Narrating names – Presidential Address Given To The Folklore Society March 2001

Narrating names – Presidential Address Given To The Folklore Society March 2001 – Transcript

W.F.H. Nicolaisen

This is the second time that I have an opportunity to give a presidential address combining the study of names with folklore research, for on October 19, 1983 I ended my tenure as President of the American Folklore Society by addressing the participants of its annual conference in Nashville, Tennessee on the subject of “Names and Narratives” (Nicolaisen 1984b). Almost eighteen years ago, I was very conscious of the fact that that occasion was almost the first time in my academic career that I had drawn together threads which I had for many years regarded as completely separate but was now weaving into patterns to which both my chief research interests were making contributions. The reason why I was able to do so at that time had been the previous and somewhat belated realisation that, after all, the people who give, receive and use names are the same people who tell, listen to and enjoy stories. What was then, for me, a riskful innovation has since become, if not quite routine, a much more familiar perspective, and onomastic questions are never far from my mind when I am investigating something folkloric, while, in my role as a student of names, I never push aside or neglect to examine what many other more linguistically oriented name scholars regard as “mere folklore” and therefore not worth taking note of, and I have therefore also benefited greatly from the mutual interaction of concepts and terminologies in these two fields of study, not to say disciplines.

If this were a meeting predominantly attended by name scholars, I would probably use the occasion to focus on some of the folkloristic aspects of the world in which people who bear and use names live, but as this is primarily a gathering of folklorists, I intend to highlight certain onomastic facets of the lives of those who are sometimes, without much precision and even less justification, called the “folk.” Unfortunately, the application of the term “name” to certain categories of communicative devices is so vague and, in many instances, so self-contradictory that a brief clarification as to what constitutes a “name” in the argumentation which follows is, it seems, necessary. In the first place, we must rid ourselves of the notion that names are simply words with additional, peculiar qualities, a kind of minor verbal subcategory. Admittedly, names share with words certain surface characteristics: they can serve syntactically as nouns, for example, though, and this is an essential difference, they do not form plurals or take the definite article, unless it is already part of the name as in The Thames, The Garioch, or The Minch. Visually, and this applies, among other languages as well to English, we distinguish names from nouns by writing them with capital initials in any part of the sentence, not just at the beginning where capitalisation is general. We also differentiate visually some names from the words from which they have been derived by differences in spelling: Taylor vs. tailor, or Gray vs. grey. In order to be able to make these visual distinctions, we must have a notion, perhaps an innate sense, of what names are, and it does not take a great degree of literacy to make them competently.

The two major differences between names and words, between onymic and lexical items, are, however, to be found on their functional and semantic levels, and it is in these respects that we need precise concepts and an equally precise terminology as a vehicle for those concepts. The functional contrast can probably be best expressed by the terms denotative for names and connotative for words, for the purpose of names is to individuate and therefore to function exclusively, whereas words group together and are consequently inclusive, as in Iceland vs. ice and Kingskettle in Fife vs. kettle. That, in the global context of our twenty-first-century world, such individuating identification is hardly ever universal is to be understood, but it is certainly the function of names to identify persons, places, boats, and so on in certain limited environments: in one class in school, one valley, one harbour, and so on. It is, in this functional respect, though, that there is still need for greater precision and clarity in our thinking. During the last few decades, there has been, for instance, a notable increase, within the field of onomastics, in the study of brand names, and the like, a scholarly pursuit of considerable merit, but is it concerned with names? When we are thinking in terms of automobiles, for example, nobody will claim that the item car, with a small initial, is a name, as it functions obviously in that inclusive, connotative way described earlier. We are treading on a slippery slope, however, if we regard Ford, Honda, or Rolls Royce as names, as they apply to all cars produced by the manufacturers in question, and even a Ford Escort, Honda Civic, or Rolls Royce Silver Cloud is not strictly a name in our rigid definition. It is only when we call our car George or Wendy or Drummer Boy that we are actually engaged in a naming process. The same is true of dogs, let us say, breeds of which, like schnauzer, doberman, alsatian are taxonomic designations and not names, like Rover, Hitler, or Prince. We can extend this to other spheres of life. A cat called Nathena, a snake called Sly or Pretzel, a goldfish called Jaws, a plant called Misty or Spot, a positron called Priscilla, an anglepoise lamp called Angus, a microchip called Irving, all fall within the category of what I shall today call names (Nicolaisen 1984b; 1996-7).

