May 15, 2022
In nineteenth-century English literature, once a lady had accepted a proposal of marriage, she was then expected to ``name the day''; that is, to choose a day for the wedding.
Two aspects of this are notable: the idiom and the social norm. The idiom employed the verb "name" (rather than "choose", "specify" etc.) and left implicit which day was intended. The social norm asserted that choosing the day of the wedding was the prerogative of the prospective bride.
The Oxford English Dictionary includes a specific entry (8b) for "name the day" with the definition "to fix the day for one's wedding." It is a subcategory of the more general meaning (8a) of "name" as a transitive verb: "To specify as something desired, suggested, or decided upon; to appoint or fix (a price, time, etc.)."
To illustrate the history of the idiom and the norm, I have here collected fourteen passages that use that distinctive phrase, which I list chronologically, from Shakespeare to Irene Young.
Comment: This is not the exact idiom, since the day is specified, and it is not the later social norm, since it is Claudio being told to name the day. However, it's the first instance I've found, and it's Shakespeare.
While you pursue me,
Thus to undo me,
Sure Ruin lies in all you say.
To bring your toying
Up to enjoying,
Call first the Priest, and name the Day,
Then, then name the Day.
Lasses are willing
As Lads, for billing,
When Marriage Vows are kindly prest:
Let holy Father
Tye us together,
Then bill your Fill, and bill your best,
Then, then bill your best.
Comment: I haven't read any other Cibber, but this wretched poetizing certainly accords with his prominent position in Pope's Dunciad. Anyway: This is the earliest instance given in the O.E.D. for the phrase "name the day" without further specification. It doesn't conform to the later social norm, since Phillida is calling on Damon to "name the day". Why one would call the priest before naming the day isn't clear to me. The word "billing" means caressing or other kinds of canoodling.
Comment: As in Cibber, this conforms to the idiom but not to the social norm. It is Lovelace that is expected to name the day.
Comment: We don't have the pure idiom here, since the day is specified, but we have for the first time the social norm; having accepted the proposal, it is up to Charlotte to name the day. This phrase "name the day that was to make him the happiest of men" is the kind of cliché characteristic of Mr Collins.
"Why not at once fix a period for gratifying the hopes of your devoted admirer?"
"It has been represented to me again and again that this is the course I ought to pursue," replied Miss Lillerton, "but pardon my feelings of delicacy, Mr. Tottle — pray excuse this embarrassment — I have peculiar ideas on such subjects, and I am quite sure that I never could summon up fortitude enough to name the day to my future husband."
Comment: First instance of both the idiom and the social norm.
Walter: No Maudie! I know you love ma and I beg of you to name the day when we will be married.
Maud: You do? well, the fact is, I have not made up my mind, Walter.
Walter: Come Maud, I won't be put off any longer. Why don't you name the day?
WHY DON'T YOU NAME THE DAY!
I've waited long enough, Maudie
The winter's fairly past,;
The lambs are playing on the green,
The swallows come at last.
the vine is leafy round our door,
The blossoms on the May
The waves come dancing to the shore, —
Why don't you name the day?
You know you put me off, Maudie
Until the early spring;
The skies are tranquil and serene
The bees are on the wing.
The fisher spreads his little sail
The mower's in the hay
The primrose blossoms in the vale —
Why don't you name the day?
Comment: I found this curio of 19th century Americana searching for the phrase in Google Books.. George Cooper may be the American poet (1840-1927) of that name; or not. The scenes with Walter are printed in parallel with another version where Walter is mentioned but does not appear on stage, for use by girls' groups. "Name the day" is here a metonymy for "marry me" since Maud has not yet given her decision to Walter. Incidentally, the copy on Google Books includes the sheet music, if you feel moved to sing the above.
"That's what I has to say," repeated John Crumb, "and I means it."
"And now, miss," continued Mixet, addressing himself to Ruby, "you've heard what John has to say."
"I've heard you, Mr. Mixet, and I've heard quite enough."
"You can't have anything to say against it, miss; can you? There's your grandfather as is willing, and the money as one may say counted out, — and John Crumb is willing, with his house so ready that there isn't a ha'porth to do. All we want is for you to name the day."
"Say to-morrow, Ruby, and I'll not be agon it," said John Crumb, slapping his thigh.
"I won't say to-morrow, Mr. Crumb, nor yet the day after to-morrow, nor yet no day at all. I'm not going to have you. I've told you as much before."
Picture, then, my client naming,
And insisting on the day:
Picture him excuses framing —
Going from her far away;
Doubly criminal to do so,
For the maid had bought her trousseau!
Comment: This is a syntactic variant on the standard idiom. This conforms to the social norm — it is Angelina (the client) who is naming the day — but reverses the usual situation: Angelina is specifying a particular wedding date in order to force her lover to actually marry her.
Down by the green meadows of Sudbury there dwelt a bewitchingly fair
maiden, the musical dissyllables of whose name were often upon the lips
of the young men in all the country round about, and whose smile could
awaken voiceless poetry in the heart of the most prosaic Puritan swain.
