Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Influence of a Name.

What’s in a NAME? That which we call a rose,

By any other name would smell as sweet.

Names, by an involuntary suggestion, produce an extraordinary illusion. Favour or disappointment has been often conceded as the name of the claimant has affected us; and the accidental affinity or coincidence of a name, connected with ridicule or hatred, with pleasure or disgust, has operated like magic. But the facts connected with this subject will show how this prejudice has branched out.1

Sterne has touched on this unreasonable propensity of judging by names, in his humorous account of the elder Mr. Shandy’s system of Christian names. And Wilkes has expressed, in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, all the influence of baptismal names, even in matters of poetry! He said, “The last city poet was Elkanah Settle. There is something in names which one cannot help feeling. Now Elkanah Settle sounds so queer, who can expect much from that name? We should have no hesitation to give it for John Dryden in preference to Elkanah Settle, from the names only, without knowing their different merits.”

A lively critic noticing some American poets, says “There is or was a Mr. Dwight who wrote a poem in the shape of an epic; and his baptismal name was Timothy;” and involuntarily we infer the sort of epic that a Timothy must write. Sterne humorously exhorts all godfathers not “to Nicodemus a man into nothing.”

There is more truth in this observation than some may be inclined to allow; and that it affects mankind strongly, all ages and all climates may be called on to testify. Even in the barbarous age of Louis XI., they felt a delicacy respecting names, which produced an ordinance from his majesty. The king’s barber was named Olivier le Diable. At first the king allowed him to got rid of the offensive part by changing it to Le Malin; but the improvement was not happy, and for a third time he was called Le Mauvais. Even this did not answer his purpose; and as he was a great racer, he finally had his majesty’s ordinance to be called Le Dain, under penalty of law if any one should call him Le Diable, Le Malin, or Le Mauvais. According to Platina, Sergius the Second was the first pope who changed his name in ascending the papal throne; because his proper name was Hog’s -mouth, very unsuitable with the pomp of the tiara. The ancients felt the same fastidiousness; and among the Romans, those who were called to the equestrian order, having low and vulgar names, were new named on the occasion, lest the former one should disgrace the dignity.2

When Burlier, a French wit, was chosen for the preceptor of Colbert’s son, he felt his name was so uncongenial to his new profession, that he assumed the more splendid one of D’Aucour, by which he is now known. Madame Gomez had married a person named Bonhomme; but she would never exchange her nobler Spanish name to prefix her married one to her romances, which indicated too much of meek humility. Guez (a beggar) is a French writer of great pomp of style; but he felt such extreme delicacy at so low a name, that to give some authority to the splendour of his diction, he assumed the name of his estate, and is well known as Balzac. A French poet of the name of Theophile Viaut, finding that his surname pronounced like veau (calf), exposed him to the infinite jests of the minor wits, silently dropped it, by retaining the more poetical appellation of Theophile. Various literary artifices have been employed by some who, still preserving a natural attachment to the names of their fathers, yet blushing at the same time for their meanness, have in their Latin works attempted to obviate the ridicule which they provoked. One Gaucher (left-handed) borrowed the name of Scevola, because Scevola, having burnt his right arm, became consequently left-handed. Thus also one De la Borgne (one-eyed) called himself Strabo; De Charpentier took that of Fabricius; De Valet translated his Servilius; and an unlucky gentleman, who bore the name of Du bout d’Homme, boldly assumed that of Virulus. Dorat, a French poet, had for his real name Disnemandi, which, in the dialect of the Limousins, signifies one who dines in the morning; that is, who has no other dinner than his breakfast. This degrading name he changed to Dorat, or gilded, a nickname which one of his ancestors had borne for his fair tresses. But by changing his name, his feelings were not entirely quieted, for unfortunately his daughter cherished an invincible passion for a learned man, who unluckily was named Goulu; that is, a shark, as gluttonous as a shark. Miss Disnemandi felt naturally a strong attraction for a goulu; and in spite of her father’s remonstrances, she once more renewed his sorrows in this alliance!

There are unfortunate names, which are very injurious to the cause in which they are engaged; for instance, the Long Parliament in Cromwell’s time, called by derision the Rump, was headed by one Barebones, a leather-seller. It was afterwards called by his unlucky name, which served to heighten the ridicule cast over it by the nation.

