Friday, July 2, 2010

Fun and games with words and names

I’ve shared at least one of my word-games with Lingwë readers, the Prefix Game, but there are lots of others with which I entertain myself on long drives or other idle moments. Here’s another — Aptronyms. An aptronym is a name aptly suited to its owner, whether in real life or in fiction. Examples of the former: William Wordsworth or Usain Bolt; of the latter: Daddy Warbucks or Mrs. Malaprop. It’s normally immediately apparent when a name is particularly well-suited, by chance or design, but occasionally, seeing the suitability of a name requires a little more thought. An example: Bernard Madoff — who indeed “made off” with billions in boodle.

So, the game is to think of professions or pastimes and then come up with aptronyms for people who might do them. But in the examples above (like 99% of the ones you’ll find), only the given or the surname is apt, almost never both. That’s too easy, especially when you consider how many surnames arose from trades and vocations to begin with. In my game, they must both be apt. Moreover, they have to be authentic, attested names. A few examples should make this clear:

  • An editor named Paige Turner
  • A nightclub performer named Melodie Singer
  • A banker named Bill Nichols
  • A reporter named Justin Storey
  • A policeman named Chase Roberson
  • A beachcomber named Sandy Banks
  • A preacher named Christian Godwin
  • Husband and wife florists, Bud & Rose Flowers

You can do this with the deeper etymologies of names, too. For example, my own given name means “healer” in Greek, but does Jason seem like a name especially suited to a doctor? Though such aptronyms may be even more clever, they aren’t usually as much fun, so I tend not go this route. You can make up aptronyms in languages other than English too. How about a French sculptor named Pierre Durand? Or a German monk named Dominik Engels? :)

So, it’s your turn. Put your thinking caps on and see what aptronyms you can come up with. Leave them in the comments if you want to play, and remember: you need two names. If you want to suggest aptronyms in languages other than English, be sure to explain them for the benefit of any readers who might need the help.


  1. This is also known as "nominative determinism", and was played under that name in the back pages of New Scientist magazine for many years. The truly magnificent case which began their multi-year run was a perfectly genuine article in the British Journal of Urology about incontinence by the perfectly genuine doctors J.W. Splatt and D. Weedon. (There is another urologist named Richard "Dick" Chopp.)

  2. A dock supervisor named: Marina Shipley

  3. A President of the United States named: Al Powers

  4. @Lillyput90: Marina Shipley — love it! The other, how is “Al” an aptronym for the POTUS? Oh, wait, is it meant to suggest “All Powers”? That’s pretty good. :)

    @John: I like those examples, but again, we need to make it more difficult and go for both names. I’ve got a friend (Gary) who likes my game but obstinately gives names where only one of them is apt.

    My favorite examples are the ones where both names are apt and moreover, where each can stand alone. That is, each is apt independently.

  5. I've got another one.....A fighter pilot named: Ariel Striker!

  6. I think it's more fun to deal only with actual people (as Splatt, Weedon, and Chopp are). But to each their own.

  7. John, your preference is for discovery, mine for invention. Two sides of the same coin, of course, as any troubadour would point out. French trouver, Italian trovare, Low Latin tropare all mean both “to discover” and “to invent”. As Giordano Bruno said, and which I am fond of quoting: se non è vero, è molto ben trovato.

  8. (Not invention but discovery) : I know a dentist here in New Zealand called Dennis Kay (abbreviated it becomes D.Kay, or Decay)....

    Also I worked with a guy who was in charge of monitoring water pollution levels - his last name was Clearwater... :)

    Sorry, no invention but amusing, I hope.

    - Jack M.

    PS - great blog, btw... :)

  9. Jack, those are great! Thanks for sharing! :)

  10. So, not exactly with the theme, but I was watching Sports Center, and if you haven't seen the commercial already, you certainly need to. It seems to be somewhat relevant to your blog, and instantly reminded me of the Mythcon Banquet food pun contest.

  11. As did this, by the way.

  12. I have heard of Dr. Vaglenova [coal] and Dr. Ognyanov [fire], from the local hospital burn center

    Another great name is Mirolub Voinolubov [peace-loving war-loving], who could be in the military

    OK, here are some (in Bulgarian):

    Yassen Zagorsky [ash forest], ranger

    Kitka Bozhurova [bouqet peony], florist

    Snezhina Oblakova [snow cloud], weather girl

  13. Adanedhel: Thanks for those excellent Bulgarian examples! The interesting thing here is that, unlike in English, you also have to adapt elements of the names to the gender, yes? :)

    Garrett: So great meeting you this past weekend! I’ve got another friend who’s given me a number of sports aptronyms. Thanks for those links, too; more grist for the mill. :)

    Another fella I met at Mythcon had two great aptronyms for me, but I’m going to wait to see whether he pops up here to share them himself. I asked him to. If he doesn’t, then I’ll tell you what they were. But trust me: they are two of the best I’ve heard.

  14. That would be me, Jason. Thanks, by the way, for your hospitality at Mythcon. Terrific weekend!

    Here are the aptronyms in question:

    Phil Graves, undertaker
    Jimmy Locke, burglar

  15. Well, yes - gender permeates almost everything, but semantic gender is important even in English when it comes to names, isn't it.

    Speaking of names, in Bulgaria, we have "name days", associated with EO saints. For example, people by the name of George, Gergana, etc. celebrate their name day on St. George's Day (May 6), and on Palm Sunday (Tsvetnitsa) people named after flowers and plants celebrate their days (that would be like a national holiday in the Shire and Bree, hehe).

  16. Thanks, Tom. I love those two examples.

    Adanedhel, well, yes, to some extent. I wasn’t thinking in terms of giving women “flower” names or that sort of thing. In English — as in some other languages (e.g., French) — the same given name can serve, unchanged in form, for both men and women. For other names, you are right: there are distinct masculine and feminine forms (e.g., George vs. Georgia, Francis vs. Frances).

    But surnames in English do not change their form depending on whether it’s a man or woman carrying it. Slavic names do, as do those in Icelandic (and probably other languages). That’s what I really had in mind. In English, you’d have Tom Johnson as well as Mary Johnson (unchanged); whereas, in Russian, you’d have Фома Иванов, but Марья Иванова; in Icelandic, Tómas Jónsson, but Mæja Jónsdóttir.

  17. Yes, that's certainly true. In Bulgarian (and Russian) surnames are in this way similar to adjectives, which typically have to agree to the grammatical gender of a noun - and in the case with names, with natural gender, too. In fact, the suffix -ов, -ев in Иванов [Ivanov], for instance, mean "of Ivan" as in son/daughter of Ivan. Up until a century ago people's surnames used to be formed by adding these suffixes to the name of the father and now are added as middle names.

  18. My mother tells me there was a fellow with a shingle out in her town: a surgeon named Issac Hackett. Or, as it said on his sign, "I. Hackett, Surgeon."

    I'm here due to Tom Simon, and this is great fun.

  19. Welcome, Wendy! That’s a pretty good real-life aptronym. There’s a big list of them in the Wikipedia article I linked to in the main post.

  20. Actually, there is a "Paige Turner" in literature - she's a colleague of Thursday Next in Jasper Fforde's "The Eyre Affair". The fun part is, the author never mentions the first and last name together until almost the end of the book, so it's not an "in your face" reference. Her name is very appropriate for a LiteraTec agent.

  21. That’s right! Thanks for the reminder, Heidi. I was pretty sure I had read this clever book, so I just checked my reading list. Sure enough, I did, back in 2004. I haven’t read any of Fforde’s later books. but I think my wife has read them all. I actually knew someone in school named Paige Turner too, many years ago.