How James Bond got his name

I was recently watching the TV series Marple (2013) based on the stories of Agatha Christie and one episode A Caribbean Mystery had her on holiday on an island in that region. One evening she is seated for a lecture on tropical birds next to a dapper visitor from Jamaica who introduces himself to her as Ian Fleming. When she asks him what he does, he says that he is working on a novel but is stuck on finding a good name for his lead character. At that point, the ornithologist speaker begins his lecture by saying “Good evening, my name is Bond, James Bond.” Fleming quickly takes out his notebook and jots something down.

The Fleming character disappeared after that so it is clear that the writers inserted him into the show purely for that one joke but I was curious whether there was some truth to it and it turns out that there is.

The name James Bond came from that of the American ornithologist James Bond, a Caribbean bird expert and author of the definitive field guide Birds of the West Indies. Fleming, a keen birdwatcher himself, had a copy of Bond’s guide and he later explained to the ornithologist’s wife that “It struck me that this brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon and yet very masculine name was just what I needed, and so a second James Bond was born”.

On another occasion, Fleming said: “I wanted the simplest, dullest, plainest-sounding name I could find, ‘James Bond’ was much better than something more interesting, like ‘Peregrine Carruthers’. Exotic things would happen to and around him, but he would be a neutral figure—an anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a government department.”

That plain name, and the way it is said, has become iconic.


  1. jenorafeuer says

    There are actually a couple of stories that claim to be about how James Bond got his name, and quite frankly pretty much all of them could be true as it’s not necessarily one thing that strikes a spark for a writer.

    One of the other stories notes that there’s a St. James-Bond Church in Toronto, and Fleming stayed with a friend fairly close to that church when he was in the city. (The story goes that at least one of his visits actually involved some research into a ‘licence to kill’ idea based on psychological testing at a nearby military base. Tests that Fleming himself actually ‘failed’, because he had too much empathy to be that ruthless as a killer.)

  2. blf says

    Heh. I just realised I’ve never once wondered how Ian Flemming devised the name(? codename?) of the character. I’ve never read any of the books, and can (now) only recall two(-ish) of the movies, Dr No and Goldfinger, plus fragments of a few other of the movies. Which isn’t entirely down to bad memory, as another iconic “British” character starting at the same time (in film (defined to include TV)), Doctor Who, has sort-of the opposite problem: Less violent, and interesting (if even more fictional) with lots to remember and celebrate — and look forward to… (It just occurred to me I probably remember more Danger Mouse than I do James Bond, but am unsure where Danger Mouse’s name came from (a play on Danger Man, perhaps, which I think was popular at the time?)).

  3. wsierichs says

    In one of the James Bond movies -- I think it’s one with Daniel Craig -- a copy of the bird book by James Bond is prominently displayed, briefly. I think it was on a table, as a nod to the origin story.

  4. jenorafeuer says

    And this posting along with one of yesterday’s makes for an interesting combination given that I’ve noted before one of my favourite scenes from the Bond books was early in Moonraker where a scene is essentially Drax versus Bond over who was the better cheat at Bridge. (Drax had been cheating by using a reflective cigarette case so he could see the cards he was dealing out to everybody else. Bond, with the approval of the social club M was a member of and who wanted this handled quietly, instead palmed an entire pre-arranged deck after getting just drunk enough that his over-enthusiastic bidding could be blamed on that…)

  5. Kimpatsu2001 says

    Fleming nicked the names of all the major characters except Miss Moneypenny. In the novels, M is so-called because his name is Miles Messervy. Fleming got the idea because the head of MI6 during WWII was Charles Clarke, who used to initial memos “C”. The villain Scaramanga (Man with the Golden Gun) was named after a man with whom Fleming was at school, Drax (Moonraker) was the MP for South Devon, and Blofeld was a cricket commentator. Although not mentioned in the movies, in the novels Q’s real name is Boothroyd. The real Boothroyd was a Scottish SAS major who advised Fleming on weaponry. (The Walther PPK was his idea.) And so it goes. Fleming borrowed the names of real people in many cases.

  6. Matt G says

    In The Spy Who Loved Me, Anya calls Q Major Boothroyd.

    Now, why are Bond’s martinis shaken, not stirred?

  7. John Morales says

    Ian Fleming’s original novels see Bond as a heavy smoker, puffing away on between 60 and 70 cigarettes a day. We’re not quite sure how Bond can perform the impressive action-packed moments as he evades his assailants when he has the lungs of a man who smokes three twenty-packs a day, but we won’t question it!

    When smoking in his native England, Bond enjoys a cigarette custom-made especially for him; Morland cigarettes rolled with a Balkan-Turkish tobacco mixture that contains extra nicotine. These intense cigarettes also feature three golden bands.

  8. flex says

    Now, why are Bond’s martinis shaken, not stirred?

    Because he was a brute with no respect for the vermouth.

    It is said that shaking a martini bruises the grape, i.e. drowns some of the delicate odor of the vermouth in the stench of gin. However, no less an authority than Nick Charles suggests that a martini should be shaken, and in in a certain way too:

    The important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, a dry martini you always shake to waltz time.

    The Thin Man, 1934. William Powel playing Nick Charles.

    I know I’m a bit of an oddball, but my favorite martini is half-gin, half-vermouth. That’s not a dry martini, a dry martini should have more gin than vermouth, but I would stop at a 3:1 ratio. In my opinion, once you get better than a 3:1 ratio, you might as well be drinking neat gin. That being said, I have seen recipes as high as 5:1.

