So, read any good books lately? (JK Rowling and Charles Dickens)

Jul 30th 2007

OK, yes, I was waiting at midnight for my reserved copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The date had been marked on our family's calendar for months. I started with Harry back when the first book came out and was happy to be able to throw myself into that rarest of all moments, the global literary event.

They're books, they're movies, they're toys and costumes and a whole vocabulary that has permeated our times. Such a powerhouse of entertainment is sure to leave its mark on baby names too, right? Nope. You're still not likely to meet a little Hermione or Albus or Sirius, old friend Ronald continues to sink deeper and deeper out of fashion, and even Harry itself has continued its steady decline.

The fundamental law of celebrity naming influence still holds. It's not about the fame, it's about the name. A minor reality tv star with a stylish name can wipe up the floor with a Harry Potter or Seinfeld or Madonna. J.K. Rowling's wizarding world has left no impact on American naming because that's not her game. She doesn't name her characters the way we name babies. To understand Rowling's names, it helps to look back at the last comparable global literary event.

In 1841, eager readers crowded onto a New York wharf to await a ship from England bearing the final installment of Charles Dickens' serialized novel The Old Curiosity Shop. I remember reading about this in high school history class, where it was presented as an emblem of an unimaginably different age. Now, of course, we see that we're not really so different from the folks back then. It just took 166 years for the right book to come along.

Some observers have taken the Dickens-Rowling analogy further. Each author, for instance, brought a new popular legitimacy to what had previously been considered "low" literature. But in this space there can be only one comparison: the names. In Dickens and Rowling, names don't just represent people. They're drenched with mood and meaning, conjuring up scenes, backstories, and as often as not laughs. Many other authors have attempted the same thing, but it's a tricky sort of poetry. Make the name too obvious or too extreme and it all falls apart; the reader is jerked out of the book and finds herself staring face to face with an author who's trying a little too hard.

In celebration of the masters of the genre, here are some memorable Dickens-Rowling names. If you can't sort out which is which, perhaps it's time to start your reading with Harry Potter book 1.

Abel Magwitch
Anastasia Veneering
Arabella Figg
Chevy Slyme
Dolores Umbridge
Elphias Doge
Filius Flitwick
Flora Finching
Horace Slughorn
Humphrey Belcher
John Podsnap
Kingsley Shacklebolt
Lucretia Tox
Luke Honeythunder
Millicent Bulstrode
Montigue Tigg
Mortimer Lightwood
Mundungus Fletcher
Ninetta Crummles
Paul Sweedlepipe
Peg Sliderskew
Pius Thicknesse
Rufus Scrimgeour
Stan Shunpike
Stubby Boardman
Volumnia Dedlock
Wackford Squeers
Wilkie Twycross
Willy Widdershins
Zephaniah Scadder

Comments

1
By Elizabeth T. (not verified)
July 30, 2007 5:09 PM

Thanks, Laura! I had forgotten what a brilliant namer Dickens was. And one of the things that makes Rowling so delightful to read is her talent for creating perfect names for her characters.

2
By Heather A. (not verified)
July 30, 2007 5:15 PM

I've read all the HP books (still catching up on sleep after a week of late nights with #7), and there were still some names from the list that I had to think twice about. What a wonderful list! I think even my husband (who finds my name obsession really weird) will find this post fascinating.

3
By molly h (not verified)
July 30, 2007 5:20 PM

It's funny that this topic comes up just after a few of us were going on about the pronunciation of Hermoine in the comments of the last topic.
I've never read any Dickens, but I've read all of the Harry Potters so I can recognize which names belong to each author.
It is surprising to me that Rowlings's names have not caught on well within the baby naming world. Even though they're very different from the "norm" I would have figured they'd have enough pop-culture cache without being too singular like Oprah (or Seinfeld or Madonna).

