Backson & Co.
Updated: Nov 8, 2020
Names are nouns. They are made of words, some familiar, some less. Names can be given, and names can be earned. They can connect people and families – and divide them. Names can be nominal only – just that, a name, no more. Names can be good or bad. Names can be lacking, names can be made (see OED, “name, n.”).
In stories, names are often ‘telling’. They reveal something about their owner – Little Red Riding Hood, Mr. Knightley, Belle, Despereaux, Farm Boy, Bleak House, Nemo (i.e. ‘no one’), Paradise (i.e. ‘walled enclosure’, ‘garden’), Sister, Trapdoor, Draco –, they ‘tell’ us what characters or places (seemingly) look like, what they do, who they are, what their function is in the story. It’s a typical feature of stories – and people in general – to name and thus create and order the world within and around them: “and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof” (Gen. 2.19). Names connect thought, language and world – make-believe or not.
Usually, names are given to ‘things’ that already exist in the (fictional) world. Sometimes they have to be found as in “Rumpelstiltskin” and Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1837-39); true name equals true identity. Sometimes they are lost, sometimes changed: “if you call me Anne please call me Anne spelled with an e” (Montgomery 27). Names mean power, power to define and power to be:
“I don’t rejoice in insects at all,” Alice explained, “because I’m rather afraid of them – at least the large kinds. But I can tell you the names of some of them.” “Of course they answer to their names?” the Gnat remarked carelessly. “I never knew them do it.” “What’s the use of their having names,” the Gnat said, “if they wo’n’t answer to them?” “No use to them,” said Alice; “but it’s useful to the people who name them, I suppose. If not, why do things have names at all?” (Carroll 182)
The Looking-Glass Insects truly live up to their names: Rocking-horse-fly, Snap-dragon-fly, Bread-and-butter-fly. The characters are their names. But can names that are related to no one and nothing also be characters?
‘Bother!’ said Rabbit. ‘He’s gone out.’ He went back to the green front door, just to make sure, and he was turning away, feeling that his morning had got all spoilt, when he saw a piece of paper on the ground. And there was a pin in it, as if it had fallen off the door. ‘Ha!’ said Rabbit, feeling quite happy again. ‘Another notice!’ This is what it said:
GON OUT BACKSON BISY BACKSON C.R. (Milne 75-76)
In The House at Pooh Corner (1928), Rabbit makes it his mission to find out where the missing Cristopher Robin has got to. He asks Owl for help in deciphering the message:
‘It is quite clear what has happened, my dear Rabbit,’ he said. ‘Christopher Robin has gone out somewhere with Backson. He and Backson are busy together. Have you seen a Backson anywhere about in the Forest lately?’ (79-80)
Within a split second, what Owl takes to be a ‘name’ becomes a kind of person, a character. He has, however, trouble defining what a “Backson” is, a name without a referent:
‘Well,’ said Owl, ‘the Spotted or Herbaceous Backson is just a –’ ‘At least,’ he said, ‘it’s really more of a –’ ‘Of course,’ he said, ‘it depends on the –’ ‘Well,’ said Owl, ‘the fact is,’ he said, ‘I don’t know what they’re like,’ said Owl frankly. (80)
Rabbit is not discouraged by this. He searches and ask for the “Spotted or Herbaceous Backson” all over the forest. Eventually, the mystery is resolved – Christopher Robin is off to school in the mornings –, but the Backson is not quite dissolved:
Next morning the notice on Christopher Robin’s door said:
GONE OUT BACK SOON C.R.
Which is why all animals in the Forest – except, of course, the Spotted and Herbaceous Backson – now know what Christopher Robin does in the mornings. (89)
The Backson doesn’t exist in the story world – and, yet, it does. It’s been named and spelled out, though not defined, and it’s been accepted as a ‘person’ by several inhabitants of the Forest. The final sentence of the story, cheekily, acknowledges this potential for (fictional) identity. On a larger scale, of course, the Backson is as (un)real as Rabbit is or Owl or even Christopher Robin. They have names, but they do not have selves; at least not outside of the fictional world and the mind of the reader. In stories, naming is being – apparently even by ‘accident’.
The Bible: Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha. Edited by Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett, Oxford University Press, 2008.
Carroll, Lewis. The Annotated Alice: The Definite Edition. 1865, 1871. Edited by Martin Gardner, Penguin Books, 2000.
“name, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/124918. Accessed 29 December 2019.
Milne, A. A. The House at Pooh Corner. 1928. Egmont, 2007.
Montgomery, Lucy Maud. Anne of Green Gables. 1911. Norton, 2007.