Peter Rabbit, Diggory Delvet, and Old Vixen Tod: the language of Beatrix Potter
Since the publication of The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1902, Beatrix Potter’s anthropomorphized animals have delighted generations of readers. Accompanying her stories are her lively illustrations, drawing upon her close observation of animals and love of the countryside, especially that of the English Lake District.
Many of her best-known characters take their names from the stock of common personal names followed by that of the animal – Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny – functioning like a human surname. Others draw upon their appearance or behaviour: Flopsy, Cotton-tail, and Mopsy – whose name is a pet form of moppet, a term of endearment for a little child. Benjamin’s marriage to his cousin Flopsy resulted in a large family known as the Flopsy Bunnies, whose exploits were described in a book of that name published in 1909. Flopsy bunny now has its own entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, where it is defined as ‘a sentimental designation for a rabbit’. Other animals have names that mirror occupational surnames in the human world. Jeremy Fisher is the name of a frog, Benjamin Bouncer is a rabbit, while Diggory Delvet has an especially appropriate name for a mole – since Delvet is derived from delve, a largely northern dialect word meaning ‘dig’.
Dialect words are an important source of names for Beatrix Potter’s characters. The hedgehog Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, the titular character of a story published in 1905, gets her name from the dialect word tig, ‘little pig’. The animal’s snout-like nose resembling that of a pig is also the origin of the name hedgehog. The Tale of Mr Tod (1912) recounts the exploits of an unpleasant pair of rogues: a badger called Tommy Brock and a fox named Mr Tod. Mr Tod takes his name from a medieval word for fox, recorded earliest in northern English and Scots dialects. The word’s origin is disputed, although a plausible theory is that it derives from the early Irish word táid, ‘thief’. Mr Tod’s grandmother, old Vixen Tod, takes her first name from the standard English word for a female fox. But its origins lie in a southern dialect pronunciation in which the initial “f” was sounded as a “v” – a pronunciation still heard in parts of south-west England. Tommy Brock’s name is from a dialect word for a badger; brock, first attested in Old English, is one of just a handful of words that were borrowed from the Celtic language (compare modern Welsh broch).
Archaic and obsolete words are another fertile source of names for Beatrix Potter’s animals, as in Pigling Bland – the title character of a book published in 1913. Pigling is a diminutive form of pig recorded from the seventeenth century. Today it has been largely replaced by piglet, formed in a similar way but using an alternative suffix, although piglet is first recorded as late as 1859. The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse revives an older name of the species of bird now known by the shorter form tit, comprising familiar garden birds like blue tits, great tits, and coal tits. The word was originally titmose: the first element tit is an onomatopoeic formation used to describe any small animal or object. It was combined with other elements to form a variety of bird names, such as titlark, titling and tom-tit. The second element, mose, is an earlier word for the same bird – a folk-etymological connection with the similar-sounding mouse led to the later emergence of titmouse.
Another important source of names for the stories are popular nursery rhymes. In Mrs Tiggy-Winkle we meet Cock-robin, a name for the male robin, particularly associated with the nursery rhyme ‘Who killed Cock-robin?’. When Mrs Tittlemouse spots a little old woman in a red spotty cloak, she calls out: ‘Your house is on fire, Mother Ladybird! Fly away home to your children’ – a reference to another nursery rhyme. Telling witches that their house was on fire was traditionally held to be an effective way of getting rid of them; but, since the ladybird is popularly associated with the virgin Mary – its name derives from Our Lady’s bird, since the seven spotted variety was supposed to symbolise her seven pains – a connection with witchcraft seems unlikely.
Nursery rhymes also supply the nonsense rhymes and riddles with which Nutkin teases Mr Brown, a grumpy old owl, in The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903). When Nutkin dances up and down, tickling Mr Brown with a nettle, he sings: ‘Hitty Pitty within the wall, Hitty Pitty without the wall; If you touch Hitty Pitty, Hitty Pitty will bite you’ – a version of which is recorded in the Book of Merrie Riddles published in 1631. Nutkin also poses various riddles to the weary owl, who has no interest in riddles – even when the answer is provided. These are of similarly ancient stock – the following is first recorded in a manuscript dated to 1744: ‘The man in the wilderness said to me/ How many strawberries grow in the sea?’. If you want to know the answer, you’ll have to read the book.