4
By Ginny (not verified)
July 30, 2007 5:32 PM

I have read some of Dickens' work, but know the Harry Potter series like the back of my hand. That list of names was very interesting! While it is true that most of the names in Rowling's series have not picked up in popularity, there is one that has- Lily. It was the name of Harry's mother.

5
By Eo (not verified)
July 30, 2007 5:42 PM

Although not a Harry Potter fan, I do love J. K. Rowling's quirky names, and like playing with the Harry Potter name generator. Have ALWAYS thought Dickens was a genius namer-- one of the best ever. Many of his faves have caught on, in certain circles over time.

The public seems to take its time acclimating to names. My prediction is that a number of the Harry Potter names will climb in popularity, eventually. I remember years ago reading "The Great Gatsby" and thinking Fitzgerald was so clever to name one of his female characters "Jordan", almost unheard of when he published. It took generations, but the name took off and now has become TOO popular. Wonder if the Seventies movie version of "Gatsby" with Robert Redford facilitated the surge?

6
By Amy A (not verified)
July 30, 2007 6:43 PM

Harry has become more popular in England though. It also fits in with the Jack-Freddie-Alfie nickname trend so perhaps that's why.

7
By anon. (not verified)
July 30, 2007 6:54 PM

"Make the name too obvious or too extreme and it all falls apart; the reader is jerked out of the book and finds herself staring face to face with an author who's trying a little too hard."

That's my problem with Nabokov in a nutshell.

8
By Clay B (not verified)
July 30, 2007 7:04 PM

A few years ago virtually nobody in America had heard of the name Hermione. Now, to a lot of people, it is familiar. I predict in a few years we'll be seeing some baby Hermiones as girls who grew up with her as a heroine become moms.

9
By Jill C. (not verified)
July 30, 2007 7:27 PM

I agree that it will take awhile before these names become popular (but I do think some of them will eventually). Right now, naming a baby Hermione would be trendy, but in ten years it will be 'literary'.

Laura, you forgot my personal favorites for 'if I were going to name a baby after a Harry Potter character':

Bellatrix LeStrange
Andromeda Tonks
Narcissa Malfoy

(OK, I wouldn't actually name a baby Narcissa.) I would pick Bellatrix as the one name that would probably take off (sort of a rif on Ella, Bella, Isabelle, Annabelle, etc.) if the character weren't so evil in the books...

I'm keeping Andromeda on my list for my imaginary 3rd baby, though ;).

10
By Rebekah (not verified)
July 30, 2007 7:49 PM

I love Harry Potter names. This is a great post. It really makes me want to read #7 now.

Jill C- My pick would be Lavender. I LOVE it but don't have the guts.

11
By Tansey (not verified)
July 30, 2007 9:16 PM

I completely agree with ClayB. Within the next ten to twenty years we'll be swamped with Hermiones as well as some of the less usual names as younger readers begin their families. I'm also a fan - as escapist literature it ranks with the finest, and it has so many different levels and textures for all ages and education levels of readers. I've loved the names and JK's clever and generally unique talent of turning less than charming names into heroic characters - Ron Weasley enchanted me from day one simply because of this.
Rebekah - with my kids named and grown I use loved names for pets and characters in my own writing - it keeps then nicely close.

12
By Swistle (not verified)
July 30, 2007 9:19 PM

I've wondered if the kids reading the books now might use HP names when they have kids of their own. Hermione has potential, I think, as does Albus.

13
By Pru (not verified)
July 30, 2007 9:46 PM

I don't feel like Kingsley is too outlandish, even right now.

14
By Jessica (not verified)
July 30, 2007 10:20 PM

I really think that when the current 8 - 18 year olds are seriously naming their kids, you will see lots more HP names. They may not be the thing right now, but very few!! of that demographic are naming babies...

15
By Lara (not verified)
July 30, 2007 10:38 PM

I agree with Jessica and with Pru!

Of course, at 30, I am a mother AND one of those "kids" reading Harry Potter! ;)

I've always loved how JKR's names sort of define the characters. Lupin (lupin = wolf-like), Flitwick (charms teacher/wand-waving), Sprout (Herbology), etc.

