My surname, England, gives rise to comment from time to time. My ancestors, apparently, may have gone to live abroad and been associated with the place they came from. The name stuck when their descendants returned to their place of origin. It’s speculation, really, and the origins of many names may be obscure, but some, clearly, are not. If your family name is Baker, then it’s quite likely that one or more of your ancestors knew a thing or two about ovens and dough.
In other cases, people seem to gravitate towards professions suggested by their names. Three gardeners spring to mind: Bob Flowerdew, Fred Loads and Pippa Greenwood. The Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales is Lord Judge and Lord Brain was a neurologist. This BBC report tells us of a scientific paper by J W Splatt and D Weedon on the subject of incontinence, of a book on the Arctic by a Mr Snowman and of a White House spokesman called Larry Speakes. The report also touches on the suggestion made a few years ago that more dentists were called Dennis than would be predicted by chance alone. Someone has even given a name, aptronym, to the phenomenon. It’s all very fascinating, but the scientific case for any real connection looks shaky. Statisticians are no doubt aware of this sort of thing happening all the time.
Nevertheless, much creative fun can be had with names. The UK’s satirical magazine ‘Private Eye’ has its firm of lawyers, Sue, Grabbitt and Runne, but the writer best known for his characters’ names is Charles Dickens. The schoolmaster in ‘Hard Times’ is Mr M’Choakumchild, and in ‘Little Dorrit’ the family who run the Circumlocution Office are the parasitic Barnacles, including one Tite Barnacle, and the family is allied by marriage with the Stiltstalkings. Characters in other books such as Mr Pumblechook, the Cheeryble Brothers, Sir Leicester Dedlock, Seth Pecksniff and Prince Turveydrop are suggestive rather than explicit, but all these names are intended to reflect the nature of the characters. In one instance the name has transferred to real life.That habitual carrier of an umbrella, Mrs Gamp, gave her name to that most useful of accessories.
The names of Dickens’s characters are imaginative, but the rather less subtle names that Trollope gave his also have an appeal for me, at least, if not for everyone. Two of his doctors are Dr Rerechild and Dr Filgrave. Mr Quiverful is a father of fourteen children. The overbearing bishop’s wife is Mrs Proudie. Slow and Bideawhile are solicitors. A social climber is called Mr Lookaloft, and Plantagenet Palliser becomes the Duke of Omnium and eventually Prime Minister.