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Literary Names

What's in a Name

If a name is associated with an unfortunate incident, it often diminishes in popularity, but many of the names used in Shakespeare's plays were and are popular regardless of how their namesakes ended up. We all know what happened to Juliet; Ophelia met a similar fate.

The Bible is probably the most famous and most widely used source for names the world over, but it's by far not the only literary work that has had a strong influence on naming fashions.

William Shakespeare was just one of the many playwrights, poets, and novelists who made a strong contribution to the naming pool on the far side of the Atlantic. Juliet, of course, is a given, but we also have the Bard to thank for such widely popular names as Jessica, which, while found in the first book of the Bible, really didn't become popular until Shakespeare used it in The Merchant of Venice. Other names with a Shakespearean heritage include:


  • Bianca (The Taming of the Shrew; Othello)
  • Celia (As You Like It)
  • Cordelia (King Lear)
  • Diana (All's Well That Ends Well)
  • Julia (Two Gentlemen of Verona)
  • Ophelia (Hamlet)
  • Miranda (The Tempest)
  • Portia (The Merchant of Venice; Julius Caesar)
  • Rosalind (As You Like It)

  • Benedick (Much Ado About Nothing)
  • Dion (The Winter's Tale)
  • Duncan (Macbeth)
  • Fabian (Twelfth Night)
  • Humphrey (Henry VI, Part II)
  • Lorenzo (The Merchant of Venice)
  • Sebastian (Twelfth Night; The Tempest)
  • Toby (Twelfth Night)

Cute as the Dickens

Alphabet Soup

A fictional name created in a literary work is known as a poetonym, from the Greek poietos (made) and -onym (name).

Some of the full character names that Charles Dickens used in his popular novels—especially the ones he gave to his male characters—are pretty laughable to this day, but their given names are also some of the most popular around. While he often drew from the available name pool, Dickens also had a flair for the fanciful and unusual, and his naming talents were one of his strongest literary tools. We also have Dickens to thank for some of the most iconoclastic names ever coined, such as Uriah Heep and Ebeneezer Scrooge, or, in a more positive light, Oliver Twist.

Popular Dickensian names include:


  • Amy (Little Dorrit)
  • Anastasia (Our Mutual Friend)
  • Betsey (David Copperfield)
  • Clarissa (David Copperfield)
  • Estella (Great Expectations)
  • Fanny (Dombey and Son; Little Dorrit)
  • Lavinia (David Copperfield; Our Mutual Friend)
  • Minnie (Little Dorrit)
  • Men

  • Bradley (Our Mutual Friend)
  • Christopher (The Old Curiosity Shop; Little Dorrit)
  • Nicholas (Nicholas Nickleby)
  • Sydney (Nicholas Nickleby; A Christmas Carol)

Taking names from popular literary characters remains a strong naming fashion to this day in both English- and non-English-speaking countries. This fashion also forms the basis for the custom of naming children after stage, screen, and television stars, which, while very popular in many parts of the world (including the U.S.), is somewhat of a national mania in places like India, where the most popular stars are literally idolized.

More on: Choosing a Name

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Baby Names © 1999 by Sonia Weiss. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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