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‘Tomorrow I brew, today I bake,
Soon the child is mine to take
Oh what luck to win this game,
Rumpelstiltskin is my name’.
From The Annotated Brothers Grimm, edited Maria Tatar
Illustrated here by Edward Gorey at the moment of the name revelation.

“I will give you three days,” he declared. “If by then you can guess my name.”

The  brothers Grimm tale Rumpelstiltskin reminds us of the potency of a name. According to Maria Tatar, “Knowing the name of your antagonist represents a form of control, a way of containing the power of the adversary and having influence over his soul.” Tartar goes onto explain that names are a vital part of one’s identity and in myths and fairytales, careless revelations can lead to transformations. Below students touch on the phonesthemic qualities in their name and explore the etymologies and family history behind their naming. No careless revelations and no beastly transformations!

Students have read Sandra Cisernos’s extract from House on Mango Street where the character discusses her name  ‘Esperanza’ and in doing so reflects her personality, values, as well as the etymology and story behind her name. Students have spent time talking to their parents about their names and the stories behind this. For some it’s as simple as their parents just liked the sound, for others it’s a tie to the past or wishes for the child’s future. Students have found that names, like words have a history, an etymology, and have investigated this in their writing.

Masculinity and femininity inherent in names :

Names too carry a sound sense with them suggesting maleness or femaleness. Many female British or European names tend more to the polysyllabic, whereas more male names are monosyllabic. 95% of male names have a heavily stressed first syllable whereas far less female names do this. Crystal (Encyclopaedia of the English Language,153) indicates that over the past 75 years none of the popular male names had an unstressed first syllable ( Patrick, Jonathan, Robert, Christopher, William). Female names usually have a stressed high front vowel /i/. In our class we see this in the names: Tiffany. Often female names end with a spoken vowel: Mari, Hannah, Temirah, Chloe, Anna, Jemma, Tatiania, Nikoletta, Athina,Emma, Shania. If not ending with a vowel sound, the final sound will be a continuant in female names: /l/ Michelle,or the nasal continuants such as /m/,/n/: Kathleen, Madeleine.

It’s been suggested that high forward vowels create a sense of smallness associated with femininity. Consider the size of the opening of the mouth and where your tongue is when you pronounce these vowels: Back vowels such as / a/ /o/ create a sense of strength, largeness and therefore ‘maleness’. This research is also borne out by the research project of Dr Alan McElligott from Queen Mary University of London, Dr AlexMesoudi from Durham University and Benjamin Pitcher who investigated whether the preferences for particular male and female names in the English language could have developed as a ‘product of the sound symbolic frequency code and preferred sexual traits’. They found that males names were more likely to contain larger sounding (low-back)/ a/ /o/ phonemes than smaller sounding (high-front) phonemes. ‘English-language first names therefore appear to follow the sexual size dimorphism observed in human body size.’. Read more here: 

Authors’ use of names:

I began to wonder about the phonesthemic qualities in various character names, particularly in Dickens. Consider Ebeneezer Scrooge. The sound of Scrooge’s name seems to reflect the character’s miserly stinginess, the unpleasantness and heartlessness. Perhaps an association between scrounge and screw, scrimping and scraping. Look at /skr/ in Shisler’s Dictionary of Phonesthemes.

Elizabeth Gordon, in her thesis on Dicken’s choice of character names, notes ‘It is not an easy matter to say just why these names should seem to be so appropriate, but in some instances the sound of the word produces an impression similar to that caused by the character itself, and in others there is an inexplicable “eternal fitness” that baffles investigation’

Gordon suggests ‘Simon Tappertit, with a name made up of short vowels and voiceless consonants, could never succeed in being a heavy villain, especially since his tripping name carries with it an echo of tap, dapper, and the diminutive tit. Mr. Bumble’s name calls to the mind of a child the unpleasant officiousness of a bumble-bee; but the word may have had rise in an English term of contempt for an unpopular dignitary, the bumbailiff, shortened by influence of the verb bumble-to scold.’(26)

My students familar with Dahl can see how Dahl too suggests character traits through the name: Miss Trunchbull from Matilda is a noteable example.

Fragments from student writing about their names :

‘My name is Irish. It means full of honour. It comes from the Latin name Patricius, which meant “nobleman”. The name Patrick, was not given in Ireland before the 17th-century because it was too sacred for everyday use. After that, it became very common there. The name was adopted by Saint Patrick in the 5th- Century, whose birth name is Sucat. This name was used in honour of the saint during the middle ages. Saint Patrick was also known for driving the snakes out of Ireland. There are no snakes in Ireland, that is a fact, but there probably never was. It is pretty cool to be named after someone who was a hero. It is also a coincidence that St. Patrick’s day is celebrated on March 17th. My birthday is on October 17th.

