What’s in a Name? Sometimes, A Job What’s in a Name? Sometimes, A Job
Culture

What’s in a Name? Sometimes, A Job

by Mark Peters

March 29, 2009

The Synchronous World of Aptronyms

Have you heard about the gardener named Alan Bloom or the defense attorney Scott Free?How about the brilliant professor of genetics, Dr. Murray Brilliant?Or the winner of the the Nez Perce County Fair hog-calling contest, Jolee Bacon?Such perfect marriages of profession and handle sound like old-fashioned jokes from a paleo-comedic era.Nuh-uh.These kismetic combos of name and job are truth, not truthiness. Preposterously well-named people like Rita Book the librarian and Diane Berry the mortician have aptronyms-names that are particularly suited to a person's profession. Folks have been wondering about "nominative determinism" and the "name-career hypothesis" for decades, and collecting the words also called aptonyms, jobonyms, namephreaks, perfect fit last names, and euonyms is a perennial hobby of word-herders.The word aptronym dates back to at least 1925, and no less respectable a publication than New Scientist has been the home of much aptronym-discussing, though they prefer the term nominative determinism, a name for the phenomena that is both science-y and destiny-ish. In 1994, New Scientist introduced that term and discussed such cases as Dr. Misri (a depression-focused psychiatrist), R.A. Sparks (author of electronics textbooks), C.J. Berry (a make-your-own wine maven), and J. Angst, who co-wrote a book on bipolar disorder. Over the years, the letters page of New Scientist has been an
ever-replenishing source of aptronyms, and I particularly enjoyed a 2005 issue that mentioned fish researchers Andrew Bass and Steven Haddock, as well as the journalist Elaine Lies, who probably does not agree that her aptronym is apt.Timothy Noah of Slate-who lacks his own aptronym, unless he collects a metric ark-load of animals-is a top contender for collector laureate of the aptronym world, as his pieces have brought many to light. He's collected dentists named Fear, Hurt, Toothman, Chu, Plack, and Puller, as well as an economist named Dollar, a gastroenterologist named Colon, a professor of relgion named Godlove, an ophthalmologist named Blinder, and a urologist named Peters. (I'll pretend I didn't hear that…) Noah's crowning glories are the discovery of sexual misconduct researcher Charol Shakeshaft and lawyer Sue Yoo, two professionals whose names must make their lives very interesting (and annoying).For aptronym insight, you can't do better than Verbie Prevost, literature professor and head of the English department at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, who I heard give a paper on this topic at the American Name Society conference a few months ago. As to whether or not the name influenced her, Verbie said her parents probably did not intend to steer their daughter toward an inevitable destiny as an English prof: "They were simply naming me after my grandmothers-Verbie for the maternal grandmother and Ann for the paternal one.  I'm not sure it ever occurred to them to think about the connection even when I displayed an early interest in become a writer or an English teacher-as early as elementary school, in fact."In her paper, Verbie said that taunt-bearing schoolmates were equally uninterested in her name's meaning: "I also do not really recall much reference being made to the aptronymic quality of my name during my K-12 school days, but then my classmates probably weren't fully aware of my future plans. Instead, they primarily teased me about the unusualness of the name." Admirably, Verbie has managed to not go bonkers from endless jokes about her name, like an old boyfriend who said her sister was named Nounie and another friend who calls Verbie's children the pronouns.
You could say I have an aptronym, though it's a bit of a stretch. As I've heard tell, my great-grandmother, who was more than a tad bonkers, wasn't thrilled with the choice of Mark, saying, "What's that? Like a mark on the wall?" (Guess she never heard of the Bible. Yeeps). But since making marks on paper is my favorite thing to do, even more than plowing through a bag of barbecue chips while watching about five episodes of The Shield in one sitting, the name does fit. I am a mark-er.What about you, oh nameless readers? Is there a Randall Anonymous, who floats name-free notions across the web, or a Carol Comment with something to say? You know what to do, commentadores.
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What’s in a Name? Sometimes, A Job