There is little of aristocratic sound in Mary Loker's name, but her
parents sat on Sunday at the meeting house in a "dignified" pew, and
were rich in fields and cattle. Whether pushed by pride of land or pride
of birth, in their plans and aspirations, this daughter was
predestinated to enhance the family dignity by an aristocratic alliance.
In Colonial days a maiden who added a handsome prospective dowry to her
personal witchery was rare indeed, and Mary Loker had, coming from far
and near, inflammable suitors perpetually burning at her shrine. From
among these the father and mother soon made their choice upon strictly
business principles, and shortly announced to Mary that a certain
ambitious gentleman of the legal profession had furnished the most
satisfactory credentials, and that nothing remained but for her to name
the day. Now the fourth [sic] commandment was very far from being the dead
letter in 1670 that it is in 1885, and it was matter for grave surprise
to the elders that their usually obedient daughter, when the lawyer
proceeded to plead, refused to hear, and peremptorily adjourned his
cause without delay.
Comment: The overly florid language here ("the musical dissylables", " inflammable suitors perpetually burning at her shrine" etc.) is clearly deliberate humor. The idea that the parents of a girl in colonial Massachusetts would choose their daughter's husband and do their utmost to force her into it but would leave her the choice of wedding day presumably reflects the norms of 1885 rather than 1670. "Fourth commandment" is presumably a typo for "fifth commandment".
Ch. Ch. May 13, 1895 Dear Miss Dora Abdy — May I have the pleasure of fetching you, for a tête-à-tête dinner, some day soon? And, if so will you name the day? Yours respectfully, (That's a good safe beginning, isn't it?) C. L. Dodgson P.S. Now please don't go and tell all your friends in the strictest confidence, "I've just had a letter from a gentleman, and he asks me to name the day!"
Comment: Dora Abdy was a daughter of a family friend; she was 23 at the time this letter was written. The italics in the letter are Dodgson's. The letter is from The Lewis Carroll Picture Book, 1899.
"You said just now that I had found her at Moscow, when she ran away from you. I didn’t do anything of the sort; she came to me herself, straight from you. `Name the day — I’m ready!' she said. `Let’s have some champagne, and go and hear the gipsies sing!'"
Comment: In this passage "she" is Nastasya Filippovna; "I" is Rogojin, "You" is Prince Myshkin. The social norm is reversed; Nastasya Filippovna is asking Rojogin to name the day. At this point, "name the day" has become a metonymy for getting married. (I don't remember whether Filippovna is accepting a proposal that Rogojin made earlier, or whether she is here proposing to him, or whether, in view of their torrid relation, there is a clear distinction. In any case, Rogojin is an unreliable narrator.) I have ordered this by the date of the translation rather than the date of the original since that is what is significant for the English phrase.
I was picking raspberries, my head was in the canes,
And he came behind and kissed me, and I smacked him for his pains.
Says he, “You take it easy! That ain’t the way to do!
I love you hot as fire, my girl, and you know you know it too.
So won’t you name the day?”
But I said, “That I will not.”
And I pushed him away,
Out among the raspberries all on a summer day.
Again "name the day" is a metonymy for a marriage proposal, if indeed "he" has marriage in mind at all.
Comment: This is a parody of high-falutin schlocky romance, and the phrase "name the day" may reflect that.
Comment: This is a parody of cheap schlocky romance; again the phrase "name the day" may reflect that.
Comment: My only example from non-fiction, and obviously a very different situation from any of the preceding. Lieutenant Leslie Cairns was then in training as a paratrooper in the Special Air Service of the RAF. He would get a short leave after his training was complete, but that depended on the weather. He and Irene Young were married December 29, 1943. Shortly after D-Day, he became missing in action.
Two questions arise. First, to what extent was the idiom actually used in ordinary speech? Did pompous suitors in 1813, or random men accosting women picking raspberries in 1922, actually ask them to "name the day"? To my ears in 2022, the phrase seems artificial, but that really does not prove anything about how people spoke 100 or 200 years ago. I would say that all these quotations from quite different genres and registers suggest that it really was a phrase, but are not a decisive proof.
The second question is, to what extent was it in fact a social norm in the nineteenth century that it was up to the bride to choose the day for a wedding? I have trouble believing it. Certainly, there were women, like Ruby Ruggles in The Way We Live Now, who got engaged and then got cold feet, and refused to commit to a day in order to postpone or avoid getting married. Certainly there were women, like Angelina in Trial by Jury, who tried to get a lover to marry them by picking a day and insisting on it. But it doesn't seem likely to me that this happened more that way than with the sexes reversed. And it is hard to think that it was much of an issue most of the time. Presumably, most engaged couples in the nineteenth century were enthusiastic about it or at least committed to going through with it; and presumably, then as now, the choosing of the date had not much to do with the preferences of either and had mostly to do with minor issues of convenient scheduling.