16
By Lara (not verified)
July 30, 2007 10:39 PM

Oops, that above comment should've said

lupinE = wolf-like!

And I forgot to remark about the name Kingsley. With style maven Gwen Stefani naming her (absolutely gorgeous!) son Kingston, I don't see that Kingsley would be much of a leap.

17
By Dorrit Fagin-Twist (not verified)
July 30, 2007 10:56 PM

My daughter's name, Nell, makes a good Dickens detector--people will say "Oh, like Little Nell," and I'll know they're Dickens fans!

18
By Dorrit Fagin-Twist (not verified)
July 30, 2007 10:57 PM

My daughter's name, Nell, makes a good Dickens detector--people will say "Oh, like Little Nell," and I'll know they're Dickens fans!

19
By Kate (not verified)
July 30, 2007 11:50 PM

Actually, I think there just might be a few Harry Potter children out there. I just plugged "Luna" into the Baby Name Voyager with some very interesting results! It seems that the name creeps into popularity very quickly after the character was introduced in the series.

20
By RobynT (not verified)
July 31, 2007 12:23 AM

Jill C: When I was 21, I totally planned to name my future babies Lyra and Orion. Andromeda could be my third too!

Pru: That's funny cuz Kingsley struck me as one of the most likely to be used! Like Lara, I thought of baby Kingston. I guess also the surname trend.

Kate brought up Luna. What do you all think of this name? I liked it for its feminine-power associations. (I think the moon is like a female power thing right?) But lunatic worries me...

21
By J. (not verified)
July 31, 2007 12:55 AM

I don't know much Dickens but I adore HP names. For a brief while a few years ago, I cherished a dream of twins Sirius James and Severus Draco, and their little brother Remus Neville. I don't think I'd actually do that (or that my eventual husband would let me, anyway ;)) but I still adore all the names, as much on their own right as because of the amazing characters and the world I associate them with. JK Rowling really does have a gift for names of characters, first and last--I wish I could come up with names that good for the characters in my own stories.

22
By Beth (not verified)
July 31, 2007 1:50 AM

I love Rowling's homage to Dickens too. But for the subtlest shades of meaning in names, try Henry James. His name for his most famous rigid feminist is Olive Chancellor [= the branch of peace + "secretary to a monarch," see Basil Ransome below]. She is in love with a loquacious, pretty stage medium named Verena Tarrant [sounds like "serene,"+ torrent]. The young man who rescues Verena from Olive or holds Verena hostage, depending on how you look at the novel, is Basil Ransome [= kingly + ransom]. Olive and Basil are plants; Verena is one step away from Verbena, another plant, and what a tangle of thorns is the plot. And that's from just one novel (The Bostonians!).

23
By Beth (not verified)
July 31, 2007 1:50 AM

I love Rowling's homage to Dickens too. But for the subtlest shades of meaning in names, try Henry James. His name for his most famous rigid feminist is Olive Chancellor [= the branch of peace + "secretary to a monarch," see Basil Ransome below]. She is in love with a loquacious, pretty stage medium named Verena Tarrant [sounds like "serene,"+ torrent]. The young man who rescues Verena from Olive or holds Verena hostage, depending on how you look at the novel, is Basil Ransome [= kingly + ransom]. Olive and Basil are plants; Verena is one step away from Verbena, another plant, and what a tangle of thorns is the plot. And that's from just one novel (The Bostonians!).

24
By Elizabeth T. (not verified)
July 31, 2007 2:09 AM

Beth,
Henry James does offer a rich palette of names, doesn't he? Isabel Archer and Caspar Goodwood? Good grief!

Gabriel Garcia Marquez also writes novels just swimming with good names. Arcadio Buendia, for example, calls up images of Eden.

Actually, now that I think about it, names make up an essential part of what makes good literature really good. Not sure I agree about Nabokov, but I've only read "Lolita".

