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Name Dropping? A No-Nonsense Guide to the Use of Names in Everyday Language

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Book Review

Name Dropping? A No-Nonsense Guide to the Use of Names in Everyday Language

Philip Gooden likes to explore the less trodden byways of the English language. In this book, the third of his No-Nonsense Guides, he has hit upon the idea of looking at how we use names as a kind of linguistic shorthand. He has noticed how writers, especially journalists, use their readers’ shared knowledge of real people from the past and present, as well as characters from literature and myth and the names of places and ideas, to convey an instant snapshot of a person or situation.

The book contains more than 400 names of people, places and movements, listed alphabetically. Each entry gives a definition for the term, a selection of adjectives suggested by it, an example of use drawn from a real text, and an explanation of the term’s full implications. So, for example, we are told that Heathcliffian means ‘characteristic of the appearance or manner of the principal male figure in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights’ and that its use implies a man who is ‘romantic’, ‘brooding’, ‘dangerous’, ‘untamed’:

After all, if a man does a bit of shouting, demanding and storming around, he’s admired for being fiery, passionate and Heathcliffian. (Observer)

The entries are drawn from a wide variety of sources, notably politics (Thatcherite, Gladstonian), the arts (Mozartian, Kafkaesque), characters from literature (Lear-like, Micawberish), and myth and the classical world (Homeric, Oedipal). Other fertile sources include the Bible, the social sciences, current affairs and popular culture. The adjectives range from the very familiar (Dickensian, Churchillian) to the frankly obscure (Wilderish, Hermann-esque) and from the archaic (Ozymandian) to the bang up-to-date (Jordanesque, Potterish). Many of the references would be lost on anyone who is not familiar with the details of British life in the 20th and 21st centuries (Loachian, Islingtonian, Lucan-like).

The connotations of the entries vary from the very precise to the hopelessly vague or broad. It is pretty clear what is meant by Ciceronian (formal, eloquent) or Hitchcockian (suspenseful, manipulative, threatening) but what are we to make of something that is described as Shakespearian? Gooden devotes the longest entry in the book to unpacking this epithet, and he suggests that it can imply anything from ‘comic’ to ‘tragic’ and ‘bawdy’ to ‘elevated’. Perhaps it just means terrifically good, whatever it is.

Many of these terms have clearly stood the test of time and will continue to do so. Sometimes this is because the references are to major figures from different walks of life (Gandhian, Chekhovian), sometimes because the references are very precise (Herculean, Falstaffian). Others are less likely to survive, either because they evoke no very precise attributes – for example, Potterish (referring to the boy wizard Harry Potter) – or because the people to whom they refer are passing characters on the national or international stage. It seems unlikely that anyone will be using the terms Cameronian (‘bringing a new style’, ‘youthful’) or Sven-like (‘understated’, ‘enigmatic’) 20 or even ten years from now. But there’s fun to be had in seeing how even these ephemeral figures enter, for a time, into the common discourse.

The book has a thematic index and each entry is marked according to Gooden’s own ‘pretentiousness index’. While this is necessarily subjective, it is perhaps useful to know that while referring to someone as Poujadist or Periclean will mark you out as highly pretentious, you can use the epithets Gollum-like and Goonish with impunity!

Name Dropping?
by Philip Gooden
A & C Black 2006
ISBN 978 07136 75887

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