Even more important, however, is the semantic distinction between names and words. Put in a nutshell, words must have lexical meaning if they are to be used competently; names can be quite meaningless lexically but can still function perfectly well as long as they have onymic contents; even when lexical meaning is still transparent as in, let us say, surnames like Smith or Brown, that meaning does not interfere with their function as names, for somebody called Smith can be a baker or somebody called Brown can have a contradictory skin or hair colour. In addition to meaningless or inappropriate inherited surnames, many of us have been identified all our lives by first names which for us and others are semantically opaque. Similarly, the vast majority of people in this country live in locations that have had for some considerable time meaningless names but the onymic contents of which has made them perfectly functionable as names. It is this characteristic which has turned place names into such important evidence in the establishment of relative linguistic stratifications, as they can survive the languages which coined them by phonological adaptations in later languages. We are therefore fully justified in treating names quite differently from words and follow with special attention their usage in the various contexts in which they occur.

This is not to say that all the qualities mentioned so far as factors in the differentiation of names from words are relevant when it comes to their investigation in folk-cultural environments, but in the following we will look at some instances in which that distinction does undoubtedly matter.

In spite of the proven functionality of lexically meaningless names, users of names are not necessarily comfortable with mere onymic contents, and therefore often try to restore meaning to meaningless names through secondary reinterpretation. The Scottish island name Skye–as in “over the sea to”–existed for many centuries before any Gaelic speakers ever set foot on it; yet it is invariably interpreted as either “the winged isle” or as referring to the cleft nature of its coastline, since there are two Gaelic words sgith, one meaning “wing” and the other “knife.” Both these interpretations are linguistic anachronisms, and we have to be satisfied with acknowledging that we know neither the lexical meaning of the island name nor the language which coined it.

Aetiological Legends

Frequently, this process of semantic reinterpretation results in the telling of stories which are said to explain the origin of the names in question, so-called aetiological legends. The large corpus of German sagen collected and published by the Brothers Grimm, for instance, contains many examples of this kind of explanatory story (Grimm and Grimm 1981) and we find them wherever cultures use names to mark places and spaces. Several years ago, during my stay in the United States, I made a special survey of stories which attribute name origins to a particular incident in which somebody is supposed to have made a memorable statement (Nicolaisen 1977). The best known of these concerns the name Sheboygan in Wisconsin. This is a pre-European, Native American name no longer understood by European settlers for whom it is lexically opaque. The aetiological legend which aims at restoring a meaning for it relies on a bicultural setting, the trading post, a linguistically imperfect speaker of English, an Indian whose fertility also receives implicit comment from the point of view of a supposedly superior culture, and the socially accepted desire of many parents to produce children of both sexes, as a sign of sexual competence. The place name Sheboygan is said to go back to an Indian, who, after his wife had just given birth to a child, rushed into the trading post one day commenting “she boy again.” This exclamation is usually taken to be an expression of disappointment since the father in question already had several sons and had been hoping for a daughter, although in some variants he is thought to have made his announcement with pride. In a third version, the anguished groan of disappointment is attributed to the white settlers themselves after only boys had been born in the community, over a number of years. In the main variant, the legend relies both on the sniggeringly received news of the defeat of the father’s expectation and on the mangling of the English language–a grammatically incorrect sentence with toponymic consequences. There can be no doubt about the intended humour of this story, and one wonders whether any teller or listener would, in fact, be prepared to take it seriously. Be that as it may, the semantic reinterpretation of the pre-English name in terms of incorrect English not only uses one of the rarest types of place names in our Western culture, the incident name, but employs a subtype–“What somebody said on such and such an occasion”–not encountered at all in actual naming situations.

Here are a few more examples of this kind of folk-etymological legend, from the part of the United States in which we lived, upstate New York.

