What’s in a Name?

In this post I want to consider what Doc Martin’s writers have done with names in the show. Doc Martin himself is, of course, not happy with being called Doc or Doc Martin; he’d rather people use Dr. Ellingham. But throughout the show, most of the town call him Doc or Doc Martin with the exception of Mrs. Tishell who honors his request and uses his last name. And she, in turn, is generally referred to by everyone as Mrs. Tishell. Indeed no one uses her first name until her husband Clive returns. Edith only refers to Martin as Ellingham, and that seems to be her way of being both familiar and equivalent. To me, it is also the mark of someone who distances herself from the others in his life. (In a nice twist, Edith doesn’t remember Joan’s name and calls her Jill.) Louisa, on the other hand, prefers to use Martin when talking to him and we can’t help but see her as closer to him as a result. Louisa has been involved with deciding whether he becomes the new GP which gives her greater standing to use his first name, and she refers to him as Dr. Ellingham when in a formal setting. So we have the title of Doc, the first name of Martin, and the last name of Ellingham all being used in relation to the doctor. (I can say that in my experience, my husband wanted patients and staff to call him Dr. plus full last name because he had earned it and he felt it was the correct way to address him. His office manager/receptionist did use his first name when speaking to him directly, however.) Martin’s receptionists all default to Doc.

Despite the doctor’s own hangups about his name, he usually cannot remember any patient’s names. This is both humorous and realistic since it is not unusual for doctors to have trouble remembering patients’ names and they typically remember people by their conditions/diagnoses. (My husband can still tell you about a patient’s symptoms from years ago but could not dredge up the patient’s name if his life depended on it.) In the show, there are plenty of times when it’s funny to see the Doc use a variety of names for one person. Episode 6 of season 5 stands out to me because Doc M cannot get a handle on the school maintenance man’s name. Louisa reminds him several times that the man’s name is Mr. Coley, but Martin uses Mr. Creely, then can’t come up with a name, then calls him Mr. Munson. Of course there are many students whose names escape the Doc. Louisa, like most teachers, objects to not using the child’s name and reminds him that it’s Adam who has been throwing up or Elliott who has slapped-cheek syndrome. Martin refers to Elliott as “your boy” and his parents are insulted by the doctor’s off-hand treatment of their son and unclear answers. There are any number of other students/children who Martin refers to as “that boy” or something of that nature. To Martin, these names are unimportant; what’s important is getting the right diagnosis and treatment. On the other hand, the names of diseases, syndromes, or other medical problems are never hard for him to remember no matter how complex or esoteric. Those he remembers without even a slight hitch.

Of course, the naming of his own child turns into a major bone of contention. We don’t really get into which last name they plan to use except when Louisa notes as an aside that he will be using her last name. The fact that she and Martin aren’t married means that a last name will be another decision they’ll have to make. I find this concern quite contemporary, although the English may have more of a history with determining last names due to their royal family. In the last 30-40 years we’ve had women (and some men) retaining their last names, using their original last names professionally but not in their private lives, hyphenating their last names, or going the traditional route and using their husband’s last name.

But it’s the baby’s first name that gives Martin and Louisa troubles. It’s awkward (and funny) when Bert does the rather English thing of taking odds on what they’ll name the baby while Louisa is in labor, and Martin comes in 500 to 1. The name Martin never does enter their minds. The first thought Louisa has is to name the baby Terry after her father, a name Martin finds too common (both in terms of its social status and in terms of its frequency). Then we have the amusing scene in which Louisa deliberately calls the baby Albert, which makes Martin stop in his tracks. She frustratingly tells him they have to call the baby something: Steven, Paul, Michael, Elton, whatever. Does that mean Louisa just wants to settle on a name and isn’t too concerned what the name is? Hardly. When they find a time to seriously discuss the baby’s name, she battles with Martin over whether to use her grandfather’s name first or Martin’s grandfather’s name first. At least they’ve decided to use both grandfathers’ names. Ultimately, their conflict is resolved by Martin who reaches the conclusion that he should give in and let Louisa get her choice, but not without some discord. He’s made out the papers without telling Louisa and she justifiably (I think) resents that. So the baby finally has a name (James Henry) and Louisa feels satisfied that it’s the name she preferred.

A few other thoughts come to mind about names as they are used in the show. We have the family name of Wenn that appears to refer to the name of the town, and there is a woman whose surname is Braithwaite (a likely reference to Philippa Braithwaite, the producer and wife of Martin Clunes). Then there is the doctor’s third receptionist, Morwenna, who tells the Doc that she was named after a Cornish saint and who tells him the most popular boy names at the moment. In addition, Morwenna laughs disbelievingly when a patient tells her that her baby’s name is Boris. She realizes pretty quickly that she shouldn’t have laughed, but the point is that some names seem right and some seem wrong depending on the place and time. In fact, even Louisa asks Martin to refer to her as Miss Glasson when he’s at the school.