25
By Tara (not verified)
July 31, 2007 3:49 AM

I always thought the reason Harry Potter was named 'Harry' was because it was already a popular and therefore common name. As an author trying to connect with an modern audience would make her character have an already popular 'likable' name. I wonder if characters like Luke Skywalker, Alice in Wonderland, Nancy Drew, Anne of Green Gables were all popular first names when the stories were written?

Tara

26
By Sanna (not verified)
July 31, 2007 10:05 AM

We might not see a great wave of Harrys or Hermiones (too obvious), but I would place a timid wager that people would feel inspired into looking at the minor characters for inspiration.

Minerva perhaps, or Ginevra, could rise from the depths. Or the abovementioned Kingsley - or Remus, even Sirius.

And of course Gred and Forge. :-)

27
By Katharine (not verified)
July 31, 2007 10:58 AM

with you there Clay! I know two Hermoines's here in England - one is twenty (so pre trend) and goes by Mimi but the other is a baby. I can't see it ever becoming popular but definitely can see it gaining ground post Potter...

You stole my point Kate! ;-) I was going to mention Luna - there's a footballers daughter called that over here and it was rumoured that Victoria Beckham was going to choose it if she had a girl - personally I don't care about either of these associations but it does mean that the name is being heard and talked about - SO definitely expecting to see it rise...

28
By CN (not verified)
July 31, 2007 12:41 PM

I wonder if some of the names will take off more in England than here in the US. Hermoine is already used in England, but would be a bit odd here in the US. Maybe some of our British posters could help us out. Harry and Ron also seem better suited to England than here.

And after all, JK Rowling is from England.

29
By Christiana (not verified)
July 31, 2007 1:29 PM

And so does Harry Potter.

I always thought the HP names came more from mythology than from current British tradional naming. Minerva? Andromeda? Bellatrix? They have a distinctly British feel, somehow, but are rooted in the mythology and astronomy/astrology that is often associated with sci-fi/fantasy genre anyhow. I think Rowling's choices were brilliant.

30
By Penn (not verified)
July 31, 2007 2:07 PM

Maybe "Hermione" will be too direct a reference for a generation or two, but the name "Ione" has an uptick, I'd still maybe credit the HP character for reviving the possibilities in that lovely old name.

31
By Catharine (not verified)
July 31, 2007 2:39 PM

Ok, this is off topic, but I had to share. Has anyone used this website: http://www.behindthename.com/random/, the "Random Name Generator"? It's kind of fun, plug in a set of criteria and it comes up with a random name. Except it was very spooky because on the third try it came up with "Shaelyn Catharine Lastname"...I think Shaelyn is rubbish but it had Catharine spelled *my* way! Bizarre!

32
By Heather A. (not verified)
July 31, 2007 2:47 PM

I can definitly see Hermione taking off more in the UK. Prior to HP wasn't it considered a Shakespearian name? I think from A Winter's Tale? Isn't there a famous British actress named Hermione?

Beth- Thank you for your post on Henry James' use of names. It was really fascinating.

33
By Valerie (not verified)
July 31, 2007 3:48 PM

I'm enjoying this post and comments- I'd never noticed how much the HP characters' names have a similar flavor to those used by Dickens.
I was pondering this yesterday when suddenly the name Augustus Gloop popped into my head, and I realized that Roald Dahl also has moments of naming genius.

Take Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
The hero is Charlie Bucket:
Charlie= one of those 'friendly' names we were discussing a while back, and Bucket= humble origins.
Augustus Gloop: Augustus= great or venerable, name of an emperor. Here I think self-important, puffed-up. And Gloop... well, that foreshadows his unfortunate adventure in the Chocolate River.

Violet Beauregarde: Violet,again a foreshadowing of an unfortunate incident where she turns into a huge blueberry, and Beauregarde= beautiful look,IMO how highly she regards herself.