Just west of Binghamton, N.Y. is a town called Owego, which is supposed to have got its name when the native Americans expelled from their homes by General Sullivan’s raids are said to have shouted: “Oh we go!” About a hundred miles further north is the town of Schenectady: the story goes that a captive of the Indians was begging that his life should be spared but the chief informed him with the appropriate gesture, “Skin neck t’day.” In Jefferson County in the same state, the river Oswegatchie received its name when an Indian pulled his drowning horse out of the water exclaiming, “Oss we got ye!” and another watercourse, the Genegantslet Creek in Chenango County, is reported to have been the scene of the drowning of an Indian girl; her lover, who returned to the stream often, commented sadly, “Jenny gone sleep.” In the early days of Cattaraugus County, also in New York State, a large part was named Ischua; the neighbouring citizens of Olean tell the story of a drunken traveller stopping at a cluster of houses north of Olean, asking, “Ish a way for Olean?” and that is how Ischua got its name. There are many more such names and legends throughout the United States but this small selection certainly makes the point.

What we have here is a fascinating symbiosis of name and narrative: a semantically obscure name creating a story which is intended to make the name transparent again. The curious twist to this process, however, is that in practically all the examples paraded so far, it is a speaker of the language in which the place in question was named who, through his problems with English, is supposed to have triggered the name when, after all, the current name would not have been opaque to him in the first place. This incongruity undoubtedly adds to the humour of these apparently aetiological legends, to the entertainment of their audiences, and to the chagrin of humourless, serious name scholars. The need for such stories also points up the general discontinuity in North America between the cultures and languages of the native population and the European incomers. However, as the story explaining the origin of the name Ischua indicates, native Americans are not the only “outsiders” ridiculed or put down in such legends; drunks, Swedes, Germans, Mexicans, Afro-Americans, and children are sometimes given the same doubtful status and treatment, while all these narrative accounts, however improbable, point up the intriguing dichotomy between the functional adequacy of the lexically meaningless name and the perceived need for lexical meaningfulness beyond satisfactory onymic contents, on the semantic level.


The kind of close relationship between story and name just singled out is probably not the one which would normally come to mind when one is interested in finding persuasive examples for the illustration of our theme. It is curious, however, if not apparently self-contradictory, that sometimes we have to approach this onymic aspect of folk narratives from a consideration of namelessness, for most of the characters, including many of the protagonists, and almost all the places in traditional tales do not have any names in the sense described earlier. In the case of localities in particular, the absence of names in Marchen leads to the creation of a fundamentally acartographical space in which the storying events unfold, in spite of the strong spatial element in those stories (Nicolaisen 1991). The main reason for this seeming contradiction is to be found in the generic nature both of most of the personnel (the king, the princess, the mother, the stepmother, the giant, the little old man, the witch, the hunter, the wolf, the bull, and so on) and of the features of the narrated landscape (the castle, the forest, the river, the witch’s house, the island, the church, the graveyard, the road, and so on). One of a kind does not have to be named. That is why those tale types in which named characters appear, and in which their names really matter, merit particular attention.

For most of us, the best known type in this respect is probably AT 500, which in the Tale Type Index is appropriately entitled “The Name of the Helper,” and at the heart of which is what we might call the “Rumplestiltskin” syndrome (Marshall 1973; Kapfhammer 1995-6, 1:573-6). As part of a riddle-wager, the unknown, difficult name of an otherworldly helper has to be guessed by a young mother in order for her to be freed from a promise made under life-threatening circumstances and for the monstrous helper to be driven out of her life. As an otherworldly creature, the helper does not have a human name but is, in the various cultures in which this tale is told, called Rumpelstilzchen, Tom Tit Tot, Whippity Stoorie, Ricdin-Ricdon, Trillerip, Kulfacek, Skaane, Tvester, Purzinigle, Mimi Pinson, Timbutoe, Knirrficker, Ekke Nekkepen, and the like (Nicolaisen 1999). He is therefore convinced that his name cannot be guessed, is so self-assured, in fact, that he inadvertently gives it away himself. This successful guessing of a name never heard before, and therefore seemingly unguessable, hits the demon so much harder because the threatened young woman thus gains power over him or he loses his power over her. The numinous is made profane. Undoubtedly, the belief in name magic plays an essential role in this tale, though it is probably worth observing that in our day and age and in our society names have, on the whole, become much more harmless, and we do not feel immediately threatened and more vulnerable once somebody knows our name (Nicolaisen 1998). In the context of this brief study, the story of the desperate guessing of the unguessable name of a monstrous helper is perhaps best seen as an outstanding example of the potentially close links between name and narrative, between namer and narrator, between homo nominans and homo narrans.

