The term is recent, its history short.

Name-dropping was coined a term shortly after the second world war, in 1947, by a nameless reporter at the San Francisco Examiner, and he called it censoriously ‘our newest menace’. He did not drop his own name, faithful to his principles, and nobody (I imagine) ever dropped his. Earlier instances are hard to find even in California. Shakespeare is said to do everything, but he nowhere illustrates it or mentions it, though the affected young courtier in the last act of the play who brings Hamlet a summons from the king seems right for the part. He is called Osric – a silly popinjay. But among his many affectations he does not drop names.

Other languages, what is more, do not usually have a word for it. The French use the English term, with a knowing air; and even the German language, which is notoriously inventive in coining compounds, is content to follow English usage. So name-dropping, like baby-sitting, is something you can only identify by name in English, and one can only guess why.

As for the motive, perhaps the worldwide decline in dress-distinction in recent years has prompted new ways of showing off. Not many people nowadays wear their rank, so to speak, as they once did; men seldom wear hats, for example, and silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies (as Shakespeare put it) along with flowered waistcoats and jewelled tie-pins. Perhaps people sound important, or try to, because they are no longer encouraged to look it. When I first lived in the United States, which was in the 1950s, I wondered why so many pedestrians in Manhattan looked alike – in London you could at least tell a City gent at a glance from a pedlar – and one cheerful answer was that the rich did not want to be mugged. An Italian lady, similarly, once told me she would never wear jewellery in Naples when she went shopping. Servants used to be commonplace, after all, but now even the richest walk unattended, and name-dropping may fill a void. The nameless San Francisco reporter who coined the term half a century ago and more and called it a new menace may have been needlessly censorious, but he may have been right to think it new.


Cast a mind back to past ages, and there is significantly little to report.

The Elizabethans are not known to have dropped names, and Shakespeare is a blank, for once. Sir Philip Sidney published nothing, being a gentleman and the nephew of the Queen’s favourite, the Earl of Leicester, and on a three-year grand tour of Vienna, Hungary and Venice (1572-5) he met the best people and was painted by Veronese. In 1586 he died on a Dutch battlefield, and nine years later his Apology for Poetry appeared, its masterfully casual exordium being ascribed by modern editors not to vulgar boasting but to the conventions of ancient oratory: ‘When the right virtuous Sir Edward Wotton and I were at the emperor’s court together….’ Sidney goes on to talk of learning horsemanship from a courtly professional – modern speech-writers would call it an ice-breaker, or a weak joke designed to relax an audience: ‘He would have persuaded me to have wished myself a horse’. What Sidney wrote in the Apology, as it happens, is the first notable critical essay in the language.

There is nearly no name-dropping to report before the nineteenth century. The most startling exception is in the first of Oliver Goldsmith’s two comedies The Good-Natured Man (1767), a play never performed, as far as I know, in our times. It contains an extravagant figure called Jack Lofty, and when it comes to names and titles he drops and drops:

And if the Venetian ambassador or that teasing creature to the
Marquis should call, I’m not at home.
Dam’me me I’ll be packhorse to none of them… If the person
calls about a commission, let him know that it is made out…
And if Russian ambassador calls …

A generation later, in 1791, Boswell’s life of Samuel Johnson on the brink of a new age might be seen as a vast and multiple name-drop, at least after Boswell met Johnson in 1763, since he boasts of his many famous acquaintances as he tells a life, with Johnson himself paraded as an improbable super-celebrity, though of humble birth and gross eating-habits. Boswell, as a Scottish country gentlemen, brags of his acquaintance endlessly, but even a masterpiece did not make it quickly respectable as a practise. In Franny and Zooey (1962) J. D. Salinger conceded you might name-drop provided you observed the unwritten law of adding something disparaging about the name you have just dropped. So somebody still needs to stand up for the practise which, though recent, is not without its justifications and uses. Name-dropping has consequences, after all, and as Boswell showed some of them are reputable.


I am a name-dropper, and I look back on a mingled record of successes, missed chances and fumbled passes. It is one thing to be shameless, which I am, another to be fulfilled. Unfulfilment usually comes from cowardice or lack of presence of mind. I once stood on a traffic-island near Piccadilly Circus, in March 1953, beside ex-king Edward VIII, who looked up at me as if eager to talk. He was agile, sunburnt and smiling; unfortunately the lights changed and he skipped across the street ahead of me, so that I saw the soles of his shoes, and the next day I read of his mother’s death. I once in the Vatican shook hands with Pope Pius XII, in a vast crowd, but no words between us were exchanged. Such failures are instructive, and Salinger’s advice is beside the point. You name-drop in order to quote, on the whole, and when nothing is said there is nothing to tell. What is said can be intrinsically important, after all, or important because of who said it. Historians will want to know and want to quote, I will give an example.

I used to live in north Oxford near William Beveridge (1879-1963) some years after his 1942 report which founded the British National Health Service. Known in his last days as the Old Man at the Corner, he was little given to jokes – I can only recall one, and that unremarkable – and he lived out a long life in the Civil Service and ultimately as a member of the House of Commons and then of the Lords. In 1908 Winston Churchill, five years his senior and just appointed to his first cabinet office post by Asquith, had called him to the Board of Trade, and together as Edwardian radicals in their thirties they devised labour-exchanges and fought the growing abuse of sweatshops. They were complementary. Churchill by temperament was a reporter and a man of letters; Beveridge an Oxford Scot who loved above all statistics. In the 1920s he was to become the first director of the London School of Economics and in the 1930s the head of an Oxford College.

To propose a National Health Service at the height of a world war was a bombshell, and Labour, still a socialist party, had leaders who saw it as nothing less than a mortal threat. Ernest Bevin derided it as a Social Ambulance scheme, Hugh Dalton feared that Churchill, who in his youth had helped Asquith and Lloyd George to found the British welfare state, might use it to sweep the country, and Beatrice Webb on her deathbed dismissed it as a fantasy, though fortunately unlikely to be fulfilled. Socialism and state welfare were by then old enemies, ever since a German social-democratic opposition had voted against Bismarck’s workers’ insurance in 1883. To humanize capitalism was to prolong it, as the Left feared, and subsequent events do not suggest they were mistaken.

So there is a serious side to name-dropping, and I shall continue to drop the name of William Beveridge. This is not a matter for shame, and I feel no shame. I am a name-dropper.


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