Formerly a custom prevailed with learned men to change their names. They showed at once their contempt for vulgar denominations and their ingenious erudition. They christened themselves with Latin and Greek. This disguising of names came, at length, to be considered to have a political tendency, and so much alarmed Pope Paul the Second, that he imprisoned several persons for their using certain affected names, and some, indeed, which they could not give a reason why they assumed. Desiderius Erasmus was a name formed out of his family name Gerard, which in Dutch signifies amiable; or GAR all, AERD nature. He first changed it to a Latin word of much the same signification, desiderius, which afterwards he refined into the Greek Erasmus, by which name he is now known. The celebrated Reuchlin, which in German signifies smoke, considered it more dignified to smoke in Greek by the name of Capnio. An Italian physician of the name of Senza Malizia, prided himself as much on his translating it into the Greek Akakia, as on the works which he published under that name. One of the most amiable of the reformers was originally named Hertz Schwartz (black earth), which he elegantly turned into the Greek name Melancthon. The vulgar name of a great Italian poet was Trapasso; but when the learned Gravius resolved to devote the youth to the muses, he gave him a mellifluous name, which they have long known and cherished — Metastasio.

Harsh names will have, in spite of all our philosophy, a painful and ludicrous effect on our ears and our associations: it is vexatious that the softness of delicious vowels, or the ruggedness of inexorable consonants, should at all be connected with a man’s happiness, or even have an influence on his fortune.

The actor Macklin was softened down by taking in the first and last syllables of the name of Macklaughlin, as Malloch was polished to Mallet; and even our sublime Milton, in a moment of humour and hatred to the Scots, condescends to insinuate that their barbarous names are symbolical of their natures — and from a man of the name of Mac Collkittok, he expects no mercy. Virgil, when young, formed a design of a national poem, but was soon discouraged from proceeding, merely by the roughness and asperity of the old Roman names, such as Decius Mus; Lucumo; Vibius Caudex. The same thing has happened to a friend who began an Epic on the subject of Drake’s discoveries; the name of the hero often will produce a ludicrous effect, but one of the most unlucky of his chief heroes must be Thomas Doughty! One of Blackmore’s chief heroes in his Alfred is named Gunter; a printer’s erratum might have been fatal to all his heroism; as it is, he makes a sorry appearance. Metastasio found himself in the same situation. In one of his letters he writes, “The title of my new opera is Il Re Pastor. The chief incident is the restitution of the kingdom of Sidon to the lawful heir: a prince with such a hypochondriac name, that he would have disgraced the title-page of any piece; who would have been able to bear an opera entitled L’Abdolonimo? I have contrived to name him as seldom as possible.” So true is it, as the caustic Boileau exclaims of an epic poet of his days, who had shown some dexterity in cacophony, when he chose his hero —

O le plaisant projet d’un poète ignorant,

Qui de tant de heros va choisir Childebrand!

D’un seul nom quelquefois le son dur et bizarre

Bend un poème entier, ou burlesque ou barbare.

Art Poétique, c. iii. v. 241.

In such a crowd the Poet were to blame

To choose King Chilperic for his hero’s name.


This epic poet perceiving the town joined in the severe raillery of the poet, published a long defence of his hero’s name; but the town was inexorable, and the epic poet afterwards changed Childebrand’s name to Charles Martel, which probably was discovered to have something more humane. Corneille’s Pertharite was an unsuccessful tragedy, and Voltaire deduces its ill fortune partly from its barbarous names, such as Garibald and Edvidge. Voltaire, in giving the names of the founders of Helvetic freedom, says, the difficulty of pronouncing these respectable names is injurious to their celebrity; they are Melchthal, Stawffarcher, and Valtherfurst. Line 3381 - Query word ou