We can’t overlook the use of childhood names, names of endearment, or aliases. Louisa was called LouLou probably as a child and some of her friends from childhood still use it, e.g. Danny, Holly, and Isabel. Her mother calls her LouLou too. It’s more or less one of those names we never get past even if we aren’t too thrilled to be called by that name anymore. Those names sort of straddle the endearment category and the juvenile. However, sometimes turning a child’s name into something that sounds endearing doesn’t sit well and when Louisa’s mom calls James Henry “Jim Jim,” Louisa tells her right away that’s not his name. Martin’s Aunt Joan is called Auntie Joan affectionately by him many times and she calls him Marti. When she uses that shortened form of his name, we know it’s meant to be affectionate, but when John Slater, Joan’s former lover, calls Martin “Little Marti,” we recognize the condescending tone it takes on. The older man rubs Martin the wrong way, especially when he reminds Martin of wetting his pants as a boy. There is also the foreshortening of names, e.g. Mags for Maggie, or Sal for Sally, that is supposed to be a sign of affection. Then there is the complication of Mark meeting and falling in love with Julie only to find out that she has been known by several other names, and not for good reasons either. Her change of names is a sign of deceit and reveals her devious nature. The final comment about name use I would make is that stating a person’s name with a certain tone can indicate anger or frustration as when Louisa calls her mother “El-i-Nor” with a snarky edge to it. It’s all in the tone and the relationship of the name callers to their subjects.

What’s in a name? Well, family significance, status, collaboration, trendiness, even historical meaning. There’s also something to finding a name that can distinguish you from the crowd, and that fits you in some indefinable way. The most important essence of a name, however, is that it identifies you and your position. When people remember your name, it makes you feel valued. Using the proper title shows respect and not using it can be viewed as being inappropriately familiar. Your name places you in a culture and in a time period, and that sometimes can either assign prominence to you or stereotype you. (For example, I know someone whose first name is Osama, but he goes by Sam for obvious reasons.) Names are signifiers and, as such, are an important part of who we are.

Originally posted 2013-08-11 20:42:59.

8 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. jregan

    It seems the creator of the show, Dominic Minghella, had fun with naming characters in the show. There is a blog entry on his personal website where he discusses the topic. The doc’s last name Ellingham is nothing more than an anagram of Dominic’s last name. I thought Louisa might have been named after Louisa Musgrove in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, but I was wrong. Louisa was named after Dominic’s daughter.

  2. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Yes, names are something they have fun with regularly. I guess it’s hard to come up with character names when the show goes on for many series and new characters are introduced fairly often. Might as well play around and viewers can have fun noticing. Of course, the fact that ME often forgets patients’ names is funny. The names, and his trouble remembering them, reinforce the identification of the show as a comedy too.

  3. Julia

    Yours is a wonderful blog (I just found it)!
    I’d like to add to this post, the fact that Louisa many times has to correct people calling her “Louise”… Sometimes she looks as crossed as ME when he’s called “Doc Martin”.
    It is funny they have this in common =)

  4. James Regan

    Yes, funny indeed. In a relatively recent interview, Martin Clunes had one his dogs with him during the interview. When the interviewer asked Martin, the name of the dog, he answered with his perfect smile, “James Henry.” I suppose you could call it a twisted bit of irony, but I believe the baby is actually named after Martin’s dog:-).

  5. Santa Traugott

    To my surprise, doing family history research, I came across a town called Ellingham, Norfolk. So, tho I believe the story that it’s an anagram of Minghella, it’s also an English name. Have come across Glasson, also. They often have fun with names — some patient names verging on naughty, and also Holly, when meeting Martin (S3E5) referring to your friend Johnny Bamford — who is the long-time location scout for DM — and to a child as Emily Braithwaite — his daughter’s first name, his wife’s last name. (Although in private life she is evidently Phillippa Clunes.) i’m sure there are many other examples, that real insiders would be able to spot.

  6. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    James, the baby is definitely named after the dog. He has said so in some interviews. And he and Phillipa apparently have a habit of using two names for their dogs. I keep things simple; one name per dog. I think it’s rather difficult to come up with names for characters, so having fun with them or sneaking names from all sorts of sources makes perfect sense to me. I don’t suppose it would work quite so well if the show was a drama, but since it’s not…

    On the other hand, so far in Night Manager Tom Hiddleston’s character has had 3-4 names for various reasons.

    BTW, I have no idea why the post on names got republished, but sometimes this blog is a mystery to me. Lately I have been getting extraordinary amounts of spam, and it’s extremely annoying!!

  7. James Regan

    Have you tried using Akismet to manage the spam? It’s a WordPress plugin that you can install on your site and it’s free. Or you may want to try WP-SPAM Shield. I believe it is available on the Word.Press.org site.

    Best wishes,


  8. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Yup, I have Akismet. I’ll check out WP-SPAM. Thanks for trying to help. Apparently some spammers are good at getting through the filters.

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