"Naming The Day" in 19th century and 20th English literature

Ernest Davis
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.

William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing (1598)

Here, Claudio, I have wooed in thy name, and fair Hero is won; I have broke with her father, and, his good will obtained; name the day of marriage, and God give thee joy!

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.

Colley Cibber, Damon and Phillida: A Pastoral Farce (1729)

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.

Samuel Richardson, Clarissa (1748)

He [Lovelace] mentions his different proposals in relation to the ceremony, which he so earnestly pressed for; and owns his artful intention in avoiding to name the day.

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.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

In as short a time as Mr Collins’s long speeches would allow, everything was settled between them to the satisfaction of both; and as they entered the house he earnestly entreated her to name the day that was to make him the happiest of men; and though such a solicitation must be waived for the present, the lady [Charlotte Lucas] felt no inclination to trifle with his happiness.

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.

Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz (1836)

"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.

Maud Irving, Or, The Little Orphan: An Operetta in Five Acts. (1872). Adapted to original music by George Cooper and arranged by William Dressler. Suitable for School Exhibitions, Festivals, Concerts &c. (1872)

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?


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.

Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now (1875)

"It's true love as has brought John Crumb to Sheep's Acre farm this night; — love of that young lady, if she'll let me make so free. He's a proposed to her, and she's a haccepted him, and now it's about time as they was married. That's what John Crumb has to say."

"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."

W.S. Gilbert, Trial by Jury (1875)

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.

Henry S. Nourse, "John Prescott: The Founder of Lancaster: 1603-1682" (1885)

in Bay State Monthly, Vol 2 No. 5, February 1885.

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".

Charles L. Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), Letter to Dora Abdy (1895)

                                           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.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot (1869). Constance Garnett translation (1913)

"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.

E. Nesbit, Many Voices (1922)

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.

James Joyce, Ulysses, chapter 12 ("Cyclops") (1922)

A most romantic incident occurred when a handsome young Oxford graduate, noted for his chivalry towards the fair sex, stepped forward and, presenting his visiting card, bankbook and genealogical tree, solicited the hand of the hapless young lady, requesting her to name the day, and was accepted on the spot. Every lady in the audience was presented with a tasteful souvenir of the occasion in the shape of a skull and crossbones brooch, a timely and generous act which evoked a fresh outburst of emotion: and when the gallant young Oxonian (the bearer, by the way, of one of the most timehonoured names in Albion’s history) placed on the finger of his blushing fiancée an expensive engagement ring with emeralds set in the form of a fourleaved shamrock, the excitement knew no bounds.

Comment: This is a parody of high-falutin schlocky romance, and the phrase "name the day" may reflect that.

Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust (1939)

A young girl is cruising on her father's yacht in the South Seas. She is engaged to marry a Russian count, who is tall, thin, and old, but with beautiful manners. He is on the yacht, too, and keeps begging her to name the day.

Comment: This is a parody of cheap schlocky romance; again the phrase "name the day" may reflect that.

Irene Young, Enigma Variations: Love, War, & Bletchley Park (1990)

We had hoped to be married in the middle of December [1943], but the first week of that month, Leslie wrote, "Can you stand by to shift the date to, say, 22nd December? Don't give up hope yet; after all, the delay may mean all the difference between a wedding — and a funeral! Not quite that, darling, but reasonable weather means a whole bridegroom at least." Several days later, he still could not name the day.

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.


Fifteen samples is not enough for any reliable conclusions. But as far as this collection indicates: The idiom "name the day", meaning "name the day of the wedding", enters the language in the early 1700s, but in the 1700s it is presumed to be the groom who names the day. By the early nineteenth century, however, the norm has become that this is the prerogative of the bride. The idiom becomes increasingly standard over the century to the point that it becomes used metonymically as a marriage proposal. It seems to have been particularly popular in the 1870s and 80s, but that could just be an artifact of searching. Then, in the 1920s, the phrase largely falls out of favor, and is used largely tongue-in-cheek in parodies, though as the quote from Enigma Variations demonstrates, not entirely so.

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.