We almost hesitate to credit what we know to be true, that the length or the shortness of a name can seriously influence the mind. But history records many facts of this nature. Some nations have long cherished a feeling that there is a certain elevation or abasement in proper names. Montaigne on this subject says, “A gentleman, one of my neighbours, in over-valuing the excellences of old times, never omitted noticing the pride and magnificence of the names of the nobility of those days! Don Grumedan, Quadragan, Argesilan, when fully sounded, were evidently men of another stamp than Peter, Giles, and Michel.“ What could be hoped for from the names of Ebenezer, Malachi, and Methusalem? The Spaniards have long been known for cherishing a passion for dignified names, and are marvellously affected by long and voluminous ones; to enlarge them they often add the places of their residence. We ourselves seem affected by triple names; and the authors of certain periodical publications always assume for their nom de guerre a triple name, which doubtless raises them much higher in their reader’s esteem than a mere Christian and surname. Many Spaniards have given themselves names from some remarkable incident in their lives. One took the name of the Royal Transport, for having conducted the Infanta in Italy. Orendayes added de la Paz, for having signed the peace in 1725. Navarro, after a naval battle off Toulon, added la Vittoria, though he had remained in safety at Cadiz while the French admiral Le Court had fought the battle, which was entirely in favour of the English. A favourite of the King of Spain, a great genius, and the friend of Farinelli, who had sprung from a very obscure origin, to express his contempt of these empty and haughty names assumed, when called to the administration, that of the Marquis of La Ensenada (nothing in himself).

But the influence of long names is of very ancient standing. Lucian notices one Simon, who coming to a great fortune aggrandised his name to Simonides. Dioclesian had once been plain Diocles before he was emperor. When Bruna became queen of France, it was thought proper to convey some of the regal pomp in her name by calling her Brunehault.

The Spaniards then must feel a most singular contempt for a very short name, and on this subject Fuller has recorded a pleasant fact. An opulent citizen of the name of John Cuts (what name can be more unluckily short?) was ordered by Elizabeth to receive the Spanish ambassador; but the latter complained grievously, and thought he was disparaged by the shortness of his name. He imagined that a man bearing a monosyllabic name could never, in the great alphabet of civil life, have performed anything great or honourable; but when he found that honest John Cuts displayed a hospitality which had nothing monosyllabic in it, he groaned only at the utterance of the name of his host.

There are names, indeed, which in the social circle will in spite of all due gravity awaken a harmless smile, and Shenstone solemnly thanked God that his name was not liable to a pun. There are some names which excite horror, such as Mr. Stabback; others contempt, as Mr. Twopenny; and others of vulgar or absurd signification, subject too often to the insolence of domestic witlings, which occasions irritation even in the minds of worthy, but suffering, men.

There is an association of pleasing ideas with certain names, — and in the literary world they produce a fine effect. Bloomfield is a name apt and fortunate for a rustic bard; as Florian seems to describe his sweet and flowery style. Dr. Parr derived his first acquaintance with the late Mr. Homer from the aptness of his name, associating with his pursuits. Our writers of romances and novels are initiated into all the arcana of names, which cost them many painful inventions. It is recorded of one of the old Spanish writers of romance, that he was for many days at a loss to coin a fit name for one of his giants; he wished to hammer out one equal in magnitude to the person he conceived in imagination; and in the haughty and lofty name of Traquitantos, he thought he had succeeded. Richardson, the great father of our novelists, appears to have considered the name of Sir Charles Grandison as perfect as his character, for his heroine writes, “You know his noble name, my Lucy.” He felt the same for his Clementina, for Miss Byron writes, “Ah, Lucy, what a pretty name is Clementina!” We experience a certain tenderness for names, and persons of refined imaginations are fond to give affectionate or lively epithets to things and persons they love. Petrarch would call one friend Lellus, and another Socrates, as descriptive of their character.

In our own country, formerly, the ladies appear to have been equally sensible to poetical or elegant names, such as Alicia, Celicia, Diana, Helena, &c. Spenser, the poet, gave to his two sons two names of this kind; he called one Silvanus, from the woody Kilcolman, his estate; and the other Peregrine, from his having been born in a strange place, and his mother then travelling. The fair Eloisa gave the whimsical name of Astrolabus to her boy; it bore some reference to the stars, as her own to the sun.

