Valentina Ambrogio — professional English to Italian Translator, Localiser and Subtitler

What’s in a name? An analysis of names in TV series

Walter White - (C)

What’s in a name? An analysis of names in TV series

Posted by Valentina Ambrogio in Audiovisual, English, Language 23 Feb 2015

What’s in a name? That which we call Dexter by any other name would sound as sweet? This is the fundamental question behind this blog post. As I always say, I watch an almost unhealthy amount of TV series. Sometimes I watch some episodes even more than once, because everybody knows that genius is in the details! I need to do that. Just watching is no longer enough; I need to analyse and understand, and I cannot help but wonder why creators decide to opt for a particular name for their characters rather than another one.

Dexter ♦

In the introduction I mentioned Dexter, main character of the drama series of the same name. Dexter is a forensic blood spatter analyst for the Miami-Metro Police. In his “spare time” though, he is a vigilante serial killer. He chooses his victims according to a code his father created so that he would not kill innocent people. He also follows a particular ritual to murder his victims. Have you ever thought about the meaning of the word dexter? Let’s analyse it together: Dexter comes from Latin dexter, “on the right hand”, which takes us to the noun dexterity meaning: 1. skill in using the hands or body; agility; 2. mental adroitness or skill; cleverness. How appropriate, huh?

♦ Breaking Bad ♦

Breaking freaking Bad. A masterpiece of recent TV history. The family man, the good husband, the responsible father, Walter White is a chemistry teacher who starts cooking meth to provide for his family after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Yes, drugs. What do you think about his surname? Mr White. The colour white, in my mind, always conjures up a symbolism of purity and light, which totally collides with the shady business and secret life of Mr White/Heisenberg. I bow to you Vince Gilligan!

♦ Grey’s Anatomy ♦

Are you familiar with Meredith Grey and Grey’s Anatomy*? She might not be the most loved character of GA, but her surname is so appropriate for her, IMO. Gray is – again – a colour between black and white. It is neutral, not very definite, just like Mer in many instances of the series. With a complicated family history behind, she struggles to find a balance between her pursuit of professional success as a surgeon, and the pursuit of personal fulfilment as a woman who loves and lives. Sometimes she is very hard to understand, a bit of a blurry character. Grey = gray = yep!

*[A nice colleague told me on Twitter that the title “Grey’s Anatomy” is probably a pun on “Gray’s Anatomy”, a medical textbook. Thank you, Luisa! (@LuisaLovesWords)]

♦ Banshee ♦

Set in the fictional town of Banshee (huge round of applause for the choice of this name), the series is based on the misadventures of an unnamed character. After 15 years in prison for stealing diamonds from a Ukrainian mob boss called Rabbit, he looks for his old partner in crime, Ana, Rabbit’s daughter. He ends up in Banshee and assumes the identity of Lucas Hood, the town’s murdered sheriff. Let’s analyse the names. Lucas Hood, he is a thief. Thief (criminal) + sheriff (law-enforcement officer) = my mind goes to Robin Hood (there’s some good in him in the end); and also I think Hood refers to the fact that he is hiding, covered with a symbolic hood. Ana/Carrie Hopewell: she is also hiding in Banshee from her father. She married a good man and started a family, hoping everything would go well.

♦ Once Upon a Time ♦

OUAT takes place in the fictional town of Storybrooks (story + books), where several characters from fairy tales and other famous stories live in the real world without any memory of their magic history. This show is full of names which perfectly depict the characters’ features. The creators did a really good job in this case. The Evil Queen in the real world is called Regina, which means “queen”. Snow White is Mary MargaretMary as the religious symbol of motherhood. Rumplestilskin is Mr Gold:  he owns a pawn shop and is very greedy (often associated with gold). Red Riding Hood is called Ruby, which means “deep red”.

I have many other examples in mind, such as: the Bravermans, the wonderful and brave family from Parenthood, or The Hecks the very weird family from The Middle; Jack Shephard from Lost, who – like a shepherd – led the other survivors through the mind-blowing discovery of the Island; or the very quirky Leslie Knope portrayed by Amy Poehler in Parks & Recreation.

Maybe I am reading too much into this and my analysis is far-fetched, but names play an important role in all kinds of media, books, movies, so I like to think that these names are telling the character’s story on their own.

From a linguistic point of view, I wonder: what about those viewers who do not understand English? Are they losing a bit of the experience lived by those who can understand the language? Should these names be translated? Or would they lose their appeal?

I would like to know your point of view, so share and comment!


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