Tuesday 17 May 2016

On Philomena Cunk, the name

A correspondent writes - having just watched Ben et al on Philomena Cunk's programme on Shakespeare - to ask why the name sounds so funny. Her name, that is, not Ben's.

This is all to do with the phonaesthetics of English. I've written about it before, such as in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, and about the general topic of sound symbolism in the Language encylopedia. There are two opposing trends:

Short vowels, plosive consonants, and monosyllables tend to be used when you want to give someone a funny or quirky (and meaningless) name - Plip, Togg, Puck ... I remember Blackadder having great fun with the name Bob once. If the sound sequence has echoes of taboo words, so much the better. Cunk inevitably brings to mind ... well, you know.

Long vowels, continuant consonants such as /l/ and /m/, and polysyllables (three or more) tend to be used when you want to give someone a gentle or romantic (and meaningless) name - Lamonian, Manderley, Ramalini ... Real names include Mariana, Valentine - and Philomena.

So it's the juxtaposition of the opposing phonaesthetic effects that provides the effect my correspondent has sensed in the name Philomena Cunk. It's a well-tried literary trick: Roald Dahl's Amanda Thripp, J K Rowling's Arabella Figg, Dr Seuss's Bartholomew Cubbins...


John Cowan said...

As Mr. Justice Wool says in the misleading case of Trott v. Tulip:

"[Y]ou might well find that to employ such a term in connexion with another person could not be defamatory; as one might say to another, 'You are a Bumbo', or 'You look like a Togg', without offence; for these expressions, though presumably hostile in intention, have no known significance, discourteous or otherwise."

I hasten to add the case and the justice are the inventions of A. P. Herbert, along with perhaps a hundred other such fictional case reports. Interestingly, in the first publication in Punch the word "Bumbo" was printed "Bimbo", which apparently was unknown in British English at the time. I don't know whether this was a typo, or whether Herbert changed the word for book publication to something that was still meaningless.

@BobKLite said...

My own thoughts on phonesthesia are <a href="http://harmlessdrudgery.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-bookcase-has-landed.html>here</a> (the latter half of the post, and the PS). It's quite an old post, but I'm quietly attached to it. :-)


@BobKLite said...


Thanks for this post and explanation. Once you know, it's impossible to avoid seeing examples everywhere - from Dickens (Uriah Heap) to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Caractacus Potts).

PPS I think a " before the first > will fix that link...

Stan said...

A recent study suggests that nonsense words are funnier when they're less like real words, and that rude-sounding words (whong, dongl, focky, clunt) are funniest of all:

Michelle said...

As you say, Dahl's a genius at this. Zozimus is my favourite (for the sound as well as coz they're what dreams are made of: https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2016/jun/14/roald-dahl-dictionary-best-gobblefunk-words