Note #10: On Cratylic Names

Jason Schwartzman
Feb 22, 2020 · 3 min read

Choose them with care

When writing fiction, names should not be lightly chosen. Nor should they beat you over the head with their meaning, like providing a greedy character with the surname Coin. One tactic to soften that over-obvious effect is to misspell a loaded word when turning it into a name. So instead of Coin, Coyne would work better, since it offers at least some orthological veil, allowing the reader to decipher the meaning on their own as they move through your work.

Names that reveal a meaning about a character are called “cratylic names.” The term comes from one of Plato’s dialogues where he spoke on truth-in-names with Cratylus. Instead of a random name sending the reader on a wild-goose-chase for meaning that doesn’t exist, it can be worthwhile to give them a puzzle.

A Few Classic Examples (from TV)

Walter White, from Breaking Bad:

Walter ties him to Walt Whitman (his favorite poet), as an aspiring master of his craft. His eventual need for perfection as a meth wizard.

White signifies his basic, purer beginnings as he “breaks bad” over the course of the series, turning darker.

Jesse Pinkman, from Breaking Bad

Pinkman — as Walter (and Hank) jostle to become ever more (toxically) masculine, Jesse stands apart as someone who does not really embody that ideal, and who often isn’t taken seriously, making him a “pink man.”

Dick Whitman / Don Draper, from Breaking Bad

Dick—self-explanatory, he allows his sexual drives to control his life

Whitman translates to blank man, or say, the first draft of the future Mad Man exec.

Don shows how he transforms into a big shot boss

Draper suggesting the “drapes” over his former self, and how difficult it is for other characters to see into his life and self.

Not all shows strive for the literary in this way, but it can be fun when they do. I recently watched The Affair, which traces an infidelity and its consequences among the unfaithful, their partners, and children over a series of years. This show paid a lot of attention to names, partially because Noah is a writer, and because of its own identity as a character study.

It has four main characters: Noah is married to Helen and Allison is married to Cole. Noah and Allison have an affair.

Noah Solloway

Noah—biblical reference, the idea of escaping a disaster with one other person (the disaster in this case being boredom / dissatisfaction with family life). Also implies the notion of a storm (which the whole series is!).

Solloway—Solo Way, going it alone; not being content to take his wife’s family’s money. Or alternatively, tells you he’s not gonna be a family man!

Alison Bailey

For much of the show she’s emotional trapped by her son’s death; Bailey is an old word for a prison.

Cole Lockhart

As much as he tries to move on from the wife who cheats on him, he only ever really has eyes for Alison. Lockhart; Lockhart = Locked / Heart

Helen Butler

Helen is a mythological reference (the face that launched a 1000 ships) … both Helens ultimately go back to their first husbands, in Homer and in the show.

Butler— she came from money, is accustomed to service, feels continually like she didn’t have to do much on her own which makes her distrust some of her instincts…

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