aptronym (names)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Usain Bolt
The last name of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is an aptronym. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

An aptronym is a name that matches the occupation or character of its owner, often in a humorous or ironic way. Also called an aptonym or a namephreak.

A contemporary example of an aptronym is Usain "Lightning" Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter who's widely regarded as the world's fastest man. Other examples include poet William Wordsworth, undertaker Robert Coffin, and astronaut Sally Ride. 

The term aptronym (literally, "an apt name") was coined by American newspaper columnist Franklin Pierce Adams, best known by his initials F.P.A.

Examples and Observations

  • "An aptronym is an apt name, one that is especially descriptive of or suited to a person: for example, William Wordsworth, the poet; Margaret Court, the tennis player; Gray Davis, the sober, gray-haired former governor of California; and Marilyn vos Savant, the Parade columnist who has the world's highest recorded IQ. Often the aptronym is humorously unsuitable--like Robert Coffin for an undertaker or Dr. Gas for a gastroenterologist--in which case I would call it a distronym or a jocunym. A euonym is an especially auspicious name, like Jesus, which means savior, or Harry Truman."
    (Charles H. Elster, What in the Word? Harvest, 2005)
  • "Aptronyms have a long history in English literature. In the 17th century Christian allegory Pilgrim's Progress, author John Bunyan 'aptronymed' two of his characters Mr. Worldly Wiseman and Mr. Talkative. Shakespeare's character Hotspur in King Henry IV is quick-tempered and impatient. We can find 'apt' titles in contemporary popular culture as well. Snidely Whiplash is the aptronym of the black-caped, mustache-twirling nemesis of Dudley Do-Right. Sweet Polly Purebred is a dog who is always rescued from peril by her hero in the 1960s cartoon series Underdog."
    (Chrysti M. Smith, Verbivore's Feast, Second Course: More Word & Phrase Origins. Farcountry Press, 2006)
  • Dr. Russell Brain and Dr. Henry Head
    "When a name is felt to be especially appropriate to a person, linguists call it an aptronym. . . . There is an ornithologist called Bird, a pediatrician called Babey, and a scientist specializing in animal bioacoustics called Dolphin. A famous case is Dr. Russell Brain, a leading British neurologist. There was also a journal called Brain. It was edited for a time by Dr. Henry Head. Opposites also attract. There has been a cardinal called Sin (in the Philippines) and a police chief called Lawless (in the US)."
    (David Crystal, Words, Words, Words. Oxford University Press, 2006)
  • Mrs. Heather Carb
    "While looking for a telephone number, we noted an aptronym. A family named Wood owns a lumber company. A New York Times article on weekend workers (Jackson, 2002, March 10) mentioned Mrs. Heather Carb, who is a bakery manager near Philadelphia."
    (Dale D. Johnson et al., "Logology: Word and Language Play." Vocabulary Instruction: Research to Practice, eds. J. F. Baumann and E. J. Kameenui. Guilford Press, 2003)
  • Name Is Destiny
    "Some scientific researchers contend that there are disproportionately large numbers of dentists named Dennis and lawyers named Lauren, that it's not purely an accident that Dr. Douglas Hart of Scarsdale, N.Y., chose cardiology or that the Greathouse family of West Virginia runs a real-estate firm. To some degree, this has always been true: The Romans had the expression nomen est omen, or 'name is destiny.' . . .
    "[T]here are people like Sue Yoo of Los Angeles, who grew up with people telling her, 'Oh my god, that's your name, you should totally become a lawyer.' Today she's an attorney. 'Psychologically,' she says, her name probably 'helped me decide to go in that direction.'"
    ("What's in a Name?" The Week, March 16, 2012)