I was amazed to learn the other day that ‘What the dickens’ doesn’t come from Charles but Shakespeare. ‘I cannot tell what the dickens his name is,’ says Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Which begs the question, did Charles Higginbotham or Grundible or something, re-surname himself in honour of the Bard? (Probably not when you read that dickens might well have meant devil.) Whatever the case, Dickens was a dab hand at names, from greedy Mr Pumblechook in Great Expectations to Nicholas Nickleby’s vicious schoolmaster Wackford Squeers to Scrooge who’s graduated from a fictional character to a noun in the dictionary.
The link between a name and its character is fascinating for writers (well this one anyway). As a child, I was enchanted by the sign over a local hairdresser’s: Eric Hair Artist. Did Eric become a hair artist because of his name, or did he change his name when he qualified? I hoped the second explanation was true. The first could lead to tragedy, like a reluctant king who’s born, rather than chooses, to rule. Imagine if poor young Eric had wanted to be a plumber. (On the other hand, I guess the middle name Hair and surname Artist could have sparked an early interest in salons.)
For writers a name can sometimes give rise to a character. And, like great illustrations, it should enhance rather than reflect personality. The Seven Dwarfs and Mr Men are wonderful exceptions but there’s no more room for sleepy people called Sleepy. Names should suit perfectly but fit mysteriously so that the audience knows they’re right but can’t fully explain why. My king of namers in children’s books is CS Lewis with Roonwit the centaur, Reepicheep the mouse, the dwarf Nikabrik, the Dufflepuds etc. And the queen is of course JK Rowling. Rubeus Hagrid, Rita Skeeter and Draco Malfoy: names blaze from the pages of Harry Potter.
That’s the beauty of fiction. You could never get away with it in real life. Try asking the US president.
(Donald comes from the Proto-Celtic Dumno-ualos, meaning ‘ruler of the world’. Trump (verb): to surpass or beat or outdo. Trumpery (adjective): showy but worthless.)