Like most literary academics of my generation, I first came across Alastair Fowler through his superbly annotated 1968 edition of Paradise Lost. John Mullan – a critic Fowler cites, admiringly, and then, very typically, corrects – tells me it would be his desert island book. I’d agree. Fowler – now in his eighties – has more learning between his ears than most of us could acquire in eight lifetimes, though it would be wrong to say he wears his learning lightly. He doesn’t. This book starts off with an elucidation of the distinction between Cratylic and Hermogenean literary naming and the stern implication that if you don’t learn it, or already know it, what follows won’t make much sense.
Fowler’s subject is what are called ‘proper names’. The epithet has links with ‘property’. I own the words ‘John Sutherland’ much more securely than the word ‘reviewer’. One is intrinsically ‘me’, the other merely my current role. What is interesting, neurologically, is that our brains treat proper names in a