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aptronym also aptonym

noun [countable]

a name which relates to its owner's profession or personality, often in a humorous way

'Aptronym's the word for a name that coincidentally (self-fulfillingly? aptly, anyway) describes its bearer's hobby, profession, or temperament.'

everything2.com 1st June 2006

At some time or other, it's a safe bet that you've come across a person whose name is in some way related to what they do for a living, and you've had a little giggle about for example 'Mrs Read', the local librarian, or 'Professor Fiddler', who teaches in the music department. These coincidental collisions of name and profession, which never fail to bring a smile to our lips, actually have a name of their own – they are aptronyms.

contemporary examples from sport include Manchester City footballer Michael Ball, golfer Tiger Woods … and the fastest man on the planet, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt

An aptronym then is a surname which is especially suited to the job, personality, or some aspect of the character of its owner. There are plenty of fictional examples, dating as far back as John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress in 1678, which included the characters 'Mr Talkative' and 'Mr Worldy Wiseman'. In the 1970s, the concept was adopted by author Roger Hargreaves as the basis of his highly successful children's series 'The Mr Men', which included a host of appealing characters who did exactly what their names suggested (e.g. Mr Sneeze sneezed a lot, Mr Strong could lift up buildings, Mr Happy smiled all the time, etc.).

But perhaps even more interesting are those aptronyms which occur in real life, purely by chance, and not some creation of an imaginative author. One of the most widely cited examples is that of the famous poet William Wordsworth. Then there's Thomas Crapper, the Victorian pioneer of flushing toilets (surprisingly, the word crap as an informal reference to waste predates Mr Crapper). In the more recent past, the world of sport has provided us with some notable examples, such as Margaret Court, the Australian tennis champion, and the late George Best, thought to be one of the world's all-time 'best' footballers. Contemporary examples from sport include Manchester City footballer Michael Ball, golfer Tiger Woods (a 'wood' is a type of golf club) and the fastest man on the planet, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt (who runs like a 'bolt of lightning').

In case you're not bored yet, here are a few more examples of (living) aptronyms that caught my eye:

  • Billy Drummond – American jazz drummer
  • Samantha Bond – actress appearing in James Bond movies
  • Sir Michael Scholar – President of St John's College, Oxford University
  • Scott Speed – American racing car driver
  • Larry Speakes – former White House spokesman
  • Lord Igor Judge – Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales

Background – aptronym

The word aptronym, also sometimes occurring as aptonym, is a blend of the adjective apt (from Latin via Middle English, meaning 'exactly suitable, or appropriate') and the affix -(r)onym (from the Greek 'noma' meaning 'name'. Compare pseudonym, eponym, etc.). Aptronym was allegedly coined in the 1930s by American newspaper columnist Franklin P. Adams.

An alternative term for the same phenomenon is Perfect Fit Last Names (or PFLNs for short), coined by Washington Post columnist Bob Levey.

Adopting a slightly different perspective, the phrase nominative determinism refers to the tendency of people to choose fields of work that fit their surname. Interestingly enough, in bygone eras, there was a definite connection between the two, so that a person's family name was often derived from their occupation. This means that many of today's surnames have a historical link with trades of the past, as for example Thatcher, Wright (wheelwright), Smith (blacksmith) and Cooper (barrel maker).

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 4th March 2008.

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