Veruca Salt (my favorite): a verruca is the common name in the UK for a plantar wart and salt to me sounds like some kind of traditional cure (as when you throw salt on a slug)! (continued

34
By Valerie (not verified)
July 31, 2007 3:55 PM

The only character whose name is too 'in your face' IMO is Mike Teavee who is miniaturized by a TV camera. Hmmm, I guess Mike (as in mic) might also be relevant.

So anyway, that's as far as I've got, but I had fun! :)

Any thoughts on Willy Wonka? Mine aren't printable...;)

35
By Cleveland Kent Evans (not verified)
July 31, 2007 4:06 PM

There were TWO well-known British actresses named Hermione, Baddeley and Gingold, but they both died back in the 1980s.

I love how so many of the mythological names Rowling chooses for her characters fit the story, but they are from less well-known myths, so the kids have to do some research to get the full effect of the name: such as Merope Gaunt.

Arabella is being drawn upward in use in the USA in the wake of Isabella, but I doubt if Arabella Figg has much to do with that. :) I would agree that the real impact of Rowling's names, if any, will be seen in about a decade when the kids who grew up with the books and films start to have kids of their own.

Luke was not a very common name in the USA when George Lucas chose the name for his character. Luke actually became quite popular in Australia and England quite a while before it returned in the USA. When Nancy Drew was created in 1930, Nancy was just at the start of what became a tremendous boom in the USA. The author picked that name very well. :)

36
By Anony (not verified)
July 31, 2007 4:30 PM

I know a couple who named a daughter Virginia so they could call her Ginny.I believe this was before Ginevra was revealed as Ginny's full name?
Two names I like appear in the HP world: Felix, which is rising more for ethnic reasons than literary ones, and Percival. HP also has a Percy, which follows Oliver and some other rising names into Seriously Brit territory while also being a surname as firstname deal.
Definitely give it another decade to see the name impact of the books.
Kingsley could be right there with Kingston, a name currently on the pop charts with the Jamaican-Miami guy who does "Beautiful Girls."

37
By Meg (not verified)
July 31, 2007 5:40 PM

Hi! I am new to the board. I've always liked good, solid names, but find that all my faves are taken. As a teacher, I have seen so many Jameses, Wills, Edgars, Oscars, Hectors, Marcuses, and all the other names t one expects that I want somehting unusual. What do you think about Tamir for a boy? I have always been a fan of the ballad Tam Lin, but I want a name that has more than one syllable.

38
By Valerie (not verified)
July 31, 2007 6:20 PM

Wow, Meg, I've hardly ever met an Edgar, Oscar, Hector or a Marcus. I think of those names as pretty unusual!

Personally, I'm not too keen on Tamir. I think this is because it reminds me of the animal the tapir. How would you pronounce it?

39
By Christiana (not verified)
July 31, 2007 7:31 PM

Have any of you ever run into the problem that you feel you've looked aat every name and can't find one you're in love with enough to use for your kid? I'm having that problem. We're having a baby and I've been searching for a girl's name for so long, but now I feel like I'd have to settle for one instead giving her a name I truly adore. We want to name our first son after his father, but I fell in love w/ the name Judah for a boy so that will be used in our second son's name. (if we are so blessed). But a girl? I have a dozen+ names "that would do" for a girl, but I can't come up with one I'm in love with (or one he will tolerate).

I'm not too crazy about Tamir and it seems to be a far cry from your usualy tastes, Meg. It's certainly a pretty far cry from James, etc.

40
By Lisa (not verified)
July 31, 2007 8:44 PM

Christiana- When we named our daughter we didn't have any names we were in love with, either. We'd debated several back and forth, but nothing really *spoke* to us. Then, one day, we both looked at each other and said "I could live with Elena," and that was that. It was my husband's grandmother's name, and we liked the connection to beauty and grace. Now that she's almost three (and riccocheting off the walls, most days) I can't imagine her ever having another name. It's perfect for her and I love it. Sometimes "settling" is just how you find what you've always loved all along.

