled in silly names, particularly in novels: Gussie Fink-Nottle and Cyril Bassington-Bassington, anybody?

While writing my latest, I was delighted to find out that there was such a surname as ‘Swindle’, and I have used it for the real name of one of the characters, though that isn’t revealed until near the end, when he is revealed as the eighteenth century conman that he is.

This is a return to the tradition recently regarded as naive, with the use of characters’ names to indicate their place in the scheme of things, their morals, etc. 

This tradition held for a long while; in the days before novels,the greatest of writers ever, one William Shakespeare, went in for it. He named some of his characters merely to raise a laugh.  For instance, there is the broad comedy of  ‘Pompey Bum’, the clown in ‘Measure for Measure’. 

Henry Fielding wrote in the mid eighteenth century, with characters so named,  ie, the supposedly wholly admireable (to my mind, often priggish) Squire Allworthy in ‘Tom Jones’. Sometimes, the name is clearly an ironical comment, as in Sophia Weston’s untrustworthy lady’s maid being called Mistress Honour.

 The tradition lasted a long time.  Robert Tressell’s novel ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ was published in 1914,  using the same approach. The inadmirable characters – they don ‘t have enough stature to be proper vlllains – have ludicrous names, ie, Crass, the insensitive foreman, Slyme, the devoutly religious seducer (presumably pronounced ‘slime’ rather than ‘slim’), the hypocritical and flatulent cleric the Reverend Belcher, a Mrs. Starvem, an ineffectual do-gooder called ‘MT Head’ and so on.

Thackeray also delighted in comical or satirical names and titles. For instance, there is the Countess of Bareacres, the debauched Marquis of Steyne (presumably we are meant to think of blotches on family trees), I believe one of his titles is someting on the lines of The Order of the Royal Bed Pan. Such facts are related by the shadowy presence of one Tapeworm, who is seems also featured in ‘The Book of Snobs’. Sir Pitt Crawley’s first name is presumably meant to bring to mind a cesspit or perhaps infernal regions. There are the Ensigns Stubble and Spooney, who worship George Osborne, and Glorvina O’Dowd of the absurd first name, sister of the tyrannical Peggy O’Dowd.

Even admirable characters have absurd names in this book, ie, William Dobbin, though the nearest thing to a hero in the book, has the name of a carthorse, while Lady Jane, the rake Rawdon Crawley’s sister-in-law who wins him over to wish to reform, has the maiden name ‘Sheepshanks’.

As with many classic comic novels, the servants are given ridiculous names. There is Mrs Blenkinsop the Sedley’s housekeeper, Miss Crawley’s butler Bowls, Pitt Crawley’s butler and fellow toper Horrocks and his daughter Betsy Horrocks, a girl who accepts Pitt Crawley’s rebarbative embraces, and whom Becky Sharp thinks of as ‘the Ribbons’.

Another manservant with an unfortunate name I can call to mind are the inappropriately called Strutt in the ghost story ‘The Magic Saucepan’, written around 1927. As befits a ‘well trained valet’ is entirely servile and devoted to his master, calling him ‘sir’ at very fifth word and giving him an ‘alcohol rub’ (whatever that is) when he is suffering from the ghostly effects of the eponymous magic saucepan.

Then there is the manservant of Lord Fayne in Charles Garvice’s ‘The Outcast of the Family’ (1894) who shares the unfortunate name of Stubbles with Thackeray’s ensign. Another well trained valet, he remains wooden faced as he brings his master a whisky and soda first thing in the morning, following orders to ‘look sharp about it’ .

The last we see of him is when Lord Fayne plans to reform, which involves catching a train out of London and earning his living by wandering about the country playing the violin as a sort of rural busker. Stubbles is thrown some money and told to await his return, but we never hear of him again, so perhaps he is still waiting, complete with wooden expression, at the end of the story.

When I was writing ‘Ravensdale’, I was delighted to come across the surname ‘Toothilll (which means ‘dung heap’) and used it for a Reynaud Ravensdale’s first love Georgiana’s tiresome family.

Another wonderfully silly name is ‘Tupper’ which may have had an obscene meaning and been based on the activities of the ram when used as the ‘tup’ or stud. I used that for Rudolph Tupper, a New Age guru who falls foul of the anti-hero of Alex Sager’s novel, who arrives in this dimension determined on revenge. His fellow guru is Claribelle Johnson, which I couldn’t resist as a risible combination of the ornate and the prosaic.

In ‘The Villainous Viscount’ the anti-hero, plagued by a family curse, consults a Professor of Magic, Markmanship, Swordsmanship, Languages and Subtle Influences’. His name is Ludovico Sharman…

Another name I really must use is ‘Toplady which certainly has an obscene meaning, as does Toplass.

I am hoping that nobody reading this has one of those names…

2 thoughts on “Having a Laugh: Ridiculous Names in Novels…

  1. I realised recently that the name of the company Boeing must be a good German name, anglicised. The oe should be ö — making it Böing, which seems perfectly normal in a German context, but would have made an excellent name for a company that makes machine parts.

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