While the dramatic circumstances surrounding the Rumplestiltskin tale are difficult to reproduce in any other traditional story in the folk-cultural register, the use of names in another tale type perhaps speaks of greater profundity and more existential concern (Nicolaisen 1993). Both subtypes of AT 510 take their titles from the outward appearance and temporarily diminished social status of their female protagonists because in a very real sense they narrate their names, the onymic clothing of innocent, persecuted heroines. Neither of them is an archetypal “rags-to-riches” story, since the situations in which their names cloak them in the eyes of the world are false and temporary ones imposed on them by cruel persecuting forces which prevent them from occupying their rightful places in society. While Cinderella’s name in 510A derives from her lowly position in the ashes of the hearth, she is transformed into her real self by the clothing provided by the birds on her mother’s grave, by a fairy godmother, or by some such supernatural helper.

This is a motif which also occurs centrally in subtype 510B, in which it has a similarly positive effect for its heroines. The major difference, however, lies in the fact that the protagonists of AT 510B, in order to evade their pursuers, deliberately hide their true identity during their flight, which ultimately leads them to find themselves and to restore justice and order in their lives. Before their desperate escape from their previous standing as princess, aristocrat’s or rich man’s daughter, or some other high position in society becomes necessary, for a number of different reasons, they are nameless, and it is only when a drastic disguise is needed that the world in which they live as depersonalised refugees ironically responds by naming them after the new image which they present to outsiders. In each variant of the story, the disguise is an intentional, lowering uglification of–how could it be otherwise–a beautiful person and therefore of the creation of a false, albeit only outward, identity. It is also significant that the disguise consists of non-human coverings, as in Cap o’ Rushes, Catskin, Allerleirauh (All-kinds-of-fur), Peau d’ane (Donkeyskin), Katie Woodencloak, Tattercoats, Rashie Coat, The Bear, The Little Stick Figure, Mossycoats, Wooden Maria, and so on, with flora and fauna coming to their aid.

While they are thus outwardly disguised and thoroughly misunderstood, and therefore not recognisable as the persons they really are, they are indeed their fraudulent names and are engaged in menial tasks suitable for females of the bizarre and slatternly appearance which they have chosen to present to the world. At the same time, however, they not only cling to their own identity but, in the face of their often unbearable humiliation, grow in stature. The “hairy animal,” “nasty thing,” “ugly creature,” “real cure for love,” according to the taunts of their co-workers in scullery, pigsty, and turkey yard, secretly in their own rooms, or once a week openly in church on Sunday, dress according to their true status and, since outward appearance means identity in traditional tales, are not recognised in their temporarily restored beautiful persona, in which they inevitably attract suitors compatible with their own true position in life. We may find it difficult to understand why, in several variants of the tale type, persecuted princesses desire to have as their husbands men who have treated them cruelly as kitchen drabs and scullery maids but they, too, like the men smitten, seem to be incapable of reconciling their two major identities, the true and the false, and do not regard as incongruous the pain and shame of one treatment (which they have met with patience and amazing good humour) and the pleasure and adoration of the other. Our first impression needs correction, however, for during the time of their humiliation, which, we must remember, is also a time of safety from persecution, the Tattercoats, Donkeyskins, Caps o’ Rushes have acquired the knack of taking their fates into their own hands and of shaping their own destinies by their own exertions and ruses. Though the prince thinks he is going to marry her, in reality, being completely outwitted, he is going to be married by her. Persecuted the princess may be, meek and resourceless she is no more, and thus these tales, despite their unpromising beginnings, turn out to be painfully glorious celebrations of the indomitable power and spirit of womanhood. According to Jack Zipes, you cannot bet on the prince (Zipes 1986) but, I would add, in the end you can always bet on the princess.