41
By Katharine (not verified)
July 31, 2007 8:56 PM

Meg: (shot in the dark here) but don't suppose you teach in an English private school? names that are commonly used like Oscar amongst the upper classes here are more or less considered obscure elsewhere - just a thought...

Alongside the actresses that Cleveland Kent Evans mentioned there is also Hermione Norris - who has recently starred in Cold Feet and other prime time BBC dramas...

Ps. I could also live with Elena - simple yet elegant...

42
By deb (not verified)
July 31, 2007 9:00 PM

Katherine- Meg probably teaches in California or Texas or another US state with a high hispanic population. Names like Edgar, Oscar and Hector are outrageously popular in that population.

43
By Kara (not verified)
July 31, 2007 9:23 PM

I also love the name "Bellatrix" although I loathe the character. And I think "Nymphadora" is the best author created name ever! I guess it would mean "Gift of the Nymphs" sort of how Theodora means "Gift of God."

44
By J&H's mom (not verified)
July 31, 2007 11:20 PM

My mother has always blamed The Thorn Birds for the surge in Megans several years after I was born, but I tend to agree with what I think is Laura's premise-that pop culture tends to influence names only if the names fit in with current trends (like Luna and Kingsley would seem to). Our local newspaper had an article that happened to feature several young mothers waiting for the latest book. One of them had painted a little lightning bolt on her tot, but he didn't have an HP name.
By the same token, I actually know of a couple little girls with names similar to the main characters in the Lord of the Rings, but their parents picked them for the sound (the Irish/Celtic trend) rather than the literary connection.
On a sort-of related note, did anyone think Nymbler had a decidedly English bent?
Christiana-Lisa put it just beautifully.
Meg-My first reaction to Tamir is that it sounds feminine, and also Indian (not a bad thing, of course, just sharing my first take on it).
Best all!

45
By BoscoMama (not verified)
July 31, 2007 11:20 PM

I also love the name Bellatrix, but obviously couldn't use it because of the character in the book. I think it falls into the category of "cool names that I will one day give my pets."

46
By Heather A. (not verified)
August 1, 2007 12:27 AM

Christina- I sympathize with your girl name plight. Girl names have been a huge frustration for me too. When the time comes, we have the name all picked out for baby #2, if it's a boy. I have no idea what we'll do for a girl, and I wouldn't want to "just settle" either.

47
By nina (not verified)
August 1, 2007 1:01 AM

With all this talk about the names JK Rowling selected for her fictional characters, let's start discussing what she chose for her two real-life daughters:

Jessica and MacKenzie

Discuss!!!

48
By Elizabeth T. (not verified)
August 1, 2007 1:14 AM

Congratulations, Christiana! When are you due? I thought you had a three-page list ready to whip out for your future daughter. :), My sense for you, as a fellow name nut, is that the real issue is that by choosing one name you're discarding all the others! (Confession: the real reason I didn't find out my children's sex before they were born was because I couldn't bear the thought of not having names for both sexes chosen!)

49
By Valerie (not verified)
August 1, 2007 1:20 AM

Nina- N.B. JK Rowling also has a son called David.

50
By a.c. (not verified)
August 1, 2007 1:25 AM

Nina--First, for the record, JKR's daughter spells it Mackenzie, with no capitalizations in the middle. :) Anyway, I do think the disparity between "Jessica and Mackenzie" and "Minerva and Pomona [Sprout]" is interesting...but I guess it's probably better that way for the kids--I mean imagine going through life as JKR's daughter WITH a name like Andromeda. Might kinda make you stand out....and, as a barely related side-note, Hermione was also the daughter of Helen of Troy.

Catharine--That's one of my ridiculously geeky hobbies!

Jill C--Same here on Bellatrix...why couldn't that have been the name of someone good?!...

Lisa--How do you pronounce Tamir?

Christiana--Ooh! How exciting! Good luck, and let us know when she arrives. I'm sorry, I can't really help on the name issue.