Patrick. The sound of the name was beautiful. It was like music to my parents’ ears. My name is not common in Indonesia and it is not an Indonesian name, but my Indonesian parents picked it because they liked the sound of it. They thought it fitted me perfectly. There was no special reason they picked Patrick. They just liked it. After all, it meant full of honour. I think that is what they expected me to be, full of honour’.

‘I really like my name. It’s just that when other people who are not familiar with Indian names try to say it, they say something like “Roheet”. It takes a while to correct this. It’s pronounced without a stressed “i” and there is an “h” sound at the end of it. Sometimes, it can be written with an “h” at the end; mostly, it’s not. In India, it’s a name from the South. And even then, it isn’t the most common name. My dad chose this name for me because of it’s meaning and with the hope that I would embody it’s characteristics. (Not literally, of course.)

Rohit originates in Sanskrit. It symbolizes the color red. Rohit means “The first rays of the sun” in Sanskrit. In the morning, the sky is mostly red and orange. Rohit also signifies the red deer, which is called a “Rohitah” in Sanskrit. In mythology, this was the form that the Indian god Brahma once took. My name is also one of the many names of the mythological god Vishnu, who first came to earth in the form of a beautiful red fish. The name also pops up in the “Vishnu Sahasranam”, or in English, “The 1000 Names of Vishnu”. Another mythological god, Krishna, had a son that was also named Rohit. The name also means someone who will lead to the growth and development of his family.’

‘Manan is a name and a word with meanings in various languages. It means to stay calm, meditate. It is the color blue as it brings a calm feeling to the mind. My name is one of names of a Hindu God. My name is one of the last names the Hindu God Krishna.The color of my name is blue as Krishna’s true form is as a blue immortal. Also he has a blue peacock feather on his ear which has blue in the center. His flute brings soothing tunes to your ear that keep you calm in the most furious times.’

‘In Latin my name means young. In French my name means youth. The Italians spell it with just six letters. The French spell it with eight.  My name is a reminder of a tragic love story. The color purple, the sound of rich classical music, the heavy evening scent of jasmine flowers. You probably know my name because of William Shakspeare. He chose Romeo to be the ill-fated lover of Juliet.

This name is all my own. It’s not a family name. My family has a lot of hard to pronounce Dutch and Irish names such as Dreesje, Sjoerd Lodewijk, Aiobh and Eamonn. Thankfully, my parents chose an easy to pronounce and an internationally recognizable name for me. They knew that I would live all around the world and they didn’t want me to experience the hardship of people not being able to say or remember my name.’


As a class we also discussed nicknames, which led to an investigation of this word. In the 1300s it was ekename from eke name meaning additional name as the root of eke is OE eacian to increase. Nickname therefore has been formed by misdivision.

An Australian tendency with nicknames is to add diminutives such as ‘ie’ to a name or add an ‘o’ or even an ‘s’ to create feelings of warmth and display friendliness: so Sharon becomes Shazza, Barry Baz or Bazza, Darren becomes Daz or Dazza. (This is an interesting pattern here where the ‘r’ is replaced by ‘z’.) Deb becomes, Debs or Dave to a Davo, Rob to Robbo. Read  the transcript of a radio interview on Australian nicknames with Kate Burridge:

Alan Bennett’s Names from Telling Tales

The last word on names should be with the brilliant Alan Bennet. Delicately balanced between tragedy and comedy, his writing is poignant, wistful, wry. Below Alan Bennett reflects on names as a person ages. He shows that names reflect a generation, a slice of time as well as a determination to distance a baby from age. He reminds readers that whatever the name,however assiduously we bequeath a vibrant name avoiding the elderly or geriatric, age is inevitable. Listen for the sheer pleasure of hearing a writer who is indeed a master of words.

’Sharons don’t suffer from dementia’ He notes too how “The trumpet has not yet sounded for Trevor..but it will” or somewhat bleakly ”Soon the listless watchers by the radiator will be Melanie” He remarks on the gentrifying of names, of the class status of names. Of today’s Jacobs, he sees that they have been ‘sanded down and all its biblical varnish gone’.

More name entertainment:

Find the rise and fall in popularity of names with Name Voyager

Read about British Naming Trends: Guardian data :

Coder writer and data analyst: Anna Powell-Smith

For fun, play with the literary baby name generator: created by Oxford word blog


For those who are fascinated by misdivisions as seen in ‘nickname’. ( A great investigation for the class at some later stage- so many words, so many poetntial inquiries!) here’s a small list to whet the appetite:

nugget perhaps ingot, notch, ninny, lone,newt,size, apron,auger,adder, humble pie.

Check out Other misdivisions from Online Etymology Dictionary.

More Edward Gorey: