Definition of the term naming

The linguistic field of giving names to things is known as onomastics. Authors tend to take great care over the names they give to characters, places and things:


Harry Flashman


Josef K


Humbert Humbert


Pippi Longstocking (or Långstrump in Swedish)


George MacDonald Fraser

Henry Fielding

Franz Kafka


Vladimir Nabokov

P. G. Wodehouse

Astrid Lindgren

John Le Carré


Kingsbere (for Bere Regis)


West Egg (for Great Neck)


Treasure Island

Thomas Hardy

Anthony Trollope

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Mervyn Peake

Robert Louis Stevenson


The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters

The Crownwheel and Pinion

The Condemn’d Man

Charles Dickens

Barbara Pym

Stella Gibbons





Stanislaw Lem

Frank Herbert

Iain M. Banks



Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Martin Amis

Ian Fleming

musical instruments:

mhamha, hmwoq

Barbara Pym

The words used for names can be culturally loaded. Consider the following sets of female names.

Group 1 Group 2 Group 3 Group 4 Group 5
Enid Minnie Val Keeley Sandra
Mildred Alma Pam Kylie Karen
Ethel Blanche Marje Kayleigh Samantha
Doris Ida Pat Kelsey Tracy

If you know about British culture, you can guess the rough date of the setting (and even the social class) of novels using these names.

Looking at the five groups can you give a rough guess as to when these names were popular? Write your answer below:

Compare your answer with the sample answer below:

The first group would have been adult from the 1910s, the second from the 1890s, the third from the 1940s, the fourth from the 1990s and the last from the 1970s.

Demonstration of naming in action

Here is a list of names from the eighteenth century.
Diamond, Prince, Jewel, Sabre, Fortune, Sultan, Rover, Soldier, Pirate, Jumper, Taffy.

Types of who or what do you think were called the following? Write your answer below:

Compare your answer with the sample answer below:

These names all appear in Londoners’ ‘lost dog’ advertisements in eighteenth century newspapers.

Search the British Newspapers 1600-1900 database , (scroll down to British Newspapers 1600-1900). Enter ‘Jewel’ and ‘dog’ in the ‘search’ box and the date 1731 May 23 (you will need the ‘advanced search’ function). Try ‘Prince’ and ‘dog’ 1773 June 2; ‘Rover’ 1714 Dec 15; ‘Sultan’ 1744 March 3; ‘Fido’ 1746 March 21; – see if you can find more dogs’ names.

Although we are free to dream up whatever we want when naming our dogs, people have a sense of what is suitable – conventional – in their culture, and these conventions shift over time and place. Tray was a common eighteenth-century dog’s name, appearing in various literary works (to find them, search Eighteenth Century Collections Online ) (If offsite, you will need to enter "Eighteenth Century Collections Online" in the search box or click on E and scroll down). Pompey, another common eighteenth-century dog’s name, starred in The History of Pompey the Little. Or, the Life and Adventures of a Lap-dog (Francis Coventry, 1751).

By now you might be wondering why a knowledge of the history of dog’s names might be relevant to reading English literature. The answer is that naming practices can be informative about social conventions prevalent in a given society. Repeat your eighteenth-century newspaper advertisement search for the names Jewel, Prince, Rover, Sultan, Fido, Pompey, Tray in the database Slave Registers of former British Colonial Dependencies, 1812-1834 .


There was overlap between the names bestowed by eighteenth-century British people (and their colonial English-speaking descendants) on their dogs, and those they bestowed on their slaves. Whatever was suitable naming material for a dog was felt to be equally suitable for a slave. The obvious inference is that there was a parity of attitude, for some owners at least, towards their dogs and their slaves – an attitude that readers of contemporary literature would have known about, whether or not they shared it.

Literary Exercise

Please read through the extract below taken from a novel published in 1932:

And something in the inflection which Seth gave to the last word of his speech, the lingering, wistful, almost cooing note which invaded his curiously animal voice, caused Flora to put down her sewing in her lap and to glance up at him. Her gaze rested thoughtfully upon his irregular but handsome features.

‘The talkies, do you? Do you like them?’

‘Better nor anything in the whoal world,’ he said, fiercely.

‘Better nor my mother nor this farm nor Violet down at the Vicarage, nor anything.’

‘Indeed,’ mused his cousin, still eyeing his face thoughtfully. ‘That’s interesting. Very interesting indeed.’

