Wednesday, June 21, 2017

What's in a name?

As I'm reading David Copperfield, I'm struck by the way Dickens plays with names. The reader
doesn't learn the first name of David's mother or her maid, Peggotty, until 80 pages in, and then it is only eagle-eyed readers that will catch that their shared first name is Clara. By the 15th chapter, our protagonist is on his third moniker — he starts as David Copperfield, followed by the brief switch to his stepfather's surname, Murdstone, and once he's installed at his aunt Betsey Trotwood's home, Trotwood Copperfield, or Trot for short.

But even more striking than the switches and lack of first names are the names themselves. Dickens obviously enjoyed creating descriptive names for his characters, in Copperfield and his other works, many of which instantly bring to mind specific imagery. Think about the sensation that certain names evoke: Uriah Heep. Tiny Tim. Ebenezer Scrooge. Estella. Dickens masterfully crafted names that, in most cases, tell the reader quite a bit about the character to which they belong.

According to a wonderful 1917 paper on character names in Dickens' works, “the villainous Mr. Murdstone would be [expected] to show indifference toward suffering from the mingling of murder and stone in his cognomen,” and I can't say I disagree. Click here to read the whole paper by high school English teacher Elizabeth Hope Gordon. It's lengthy, but a fun read, full of the many aptly (or simply oddly) named characters from Dickens' novels, as well as those of his peers.

What do you think about the names Dickens has chosen? Who are your favorites?


  1. I don't know about this Kara...I mean, who wouldn't want to hang out with a guy named Ebenezer Scrooge? That sounds like the perfect name for a warm and friendly guy!

  2. I'm enjoying reading this book. I love the descriptions of the characters and their names play a fun part of it. Steerforth is interesting. I only 300 pages in so I'm not sure how he'll develope through the rest of the book. I'm intrigued by Mr. Dick. (I picture BenFranklin) thanks

  3. I like two from Our Mutual Friend, Noddy Boffin (a dustman) and Bradley Headstone, who, in case you were wondering, is NOT a nice guy.

  4. Hi! I didn't get a bookmark. Is it possible to post the reading "assignments" on the website?