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Doctor John Dolittle is the main character of children's books (Dr. Dolittle) written by English writer Hugh Lofting in 1920.

Why did he choose Dolittle as the surname of the character? Is it related to the word "little" which means small?

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  • It's just a name. Do you have any particular reason to suspect that the name is significant? I wonder why Orwell gave the protagonist of 1984 the name Smith, how is it related to the word smith which means a worker in metals?
    – user14111
    Commented Oct 8, 2023 at 6:39
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    Smith is a common name, but Dolittle isn't. Commented Oct 8, 2023 at 8:25
  • Is it so very uncommon? It's just a variant spelling of Doolittle, which is the name of the flyer who led a famous air raid on Japan in World War II, and also the name of the heroine of Shaw's Pygmalion.
    – user14111
    Commented Oct 8, 2023 at 9:23
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    @user14111 I felt pretty sure the significance of the name is actually remarked on somewhere in the text of one of the novels. The versions I'm finding online don't have the quote I'm remembering, but maybe there were different editions or something. It's a reasonable question, anyway.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Oct 8, 2023 at 12:10
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    It's interesting to note that Lofting probably chose the name fairly shortly after Pygmalion was first performed (1913) as the original version was in letters sent to his children while serving in the WWI.
    – mikado
    Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 17:55

2 Answers 2

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The word "little" doesn't only mean physically small; it can also mean, more generally, the opposite of "lots". Thus, the name "do little" seems to indicate somebody lazy who doesn't do much.

This is consistent with the way the character is portrayed: from the outside, or to people who don't know him, he may seem like a silly or idle person who doesn't take care of himself or his life. This is a theme of the early chapters of the book, when he slowly loses his money and possessions due to caring more about his animals than about the opinion of high society, until other people in the town jeer at him while the animals and children still like him as before. Even Tommy Stubbins in The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle is surprised when he first meets him, because his outer appearance is not at all what he expected:

“Surely,” I thought, “this cannot be the great Doctor Dolittle himself!”

I suppose after hearing so much about him I had expected some one very tall and strong and marvelous. It was hard to believe that this funny little man with the kind smiling face could be really he.

In the same way that a name isn't the best way to judge a person, neither is their outward appearance. Perhaps, by giving him the name Dolittle, the author ensured that any superficial way of assessing him would give a negative impression: his name suggests someone lazy, while his lifestyle takes no heed of money or the opinions of his peers. He will only be liked by those who look deeper to see his kindness and true self.

(The significance of the name may be hinted at in the very first introduction we get to the character in The Story of Doctor Dolittle. In this version, there is a sentence "Despite his name, laziness was not in his nature." But I'm not sure of the provenance of this quote, as it's not included in the Project Gutenberg or Wikisource versions of the text, or any other version I could find online. I also seem to remember, when I read the books as a child, some joke about changing his name to Doalot. But either that's also in another version, or perhaps a completely different story that also had a character called Dolittle, because it's not in the texts I could find online either.)

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perhaps after Charles Doolittle Walcott? (March 31, 1850 – February 9, 1927). noted for his discovery of the Burgess Shale fossils in Canada in the early twentieth century. (If only he could talk to the fossils, LOL) Dr Doolittle was published in 1920.

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    Why would this make particular sense for the character in question?
    – bobble
    Commented Jan 22 at 18:23

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