‘I’ve got seventy-four photographs o’ Lotta Funchal,’ confided Seth, becoming in his discussion of his passion like those monkeys which are described as ‘almost human’. ‘Ay, an’ forty o’ Jenny Carrol, and fifty-five o’ Laura Vallee, and twenty o’ Carline Heavytree, and fifteen of Sigrid Maelstrom. Ay, an’ ten o’ Penella Baxter. Signed ones.’

Flora nodded, displaying courteous interest, but showing nothing of the plan which had suddenly occurred to her; and Seth, after a suspicious glance at her, suddenly decided that he had been betrayed into talking to a woman about something else than love, and was angry.

So, muttering that he was going off to Beershorn to see ‘Sweet Sinners’ (he was evidently inflamed by this discussion of his passion) he took himself off.

The rest of the evening passed quietly. Flora supped off an omelette and some coffee, which she prepared in her own sitting-room. After supper she finished the design upon the breast of her petticoat, read a chapter of ‘Macaria, or the Altars of Sacrifice’, and went to bed at ten o’clock.

All this was pleasant enough. And while she was undressing, she reflected that her campaign for the tidying up of Cold Comfort was progressing quite well, when she thought that she had only been there two days. She had made overtures to Reuben. She had instructed Meriam, the hired girl, in the precautionary arts, and she had gotten her bedroom curtains washed (they hung full and crimson in the candle-light). She had discovered the nature of Seth’s grande passion, and it was not Women but the talkies. She had had a plan for making the most of Seth, but she could think that out in detail later. She blew out the candle.

But (she thought, steeling her cool forehead against the cold pillow) this habit of passing her evenings in peaceful solitude in her own sitting-room must not make her forget her plan of campaign. It was clear that she must take some of her meals with the Starkadders, and learn to know them.

She sighed and fell asleep.

What do you make of the names used in the extract? Write your answer below:

Compare your answer with the sample answer below:

characters: Flora, Violet down at the Vicarage, Seth, Reuben, Meriam, Starkadders

place-names: Beershorn, Cold Comfort

novel title: Macaria, or the Altars of Sacrifice

film-stars: Lotta Funchal, Jenny Carrol, Laura Vallee, Carline Heavytree, Sigrid Maelstrom, Penella Baxter

film title: Sweet Sinners

Flowery names popular for girls in the 1920s (Flora, Violet), given to characters who do not live at Cold Comfort Farm, are contrasted with the names of the Starkadder family, who do. Starkadder forenames are taken from the Old Testament (Seth, Reuben, Meriam). Cold Comfort Farm is, we are told, situated near the village of Beershorn (cf Hardy’s Kingsbere), and its inhabitants are ignorant miserable peasants given to sex and not washing. (Gibbons was reacting to the works of D. H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy, and the many imitators of their rural novels.)

Macaria, or the Altars of Sacrifice is a real novel by Augusta J. Evans, published in the USA in 1864, which was immensely popular at the time. It is set in the South during the Civil War and written in the kind of lurid style Gibbons is satirising: (“How long – how long will Almighty God withhold his vengeance from wolfish hordes who are battening upon the blood of freemen? Harvey, if there be not a long and awful retribution for that Cain-cursed race of New England, there is neither justice nor truth in high heaven.”).

Names (stage-names, fictitious names) of some real film-stars which Gibbons could have seen in films released in 1928 and 1929 were: Laura La Plante, Rudy Vallée, Madeleine Carroll, Dolores Del Río. Sigrid Maelstrom evokes the Swedish actress Greta Garbo in person if not in name. Synthetic Sin was the title of one of the most popular films of 1928, starring Colleen Moore. Three Sinners was also released that year, starring Pola Negri and Warner Baxter (so a reference to ‘Penella Baxter’ would have been transparent to contemporary readers).

Teaching Point

Stella Gibbon used naming as one of the vehicles for humour in her first novel. Pay attention to names, as they can convey rather more than the mere act of identification. Whenever you come across an interesting name for a character (human or otherwise) in your reading, try cross-checking it in the various databases. How other people used it can be revealing.

References for further reading

M. J. Levith. 1978. What’s in Shakespeare’s Names. Hamden, CT: Archon.

Coates, Richard. 2009. Pompey as the nickname for Portsmouth. Nomina 32, 59-73.

What they looked like

University of Cambridge, Language Centre.

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Written by Laura Wright. Credits.

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