The names of the Seven Dwarfs
The Brothers Grimm tale Snow White is, of course, extremely well known – as are the seven dwarfs that take her in when she escapes her evil stepmother. (Dwarves or dwarfs? Well, the plural of dwarf can actually be either.) You can probably name them all, or at least get to six and spend the rest of the day scratching your head and desperately trying to remember the seventh. But… who named them?
In actual fact, the Seven Dwarfs are anonymous in the Grimms’ 1812 story (titled Schneewittchen) and in the revised version the brothers published in 1854. It wasn’t until a Broadway play in 1912, a full century after the fairy tale first appeared, that the gentlemen were given individual names: Blick, Flick, Glick, Plick, Snick, Whick, and Quee. Wait… what?
That’s right. Unless you are an aficionado of the playwright Winthrop Ames (who wrote the play under the pseudonym Jessie Graham White), then there’s a strong chance that you’ve not come across those names. It wasn’t until the Disney film in 1937 that the better known names Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Dopey came into existence, chosen from a longlist of fifty names. (Even after that, you might have encountered Huckpack, Naseweis, Packe, Pick, Puck, Purzelbaum, and Rumpelbold or Axelrod, Bartholomew, Cornelius, Dexter, Eustace, Ferdinand, and George, or many other groups of names.) But let’s admit that Disney’s septet are the best known now, and take a closer look at their names.
The only dwarf whose name is not an adjective, those who haven’t watched the film might assume that he is a doctor. That was actually true in an early incarnation of the character (in an initial outline, ‘Doc’s stethoscope tangles up with beard’) but the final version was simply a paternal miner. Doc as an abbreviation of doctor is found as far back as the 1850s, but the earliest known sense of doctor referred not to medicine but to mediaeval philosophy. Not long after Disney’s Snow White and Seven Dwarfs, a famous rabbit by the name of Bugs Bunny would start saying ‘What’s up, doc?’, though this is presumably unrelated.
Grumpy has always meant ‘surly; ill-tempered’, and is first found (according to current research) in Fanny Burney’s 1778 novel Evelina. The Historical Thesaurus of the OED offers many earlier synonyms including crouse, currish, apirsmart, thrawn-mowit, and (appropriately, perhaps) elvish.
While the dwarf is noted for his cheerful disposition, happy originally meant ‘lucky, fortunate, successful’, and could be used of either a person or an event or period; this sense is retained in the term happy accident. Other early senses of happy include ‘dextrous, skilful, especially in one’s choice of appropriate words’ and ‘pleasantly appropriate to the occasion’.
Somebody sleepy is, as you might expect, ‘inclined to sleep; having a difficulty in keeping awake; drowsy, somnolent’. Other synonyms Disney could have chosen include slummy, anapped, slumber, slumberous, and somniculous.
Is this dwarf ‘stupefied by sleep or a drug’ or ‘idiotic’? Those are the two definitions of dopey offered by OxfordDictionaries.com, though the link with dope (‘a drug taken illegally for recreational purposes, especially cannabis’) is probably maligning this lovable guy. Get the dope on dope in our blog post.
You might be more likely to say shy in everyday conversation, but this dwarf has opted for a longer name with an interesting history. Spotting that –ful, you might wonder what this bash is that the poor guy is full of. Well, bash is an obsolete verb meaning ‘destroy the confidence of, make or become abashed’, while abashed is ‘embarrassed, disconcerted, or ashamed’ – which is a bit stronger than this dwarf’s diffidence.
Sneezy is a dwarf who sneezes a lot – which, as character traits go, isn’t the most immersive – but the origin of sneeze may surprise you. Apparently sneeze is an alternation of the Middle English fnese due to misreading or misprinting (after the initial fn- had become unfamiliar). The word was later adopted because it sounded appropriate – though fnese is also pretty onomatopoeic.