  9. brucegee1962 says

    I have developed a theory of tough-guy action hero names. To wit, all the best action-hero names will have some combination of three qualities:
    1) one syllable
    2) a hard consonant (b, k, p, or t that cause a full stop of air)
    3) the word has an actual meaning
    Bond obviously meets all three criteria. So do Wick, Croft, Hunt, Cage, Stark, Prince, Steele, Spade, Shaft, Flint, Cruise, and Kirk (a Scottish church)
    Two criteria: Bourne (not quite a real word, but sounds like one), Rhodes (ditto), Wayne (ditto), Kent, and Lane
    One criterion: McClane, Connor, Jones, Fury, Conan, Hammer, Solo
    None: Ryan, Ripley, Rambo, and Marlowe (a lot of R’s in that batch, though)

    I welcome additions to my list. There are a lot more heroes to be put on my chart!

  10. Silentbob says

    @ 3 wsierichs

    In one of the James Bond movies — I think it’s one with Daniel Craig — a copy of the bird book by James Bond is prominently displayed, briefly. I think it was on a table, as a nod to the origin story.

    To paraphrase Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever, “Right idea, Mr Bond, but wrong pussy movie”.

    It was in fact Die Another Day with Pierce Brosnan. Et violà.

    That was the 40th anniversary Bond movie, so had several references to Bond’s past. For example, the scene where he meets Jinx is deliberately evocative of the scene of Honey Ryder emerging from the ocean in the first movie, Dr No. Note also in that scene Bond claims to be an ornithologist (like the real James Bond).

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    In a history book whose title I cannot at the moment remember, I read that the “planter” who owned the most slaves in Georgia at the outbreak of the US Civil War was named James Bond.

    The number two slaveholder in the state was named Pierce Butler (yes, a relation; no, not an ancestor).

  12. Mano Singham says

    Silentbob @#11,

    Thanks for those links. I have not seen that film.

    The dialogue in the scene with Brosnan and Berry is really cringe-inducing, a parody of sexual innuendo, almost to the level of Austin Powers.

  13. blf says

    On the “shaken, not stirred” thing, New Scientist discussed this many yonks ago (short fragment due to mostly being behind a paywall):

    [… T]he reason James Bond ordered his martinis shaken was that at the time the Bond novels were written, vodka was widely made from potatoes rather than grain, as is common today. Potato vodka is noticeably oily and shaking it with ice dissipates the oil. This was confirmed in a blind tasting […]

  14. Numenaster, whose eyes are up here says

    @BruceGee #9, “bourne” is archaic for boundary or limit. The term comes from French agriculture.

  15. brucegee1962 says

    Yes, I should have said it wasn’t a contemporary word. I’m familiar with “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” I didn’t know it was from agriculture, though.
    You’re right about Trump — I hadn’t thought of that. Perhaps that explains why he got elected — his name made him sound like a hero, even though he decidedly wasn’t.

  16. Silentbob says

    @ 13 Mano

    [Spoiler for a bunch of old James Bond movies.]

    Yes. Well the Bond movies very quickly became somewhat self-parodying. The third movie, Goldfinger (1964), which was only two years after the first, opens with Bond emerging from the water in a wetsuit with a fake duck strapped to his head. X-D He proceeds to peel of the wetsuit to reveal full evening dress. Already they were poking fun at the character. But what are you going to do? The character has an innate silliness, a sort of superhero in a tuxedo, so it’s hard not to get tongue in cheek.

    Over the years, as the movies have become too silly, they’ve done occasional course corrections to try to bring them back down to earth. For Your Eyes Only (1981) was one such occasion (literally). An attempt at a grounded spy story following the ridiculous Moonraker (1979), which was ‘James Bond in space’ fighting with Star Wars style blaster pistols. Then when the Roger Moore Bonds got very silly again, there were the Timothy Dalton Bonds in the late eighties with a more serious, sober, cold war Bond. And Die Another Day (2002) precipitated another such occasion.

    If you think the dialogue is over the top, know that in this movie Bond drives an invisible car. Hahahah. Seriously, Q gives him a car that can turn invisible. The villain is a Korean man who undergoes “gene therapy” to transform himself into a white Englishman (the ultimate in white actors playing Asian roles). Also it is revealed that Bond has the power to stop his heart by force of will in order to pretend to be dead, allowing him to escape captivity.

    It all got far too silly, so they had a ‘reboot’. The next movie was Casino Royale (2006) the first Daniel Craig one, and they stripped the character right back to basics -- a much grittier, more brutal assassin; and much more human and fallible. With no Moneypenny, no Q, no gadgets whatsoever. Casino Royale was very well received and is considered the closest Bond can get to a serious, quality spy thriller.

    (Although Skyfall (2012) is also considered very good -- that’s the one where Judi Dench’s M dies, her character being the only thread of continuity between the Brosnan films and the Craig reboot. It’s revealed M stands for ‘mother’ and indeed the relationship between M and Bond has that quality, such that the scenes between them are quite moving.)

  17. KG says

    In W.S. Baring-Gould’s Sherlock Holmes -- a biography, based largely on the accounts of Holmes’ cases by James H. Watson M.D.*, it is revealed that M was in fact Mycroft Holmes -- Sherlock’s smarter brother, his life extended and energy hugely increased by the royal jelly preparation devised by Sherlock during his “retirement” in Sussex.

    *It’s obvious the Sherlock Holmes stories were not written by Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes was highly rational and empoirical; Conan Doyle was so credulous he was taken in not only by spiritualist claims to contact the dead, but by faked photographs of fairies! They were actually written by Holmes’s friend, the former military surgeon James H. Watson, once of the Indian Army. Watson appears in the sotires (characterised as brave and loyal but not very bright) as John H. Watson, but this slight disguise slipped at one point, in The Man with the Twisted Lip, where Watson’s wife refers to him as “James”.

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