The Jane Austen Name Report

Jul 24th 2014

The name Austin is a mix of Texas twang and Austin Powers swing. A tiny spelling shift to Austen produces something else entirely: a literary homage.

It's fitting that Jane Austen's surname, rather than her given name Jane, is the usual path to honoring her work. The characters she created, particularly the men, are remembered primarily by their surnames. In part, this reflects the manners of the time. One can hardly imagine calling out "Hiya, George!" to Mr. Knightley, the proper gentleman of Emma. But it also reflects the baby-name world that Austen inhabited and passed on to her characters.

Thanks to the Austen devotees at "The Republic of Pemberley," I was able to tally up the 146 characters in Jane Austen novels who have both first and last names. Here are their first names in Wordle form, with the font size representing frequency of occurrence:

If you saw that name cloud out of context, I can't imagine you would have guessed its source. It's recognizably English, but nothing about it specifically screams "Jane Austen!" Yet it's a faithful representation, not only of Austen's work but of the setting of her own life.

16% of men in Jane Austen novels are named John. Her top 10 men's names account for 72% of her male population. In real-life England in the year 1810, those numbers were 19% and 85%. Given the need to keep characters distinct in the narrative, that's a remarkably realistic namescape. (The numbers would be even closer if you converted nicknames to full names.)

That doesn't mean that Austen's character names are a pure historical abstract. Her women's names are a bit more diverse than reality; "only" 52% of Austen women have a top-10 name. Even among the men, you'll see leanings that may reflect name trends among Austen's circle of acquaintance, or simply her own tastes. William, the 2nd most common name in Regency England, is seldom heard in her books, while men named Charles are legion.

Then there are the little quirks which bring a naming worldview to life. For instance, nine men in Austen bear the title Captain, and two of those have a first name. Both are called Frederick. They are the only Fredericks in her books.

Overall, though, the names in Austen world are resolutely normal, which in her age meant repetitive. In six novels, we meet 20 characters named John or Mary. As a result, character names play little role in defining the characters. Even the more diverse surnames provide few clues. "Mr. Bingley," "Mr. Wickham." Which one is wealthier? Which one is the cad?

This even playing field of names is a huge contrast with most modern literature, and with the modern world itself. Remember how 85% of men in Austen's England had a top-10 name? In England today, the top 10 names account for only 15% of boys. In the United States, it's 8%.

Imagine a world where you couldn't draw any conclusions about a person from his name. A world where a titled lady and a chambermaid were likely to share the same name. Where one boy in every five could be called John, and nobody was traumatized by having to share. You don't have to imagine: it's all in the pages of six novels that transcend time.


July 24, 2014 8:37 PM

You know what would be fun? A quiz asking you to link such Wordle-clouds of character names with their respective authors. I expect someone like J.K. Rowling would be dead easy to identify, but the Brontë sisters and Austen would be nigh-impossible to tell apart.

I've been trying, and failing, to come up with a way to characterize/quantify an author's *distinctive* names -- the ones that are only given to one or two characters, but that make everyone immediately think of that character, or at least that author. For Austen, one such name is Georgiana. For the Brontë sisters, Heathcliff, St. John, and Shirley-on-a-girl would qualify. On a Wordle image, these names are barely big enough to read, yet they're inextricably linked to their authors. (Another illustration of how the real world defies statistics.)

July 25, 2014 2:50 PM

I like the idea of thinking of distinctive names that . I have been trying to think of what I could come up with off the top of my head: Gilbert for L. M. Montgomery,  Jo for Louisa Alcott, Almonzo for Laura Ingalls Wilder. Anyone else think of any?

July 26, 2014 12:53 AM

Smollett: Launcelot (Greaves), Roderick (Random), Peregrine (Pickle). Humphry (Clinker)

Sterne: Tristram (Shandy)

Dickens: Uriah (Heep), Ebenezer (Scrooge), Barnaby (Rudge)  Actually Dickens has few peers when it comes to bizarre, one-of-a-kind names Enjoy

Mervyn Peake (now there's a name): Titus (Groan), Fuchsia (Groan)  Peake's names are Dickensian in feel

Tolkien: Frodo, Bilbo, Gandalf, and so many others, never to be mistaken for anyone else's characters

And if the names are Hermione, Ginevra, Severus, and Hagrid?

July 26, 2014 2:37 AM

Just a little correction, I believe. You could tell something of a character from their name as the working classes tended to use Biblical names more often than the elite. With the exception of John, Mary, and Elizabeth, and Anne, the upper classes tended to favor Norman names like Henry, William, and Richard, and Charlotte. A Joseph or Hannah was much more likely to be a servant than an employer.

July 26, 2014 4:00 AM

Charlotte's not a Norman name.  It doesn't come into use until the Early Modern period, c. 17th century.  The big Norman aristocratic female name is Matilda (Maude).  Others would include Adela/Adeliza, Agatha, Cecilia, Constance, Joan, Isabella, Petronilla, Nichola, Sybil, Margaret, Marie, Mabel, Lucy, Alice, Agnes, Elizabeth, Beatrice, Judith, Adelaide, Aenor, Anna, Emma, and even such unusual names as Olive, Tiffany, Gunnora, and Gundrada (these last reflect the Viking origins of the Normans).

July 26, 2014 4:51 AM

You're right - Charles is Germanic. I was focused on non-biblical origin names. Joan, Marie, Elizabeth, Anna would be Norman versions of Hebrew/Aramaic names, no?

July 26, 2014 11:42 AM

It's not a matter of Germanic.  Many of the great Norman names like Robert, Richard, William, and Henry, Matilda and Adela, are all Germanic.  The reason Charlotte is not a Norman name is that it wasn't used by the Normans.  It didn't come into use until the 17th century, long after the time of the Normans. My definition of a Norman name in this case is a name attested in use by members of the Norman aristocracy, be it in Normandy, England, Sicily, or Outremer.  I say aristocracy, simply because theirs are the names most frequently attested.  The Normans did use names of biblical origin, John being a prominent one, as well as names that were ultimately Greek like Eustace. Tiffany (spelled many different ways, ultimately from Theophania), Philip/Philippa, Sybil, Katerina, Margaret,  Helena, Cassandra, Dionisia, Alexander, Andrew, Stephen.  Besides John, Joan/Johanna, Marie, Elizabeth, Anna, other biblical names (mostly Hebrew/Aramaic origin filtered through Greek, Latin and Anglo-Norman) in use in Anglo-Norman England included Judith, Susanna, Peter, Paul, Simon, Solomon, Michael, Isaac, Noah, Jordan, Adam, Thomas, Eva, Sarah.  The great surge in usage of biblical names, especially Old Testament, comes with the Reformation.

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