Saturday, March 02, 2013

What's In a Name?

Shakespeare's Juliet famously asked the question, and Anthony Paletta has a nice so-entitled meditation on their literary import.

Dickens paid exquisite care to the problem, preferring to fix a name before he wrote about a character. Before settling on Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens went through Sweezlebach, Cottletoe, Sweetletoe, Pottletoe, Spottletoe, Chuzzletoe, Chuzzlebog, Chubblewig, and Chuzzlewig. And to Fowler, Oliver Twist is about as bountifully evocative as four syllables can get:
In the slang of the underworld he would soon enter, “twist” meant “appetite” and “hang by the neck.” So when the pangs of “twist” (hunger) make Oliver ask for more, Mr. Limkins predicts “that boy will be hung” (will “twist”). To underline the point, Noah Claypole “announced his intention of coming to see him hung.” As for his first name, Oliver, it meant “sky-lantern,” moonlight as a hindrance to crime. And sure enough, when the alarm is raised at the Maylies’, what should Oliver do but drop his eponymous lantern, fatally hindering the burglary.
- See more at: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/02/28/what-s-in-a-name-writers-and-their-anthroponymy.html#sthash.66C1i5cS.dpuf

One puzzle an author ought to solve is how to make his or her characters memorable and distinct. Dickens and Twain are masters of that skill, and I would argue that Jo Rowling is another. David Foster Wallace - not so much.