Whether this name of Astrolabus had any scientific influence over the son, I know not; but I have no doubt that whimsical names may have a great influence over our characters. The practice of romantic names among persons, even of the lowest orders of society, has become a very general evil: and doubtless many unfortunate beauties, of the names of Clarissa and Eloisa, might have escaped under the less dangerous appellatives of Elizabeth or Deborah. I know a person who has not passed his life without some inconvenience from his name, mean talents and violent passions not according with Antoninus; and a certain writer of verses might have been no versifier, and less a lover of the true Falernian, had it not been for his namesake Horace. The Americans, by assuming Roman names, produce ludicrous associations; Romulus Higgs, and Junius Brutus Booth. There was more sense, when the Foundling Hospital was first instituted, in baptizing the most robust boys, designed for the sea-service, by the names of Drake, Norris, or Blake, after our famous admirals.

It is no trifling misfortune in life to bear an illustrious name; and in an author it is peculiarly severe. A history now by a Mr. Hume, or a poem by a Mr. Pope, would be examined with different eyes than had they borne any other name. The relative of a great author should endeavour not to be an author. Thomas Corneille had the unfortunate honour of being brother to a great poet, and his own merits have been considerably injured by the involuntary comparison. The son of Racine has written with an amenity not unworthy of his celebrated father; amiable and candid, he had his portrait painted, with the works of his father in his hand, and his eye fixed on this verse from Phædra —

Et moi, fils inconnu d’un si glorieux père!

But even his modesty only served to whet the dart of epigram. It was once bitterly said of the son of an eminent literary character —

He tries to write because his father writ,

And shows himself a bastard by his wit.

Amongst some of the disagreeable consequences attending some names, is, when they are unluckily adapted to an uncommon rhyme; how can any man defend himself from this malicious ingenuity of wit? Freret, one of those unfortunate victims to Boileau’s verse, is said not to have been deficient in the decorum of his manners, and he complained that he was represented as a drunkard, merely because his name rhymed to Cabaret. Murphy, no doubt, felicitated himself in his literary quarrel with Dr. Franklin, the poet and critical reviewer, by adopting the singular rhyme of “envy rankling” to his rival’s and critic’s name.

Superstition has interfered even in the choice of names, and this solemn folly has received the name of a science, called Onomantia; of which the superstitious ancients discovered a hundred foolish mysteries. They cast up the numeral letters of names, and Achilles was therefore fated to vanquish Hector, from the numeral letters in his name amounting to a higher number than his rival’s . They made many whimsical divisions and subdivisions of names, to prove them lucky or unlucky. But these follies are not those that I am now treating on. Some names have been considered as more auspicious than others. Cicero informs us that when the Romans raised troops, they were anxious that the name of the first soldier who enlisted should be one of good augury. When the censors numbered the citizens, they always began by a fortunate name, such as Salvius Valereus. A person of the name of Regillianus was chosen emperor, merely from the royal sound of his name, and Jovian was elected because his name approached nearest to the beloved one of the philosophic Julian. This fanciful superstition was even carried so far that some were considered as auspicious, and others as unfortunate. The superstitious belief in auspicious names was so strong, that Cæsar, in his African expedition, gave a command to an obscure and distant relative of the Scipios, to please the popular prejudice that the Scipios were invincible in Africa. Suetonius observes that all those of the family of Cæsar who bore the surname of Caius perished by the sword.

The Emperor Severus consoled himself for the licentious life of his empress Julia, from the fatality attending those of her name. This strange prejudice of lucky and unlucky names prevailed in modern Europe. The successor of Adrian VI. (as Guicciardini tells us) wished to preserve his own name on the papal throne; but he gave up the wish when the conclave of cardinals used the powerful argument that all the popes who had preserved their own names had died in the first year of their pontificates. Cardinal Marcel Cervin, who preserved his name when elected pope, died on the twentieth day of his pontificate, and this confirmed this superstitious opinion. La Motte le Vayer gravely asserts that all the queens of Naples of the name of Joan, and the kings of Scotland of the name of James, have been unfortunate: and we have formal treatises of the fatality of Christian names. It is a vulgar notion that every female of the name of Agnes is fated to become mad. Every nation has some names labouring with this popular prejudice.

Herrera, the Spanish historian, records an anecdote in which the choice of a queen entirely arose from her name. When two French ambassadors negotiated a marriage between one of the Spanish princesses and Louis VIII., the names of the Royal females were Urraca and Blanche. The former was the elder and the more beautiful, and intended by the Spanish court for the French monarch; but they resolutely preferred Blanche, observing that the name of Urraca would never do! and for the sake of a more mellifluous sound, they carried off, exulting in their own discerning ears, the happier named, but less beautiful princess.