It is, however, also worth remembering that, in addition to the personal triumph of the Mossycoats, Katie Woodencloak, All-kinds-of-fur, and the like, their delivery meets or averts the perturbing threat to the accepted and acceptable social order in general because what is at stake in these stories is much more than innocence about to be violated or cruel persecution leading to personal displacement; what is in danger is the comforting, comfortable, indeed traditional, order of things that keeps a structured society from slipping into chaos or being put out of joint.

At the outset of all the variants of AT 510B taken into account for this article, or just before they begin, the social order of the times, with its implicit, expected, nameless, generic hierarchical gradations is intact before first being endangered morally or violently, or both, then turned upside down–the named phase–and finally restored, though not automatically and without a struggle, or without the heroine’s willingness to endure hardship on the way–to be Rashie Coats, Donkeyskin, or Wooden Maria, unpleasant accompaniments to the successful negotiation of a rite of passage–an initiation from girlhood and daughterhood into womanhood and wifehood. Thus, a disturbed social world is made whole again, in addition to a motherless, unprotected, pre-nubile girl being driven out of her rightful place in the world and restored to it elsewhere, mainly through her own initiative–the princess turned Catskin becomes a queen.

Our detailed preoccupation with personal names in traditional tales (and there are, of course, other stories which narrate names like Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Snowwhite and Rosered, Rapunzel, or Little Thorny Rose [the German equivalent of Sleeping Beauty]), our preoccupation with personal names in folk tales and our previous references to acartographic, nameless landscapes in the Marchen may have created the impression that named places are not to be found in the creation of spatial pasts in any narrative genres in the folk-cultural register, but such an impression would certainly be misleading.

Contemporary Legends

If we return to the genre which was at the centre of my presidential address last year (Nicolaisen 2001)–the contemporary legend–named locations are in many of them essential props in the establishment of their veracity or, at the very least, their believability. If a woman shares a table in a coffee shop called Crawford’s in Union Street in Aberdeen with a Pakistani whom she mistakenly and embarrassingly accuses of having stolen her biscuits, or if a fried rat is served in a specific Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in Sheffield, or if cats’ skins (not used for disguise by princesses, by the way, but pointing to the serving of suspicious foreign food) are seen outside a certain Chinese restaurant in Binghamton, N.Y., or if a young man is said to have been deliberately infected with AIDS in a well-known Spanish holiday island, then the degree of believability of these stories is greatly enhanced. If something happened in a precisely named location then it is difficult to deny the truth of the account. In contemporary or historical legends of all kinds, and not just in their aetiological variety discussed earlier, place names play a crucial role in preventing such stories from becoming so vague as to be bordering on the untrustworthy: a doubting “it may have happened this way but there is no proof,” instead of a convincing “you may not believe this but it is really true,” which does not lose its persuasiveness even if the claim is also made for a similar event having happened in a similarly precisely named location elsewhere. It would be an exaggeration to say that all legends narrate names but they certainly depend on them greatly in their narrative structure and strategies.

Names in the “Doric”

And finally, as they say, for something completely different, in a “postlude” which I hope will transfer, for a few minutes, this room in the Warburg Institute in London into a little corner of the Scottish north-east from where I have travelled to fulfil the duties expected of a President of the Folklore Society. Ever since moving to Aberdeen in what is misleadingly termed my “retirement,” I have, in almost a hundred monthly columns in a regional magazine called Leopard (after a figure in the Aberdonian coat-of-arms), discussed a large variety of aspects of the place-nomenclature of the Scottish north-east, among them, and that might be relevant in this context, the informal facets of that nomenclature which do not appear on any official Ordnance Survey map or on any map published by any mapping agency. The primary aim of this has been the compilation of an inventory of place names in the regional variety of Scots, the so-called “Doric.” This goal has not been easy to achieve since there is a clear and understandable reluctance on the part of readers to provide in written form names which are normally only used in oral tradition, as a sort of “folk-toponymy.” Among the more interesting examples are The Broch for both Fraserburgh and Burghead, the Blue Toon for Peterhead, Foggie Loan for Aberchirder, Skite for Drumlithie, Steenhive for Stonehaven, Fittens for Whitehills, Sloch for Portessie, The Doup for Nethermuir, and Cyaard Cyack for New Pitsligo. Among these popular alternatives are completely unrelated names and also those which simply display the local pronunciation, a category which is expectedly the most numerous in the responses which I have received.

