Monday Metaphors: Aptronyms, Names that Fit

 

These are real people:

Russell Brain, a neurologist

Reggie Corner, cornerback for the Buffalo Bills

Margaret Court, a tennis player

Jules Angst, a German professor of psychiatry; published works about anxiety

Sara Blizzard, a meteorologist for the BBC

William Wordsworth, a poet

When I started reading Marilyn vos Savant, the Parade columnist who has the world’s highest recorded IQ, I thought it was a pseudonym. But no, that’s her well-suited name.

And if you are an avid listener of Car Talk on NPR, you remember the ridiculous aptronyms Click and Clack attribute to their staff:

Marianna Trench is the Director of Deep Sea Research.

Stan Beyerman is the Director of Country Music.

Anita Hammer is the Director of Delicate Electronics Repair.

Juan Demerritt is the Staff Disciplinarian.

Vera Similitude is the Staff Forger.

Dr. Jean Poole is the Staff Geneticist.

Luke A. Boyd is an Ornithology Intern.

An aptronym is a name aptly suited to whatever it is applied, whether a person (real or not), place, or thing. In fiction, it has been used to define a character’s personality, profession, or other quality associated with that character. Probably the book that most easily comes to mind for containing aptronyms is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), with names such as Mr. Talkative and Mr. Worldly Wiseman.

In Medieval Morality Plays, which were the church’s way of teaching virtues, the stories left no question as to the qualities being portrayed. The characters were allegorical figures named precisely for the virtue or vice they represented. Some of the characters in Everyman, the best known Morality play, are Everyman, Death, Good-Deeds, Angel, Knowledge, Beauty, Discretion, and Strength.

Some of my favorite are in Dickens: the horrible brother and sister in David Copperfield, the Murdstones; Wilkins Micawber, whose financial difficulties land him in debtor’s prison; and the affectionate but slightly deranged Richard Babley, “Mr. Dick.”

The writer can be blatant with his use of aptronyms or subtle. Perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald meant to be both descriptive and ironic when he named his heroine “Daisy” in The Great Gatsby.

In looking over the list of Guardian Angel Publishing’s books, I noticed these aptronyms:

The Jumbo Shrimp of Dire Straits by Kristen and Kevin Collier. An ominous sounding place.

Kai Strand’s The Weaver  begins: “Tucked in a lush valley between two snow-capped mountains was the village of The Tales. Those who lived in the village were known as Weavers. Each person in The Tales could tell stories about anything at any time, and they often did. Prose, poetry, limericks or yarns; they told stories of all types and styles.” Mary Wordsmith is the main character.

Stilts the Stork by Dixie Philips. Stilts has stilt-like long skinny legs and she makes a funny mistake. She gathers golf balls thinking they are eggs.

Susan Batson gave apt names to two of her characters, the protagonists of Gilly the Seasick Fish and Sparkie: a Star Afraid of the Dark.

And

In my “Bear in Mind” (Characters Magazine) my main character, who is a type of Goldilocks character is named Tressa. Her adventure parallels that of Goldilocks but more or less in reverse.

Also, in my “How Rank Snodgrass Got My Apple Pie” (Long Story Short), the villain is a loathsome fella.

You might say the writer is using Nominative determinism when he assigns meaningful names to his characters. This is the theory that a person’s name influences his life—profession, personality, choices, and not just in literature, but in real life, as well. Carl Jung asked the question: “Are these whimsicalities of chance, or the suggestive effects of the name . . . or are they ‘meaningful coincidences’?” but he never answered it.

Philosophy aside, it is a useful and succinct way for a writer to add color, humor, irony, or information by hinting that the name has deeper meaning.

Do you have any favorite aptronyms?

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12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Nancy Stewart
    May 16, 2011 @ 08:26:28

    These are wonderful. What a great way to begin a Monday morning. Barbara, you’ve done it again–a combination of fun and important information!

    Reply

  2. Barbara Ehrentreu
    May 16, 2011 @ 11:58:18

    Barbara, this was very informative. I never knew the word for a character name that fits the person’s character or occupation. Thank you for giving me a new word: aptronym.

    Reply

  3. Janet Ann Collins
    May 16, 2011 @ 12:10:51

    In my book, The Peril of the Sinister Scientist, the boy who thinks he was cloned from the blood on the Shroud of Turin is named Joshua Davidson and the villain, who turns out not to be evil in the end, is named Nick Turner.

    Reply

  4. colleen rand
    May 16, 2011 @ 18:52:03

    I had never heard of an aptronym. Of course, I’ve noticed & been amused by names like “Dr. Doctor” (a real doctor) or “Dr. Bottom” (a proctologist). But now I can smile & be erudite!

    Reply

  5. Priya Iyengar
    May 16, 2011 @ 19:43:36

    What a wonderful post, Barbara. I never knew the word aptronyms until now. I have a learned a new word and a language tool through you post. What a great teacher you are. Keep writing and give us more knowledge.
    Love and Hugs

    Reply

  6. J. Aday Kennedy
    May 16, 2011 @ 21:10:01

    Barbara,
    I think reading your blog might be making me smarter.
    Blessings,
    J. Aday Kennedy
    The Differently-Abled Writer & Speaker
    Children’s Author of Stella the Fire Farting Dragon (April 2010)
    http://jadaykennedy.blogspot.com

    Reply

  7. Barbara Bockman
    May 16, 2011 @ 22:33:14

    You all are just wonderful to stop by and comment on my figures of speech. We’re all in this together and do what we can to help each other improve our writing.
    Nancy, that’s what I was striving for. Thanks.
    Barbara and Priya, the word is now yours.
    Colleen, thanks for adding to the list.
    Janet Ann, I love your use of aptronyms; they are very appropriate.
    J. Aday–you were smart to begin with and I’m glad I’m helping you to get smarter.
    Love to all of you

    Reply

  8. Holly Owen
    May 17, 2011 @ 14:30:17

    As a child I used to play a game called ‘Man Hunt’ and one of my favorite characters was a cemetery worker named Doug Graves.

    Reply

  9. collier1960
    Apr 17, 2012 @ 01:32:22

    As a high school student in the seventies I took part in an art exhibit and was required to produce a sign identifying me and my pencil drawings. In metalic block letters (based on the Eagles “One of These Nights” album art) I reversed the letters of my last name and declared “WARD spelled backward is DRAW”
    A bit sophmoric perhaps, but I’ve been on the trail of aptronyms ever since.

    Reply

  10. barbarabockman
    Apr 17, 2012 @ 21:23:51

    Hi Collier,
    I find it interesting that you were taking part in art exhibits in high school. I like your aptronym. Besides being on the trail, have you created any more aptronyms?

    Reply

  11. collier1960
    Apr 24, 2012 @ 22:32:29

    Thanks for asking, Barbara. I’m working on a novel and I’ve generated a couple of character names that are indicative of the part they play in the surprise ending. We’ll see how it goes…

    Reply

  12. barbarabockman
    May 03, 2012 @ 23:34:15

    Be sure and let me know when your book gets published. I like to support the writers I know. Sounds like your aptronyms are will be foreshadowed early in the story and will sneak up on the reader at the end. I like it. Best of luck!

    Reply

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