The Grammarphobia Blog

On naming names

Q: The New York Times Book Review says former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates “is naming names” in his new memoir. I’ve always thought that to “name names” is strangely redundant, but you hear it all the time. Does anyone question it nowadays?

A: Is the verb phrase “name names” redundant? No, though a lot of people online seem to think so.

Just because a verb and a noun sound the same doesn’t make using them together redundant. A redundant word is superfluous. The phrase “name names” would lose its meaning if you eliminated either word.

The fact that the phrase has an interior rhyme is probably responsible, at least in part, for its popularity.

Many people believe “name names” is a 20th-century creation, perhaps inspired by crackdowns on organized crime or even the McCarthy hearings.

But in fact this verb phrase is more than 300 years old.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that “name names” means “to specify the names of people, esp. those involved in a discreditable or illegal incident, etc.; to incriminate or implicate people.”

Frequently, the OED says, the phrase is used “in negative contexts, as to name no names, without naming names, etc.”

“It may often be the case,” Oxford notes, “that only one person is alluded to, despite the use of the plural names.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the usage is from a comic play by Thomas Sotherne, The Wives’ Excuse (1692): “No naming Names, good Wellvile.”

However, our own searches turned up an earlier example. In a treatise entitled The Case of Kneeling at the Holy Sacrament, Stated and Resolved, published in London in 1685, the English rector John Evans wrote: “but it’s uncivil to name names.”

The expression (along with its variants) certainly has staying power, since it’s been used steadily ever since. The OED has many other examples, including these:

1696: “Don’t press me then to name Names” (from John Vanbrugh’s comedy The Relapse);

1763: “without naming any names” (a letter in The Gentleman’s Magazine);

1792: “She desired he would name no names” (from the novelist Fanny Burney’s journal);

1843: “Naming no names, and therefore hurting nobody” (from Charles Dickens’s novel Martin Chuzzlewit);

1888: “I will name no names” (from Rudyard Kipling’s story collection Soldiers Three);

1908: “I name no names” (from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows).

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