How 7 Fictional Book Characters Got Their Names
Yes, the rumors are true—Khaleesi was the 755th most popular baby name for little girls born in America last year. As in, Khaleesi from Game of Thrones. But before we all start grumbling about how society has gone mad and everyone is naming their babies after fictional dragon queens, let’s remember that the name Wendy was invented for Peter Pan. Olivia is from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and if you want to go way back, Penelope is from The Odyssey. Life is just one big fan-fiction, apparently.
Whether or not you intend to name your kid Katniss or Albus Severus, there’s no denying that literary names have an impact far beyond their fictional realm. The original Hannibal may have been a great military commander who marched his elephants over the Alps, but now the name is tarnished forever, because we all can’t help but think of Hannibal Lecter. But where do these names come from, and what do they mean?
In one corner you’ve got the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, who invented the word "hobbit," and then proceeded to create a meticulous etymology of how the word developed out of Old English for hole-builder, tracing the name back through several made up languages—because of course he did. Then there’s Louisa May Alcott, who anagrammed some of her real sister’s names to come up with the fictional sisters of Little Women. Or Toni Morrison, who draws on mythology, culture and religion to come up with stunning names like Pecola Breedlove, Pilate Dead or Guitar Bains. And then you’ve got the wonderfully irreverent Douglas Adams, who just names a character Zaphod Beeblebrox and calls it a day.
For a further peek into the strange and random world of character-naming, here are some more beloved characters and the stories behind their famous monikers:
Poor Herman Melville. He just wanted to write a complex allegory about an albino sperm whale. He never meant to make future generations of high school kids giggle, because “Dick” really was just a nickname back in the day (“sperm whale,” however, was still totally hilarious). "Moby" may be a made up word, but Moby Dick was named after a real life white whale called Mocha Dick — "Mocha" because he hung around the island of Mocha, near southern Chile, and “Dick” because it was a generic male name. He was pretty much called “Hawaii Joe,” and he was one tough whale, rumored to have twenty or so harpoons stuck in his back from other whalers. Ouch. Mocha Dick survived nearly 100 whaler attacks before he was finally killed while coming to the aid of a distraught female whale and her calf. Pretty heroic, as far as whale namesakes go.
George R. R. Martin admits that he sometimes has trouble coming up with names, although that doesn’t seem to stop him from introducing several hundred characters every chapter. He claims the he’s actually tried online fantasy name generators, but whenever he tries to generate names “they all turn out to be Grizznuckle.” So he mostly tweaks medieval names to come up with his legions of characters. For the Targaryens, descended from the mysterious people of Old Valyria, he wanted a “sense of exoticism,” so he gave them “a lot of Ys, a lot of D-A-E constructions.” In the end, though, Martin says it just comes down to “what sounds right,” so it’s safe to assume that he cycled through a whole lot of gibberish before striking gold with Khaleesi Daenerys “Stormborn” Targaryen.
Speaking of Dragonlords, that’s exactly what Dracula means. Bram Stoker’s vampire was based on Vlad the Impaler, a Romanian prince fond of (you guessed it) impaling his enemies. His father, Vlad II, was known as Dracul, or Dragon, because of he was a member of a ridiculously cool-sounding group of knights called The Order of the Dragon. So Dracula is a diminutive of Dracul, roughly translating to Dragon Jr. It's not hard to imagine something of a larger-than-life reputation developing with a name like Dragon, Jr., the Impaler.
There’s no shortage of clever names in the Harry Potter books, but Hermione might win most out-there name for a Muggle-born. J.K. herself says that "a pair of professional dentists, who liked to prove how clever they are ... gave [Hermione] an unusual name that no-one could pronounce." The Grangers must have been book nerds as well as dentists, because Hermione is actually named after the Hermione in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, the falsely accused queen who is magically turned to stone and back again (although in Shakespeare’s version, no basilisks were involved). Her original last name was "Puckle," but Rowling felt that it was a tad too frivolous for Hermione's personality, and went with the no-nonsense "Granger" instead.
Moving right along from the young witch feminist icons of the literary world to the horrible brats, Veruca Salt has got to be one of the most inspired names for a fictional villain. She might not be the most famous character in all of literature, but she certainly stands out as the worst kid in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, despite stiff competition (and some other winning names—Augustus Gloop, anyone?). Salt shares the same root as salary, and often eludes to wealth. Veruca, of course, is a Latin word for wart. Well named, Mr. Dahl.
Ok, so Hamlet's technically from a play and not a book, but where would modern literature be without the original Prince of Angst? Weirdly enough, the Danish Prince's name might actually be Irish in origin, from the Gaelic Admlithi, meaning "as mad as the sea," or "a sea of troubles." Pretty fitting. Shakespeare borrowed the name from history, but not at random. William Shakespeare's only son was named Hamnet, which, at the time, was a nickname for Hamlett. And poor Hamnet Shakespeare died at age 11, only a couple years before his father penned his masterpiece. There's your incredibly sad literary naming fact of the day. Now let's all watch Hamlet the Mini Pig Goes Down the Stairs a few hundred times to cheer up.
Last but not at all least, my favorite depressed donkey of all time. As a kid, I was always mystified by Eeyore's name. Where did A. A. Milne even come up with that word? What does it mean? But try pronouncing it with a Cockney accent... yup. His name is just an alternate spelling of "Hee-Haw." The sound that donkeys make. Sneaky.
Images: HBO; Giphy (7)