There are names indeed which are painful to the feelings, from the associations of our passions.3 I have seen the Christian name of a gentleman, the victim of the caprice of his godfather, who is called Blast us Godly, — which, were he designed for a bishop, must irritate religious feelings. I am not surprised that one of the Spanish monarchs refused to employ a sound catholic for his secretary, because his name (Martin Lutero) had an affinity to the name of the reformer. Mr. Rose has recently informed us that an architect called Malacarne, who, I believe, had nothing against him but his name, was lately deprived of his place as principal architect by the Austrian government — let us hope not for his unlucky name; though that government, according to Mr. Rose, acts on capricious principles! The fondness which some have felt to perpetuate their names, when their race has fallen extinct, is well known; and a fortune has then been bestowed for a change of name. But the affection for names has gone even farther. A similitude of names, Camden observes, “dothe kindle sparkes of love and liking among meere strangers.” I have observed the great pleasure of persons with uncommon names meeting with another of the same name; an instant relationship appears to take place; and I have known that fortunes have been bequeathed for namesakes. An ornamental manufacturer, who bears a name which he supposes to be very uncommon, having executed an order for a gentleman of the same name, refused to send his bill, never having met with the like, preferring to payment the honour of serving him for namesake.

Among the Greeks and the Romans, beautiful and significant names were studied. The sublime Plato himself has noticed the present topic; his visionary ear was sensible to the delicacy of a name; and his exalted fancy was delighted with beautiful names, as well as every other species of beauty. In his Cratylus he is solicitous that persons should have happy, harmonious, and attractive names. According to Aulus Gellius, the Athenians enacted by a public decree, that no slave should ever bear the consecrated names of their two youthful patriots, Harmodius and Aristogiton — names which had been devoted to the liberties of their country, they considered would be contaminated by servitude. The ancient Romans decreed that the surnames of infamous patricians should not be borne by any other patrician of that family, that their very names might be degraded and expire with them. Eutropius gives a pleasing proof of national friendships being cemented by a name; by a treaty of peace between the Romans and the Sabines, they agreed to melt the two nations into one mass, that they should bear their names conjointly; the Roman should add his to the Sabine, and the Sabine take a Roman name.4

The ancients named both persons and things from some event or other circumstance connected with the object they were to name. Chance, fancy, superstition, fondness, and piety, have invented names. It was a common and whimsical custom among the ancients, (observes Larcher) to give as nicknames the letters of the alphabet. Thus a lame girl was called Lambda, on account of the resemblance which her lameness made her bear to the letter λ, or lambda! Æsop was called Theta by his master, from his superior acuteness. Another was called Beta, from his love of beet. It was thus Scarron, with infinite good temper, alluded to his zig-zag body, by comparing himself to the letter s or z.

The learned Calmet also notices among the Hebrews nicknames and names of raillery taken from defects of body or mind, &c. One is called Nabal, or fool; another Hamor, the Ass; Hagab, the Grasshopper, &c. Women had frequently the names of animals; as Deborah, the Bee; Rachel, the Sheep. Others from their nature or other qualifications; as Tamar, the Palm-tree; Hadassa, the Myrtle; Sarah, the Princess; Hannah, the Gracious. The Indians of North America employ sublime and picturesque names; such are the great Eagle — the Partridge — Dawn of the Day! — Great swift Arrow! — Path-opener! — Sun-bright!

1 Lower’s “English Surnames; an Essay on Family Nomenclature,” may be profitably studied in connexion with this curious subject.

2 Fortunate names, the bona nomina of Cicero, were chiefly selected in accordance with the classic maxim, bonum nomen, bonum omen.

3 “Plautus thought it quite enough to damn a man that he bore the name of Lyco, which is said to signify a greedy-wolf; and Livy calls the name Atrius Umber abominandi ominis nomen, a name of horrible portent."— Nares’ Heraldic Anomalies.

4 The names adopted by the Romans were very significant. The Nomen was indicative of the branch of the family distinguished by the Cognomen; while the Prenomen was invented to distinguish one from the rest. Thus, a man of family had three names, and even a fourth was added when it was won by great deeds.

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