Almost as a by-product, however, I have been made aware of many instances in which farmers are designated by the names of their farms, usually in an abbreviated form ending in the ubiquitous “Doric” ee/-y/-ie, as in Middee for Midtown, Knockie for Knockhill and for Knockfullertree, Wardee for Wardmill, Inchee for Inchloan, Mossie for Moss-Side, Birley for Tillybirloch, Waulky for Waulkmill, Bogny for Bogindhu, Haddy for Hadagain, Hilly for Hillhead, Gouky for Goukstone, Scotty for Scottiestone, and so on. The farms in question are often called Waulkies, Bognies, Haddies, Hillses, Mucklies, Goulies, Knockies, Goukies, and the like, presumably with a possessive final “s.” Not only is the farmer’s name continued through generations, but it is often also transferred to new owners of the same farm. The official surname of the farmer is irrelevant.

My chief reason for drawing attention to this usage is to add yet another dimension to the variety of mapping operations which occur in addition, though not necessarily secondary, to the activities of the official cartographers. It is not only in the landscapes of the mind, of literary fiction, and of oral tradition, that names are narrated and narration creates names. There are also other processes which are part of the folk-cultural perspective of what some might regard as the real world out there. In the case of this particular naming practice, the landscape is structured in socio-onomastic, or rather socio-toponymic, terms and is seen as an intensely human habitat rather than as a surrounding environment, into which human culture infiltrates. It is, therefore, probably reasonable to posit that through this naming strategy landscape and society become one and that the farmers’ names in question, in their particular abbreviated morphology–Knockie, Inchee, Gouky–imply a kind of intimacy which even the most accurate official map would never achieve.

On the evidence of this very selective set of vignettes, we can, presumably with some justification, transfer the Roman dictum about seafaring to the activities of storytelling and naming: Narrare et nominare necesse sunt.

References Cited

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. The German Legends of the Brothers Grimm. Edited and translated by Donald Ward. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1981.

Kapfhammer, Gunther. “Stilistische Funktion der Namen in Marchen und Sagen.” In Name Studies: An International Handbook of Onomastics, ed. Ernst Eichler et al. 2 vols. Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1995-6.

Marshall, Howard Wight. “`Tom Tit Tot’–A Comparative Essay on Aarne-Thomson Type 500–The Name of the Helper.” Folklore 84 (1973):51-7.

Nicolaisen, W. F. H. “Some Humorous Folk-Etymological Narratives.” New York Folklore 3 (1977):1-14.

Nicolaisen, W. F. H. “Folklore and Names.” Names Northeast 4 (1984a):67-76.

Nicolaisen, W. F. H. “Names and Narratives.” Journal of American Folklore 97 (1984b):259-72.

Nicolaisen, W. F. H. “The Past as Place.” Folklore 102 (1991):3-15.

Nicolaisen, W. F. H. “Why Tell Stories about Innocent, Persecuted Heroines?” Western Folklore 52 (1993):61-71.

Nicolaisen, W. F. H. “The World of Names.” Ainm 7 (1996-7):28-43.

Nicolaisen, W. F. H. “Von der Verharmlosung der Namen.” In Namenforschung und Namendidaktik, ed. Kurt Franz and Albrecht Greule. 226-30. Hohengehren: Schneider, 1998.

Nicolaisen, W. F. H. “Name.” Enzyklopadie des Marchens 9.3 (1999):1157-63.

Nicolaisen, W. F. H. “Burglars and Burglaries in Contemporary Legends.” Folklore 112 (2001):137-46.

Zipes, Jack. Don’t Bet on the Prince. London: Methuen, 1986.

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