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Above: Mr Bumble from “Oliver Twist”. Illustration by “Kyd”, aka Joseph Clayton Clarke

Recurring characters in the ‘Moss Reid’ series include a guy called Frank Ferriter. He’s a reporter, he ferrets around a bit, he can be quite frank. You get?

It can be tempting to go that bit further again, to “go all Dickensian” with your character names, if you know what I mean.

Dickens had this knack of finding unforgettable monikers such as Ebenezer Scrooge. So superb, in fact, that “a scrooge” is now a by-word for a greedy, miserly, miserable old git.

Dickens’s names sound uncannily like ones you might bump into on a real London street in Victorian times. Yet while “Ferriter” is a reasonably common Irish surname that could have been plucked from a telephone book, Dickens made his ones up. The whole lot, apparently.

In David Copperfield alone (besides the eponymous young Copperfield) the author came up with Mr Micawber, the willing Barkiss and Clara Pegotty, Betsey Trotwood, Edward Murdstone, Mrs Gummidge, Mr Creakle, the Steerforths, Uriah Heep – yes I know, he sounds like the singer in an old metal band – and Tommy Traddles. With a name like that he should be treading the boards in music hall.

My other Dickens favourites include:

  • Mr Wopsle and Pumblechook (Great Expectations) – they also remind me of Beatrix Potter characters
  • Daniel Quilp, Richard “Dick” Swiveller and Mr Sampson Brass the attorney (The Old Curiosity Shop)
  • Luke Honeythunder (The Mystery of Edwin Drood)
  • Harold Skimpole (Bleak House)
  • Oliver Twist, Fagin and the Artful Dodger (Oliver Twist)

What are your favourites?

Often Dickens plumps for portmanteaus (combining two or more existing words) or onomatopoeias (such as Bitzer in Hard Times). These wonderful names often have angular sounds, great to say out loud. But I suspect that a large part of the way they work, as they conjure up the characters and their particular traits, is at a silent, more subconscious level.

In a Dickensian universe – or perhaps in an Alan Bennett story or drama set in Yorkshire – these would all make perfect sense. Yet such an approach can hardly be used in so sustained a way for crime fiction set in modern Ireland. It would probably sound too contrived and cartoonish. Or far too – that word again – “Dickensian”.

King Nidge

On the other hand, Dubliners love nicknaming. They do this with everything from placenames (Ringsend becomes Raytown, Stoneybatter is Cowtown, Ballyfermot is Ballyer) to the funny names of many of our statues and monuments. And the city’s tram system is officially the LUAS (Light Urban Access System), though it quickly became dubbed the Daniel Day. Think about it.

Similarly, people’s first names (and sometimes surnames too) are quickly turned into nicknames in the old school yard. Hence you’ll find the likes of Boxer, Joxer, Whacker, Harrier, Nettler, Maggots, Lamps, Lumps, Oxo, Kick the Stones, and so on. And that was only in Senior Infants.

Is it a particularly male thing or do girls go in for nicknames with such relish?

Anyway, it’s hard to imagine a gangland leader in a modern crime series set in Dublin being called, say, “Nigel”. Or “Delaney”. Or “Mr Delaney”. “Nidge” sounds far better. It’s very, um, Nidgey.