The Word Nerd: What’s in a literary surname?

What do the Dickensian character Ebenezer Scrooge, Shakespearean character Mistress Quickly, and Richard Sheridan’s character
Mrs. Malaprop have in common?

They are all aptronyms. The Oxford Companion to the English Language defines an aptronym as a “name that matches its owner’s occupation or character, often in a humorous or ironic way, such as William Rumhole, a London taverner.” The word was coined in 1938 by American newspaper columnist Franklin P. Adams. He rearranged the first two letters of the word patronym, the naming from one’s father, and arrived at the word “aptronym,” which refers to an “apt” surname.

English literature has brought us some memorable aptronyms. Shakespeare provides several, including Shallow, Quickly, Bottom, Falstaff and Toby Belch; Henry Fielding, in Tom Jones, presents us with righteous Squire Allworthy and in Joseph Andrews with Lady Booby; Paul Bunyan in Pilgrim’s Progress gave us the pair of Mr. Talkative and Mr. Worldly Wiseman.

Nineteenth-century writers in particular seemed to have enjoyed creating aptronymic characters. Thomas Hardy in Return of the Native named a character Wildeve, R.S. Surtees named a character Leather in Mr. Sponge’s Sporting Tour and Anthony Trollope unveils the (pre-Kevorkian) Dr. Fillgrave in his novel Doctor Thorne.

Charles Dickens, in particular, was a master of the literary aptronym. In A Christmas Carol, we find Scrooge, described as “squeezing, grasping…and hard as flint,” and Old Fezziwig; Oliver Twist gives us the trio of the fussy official Bumble, Mr. Grimwig and the burglar Toby Crackit. From A Tale of Two Cities, we find the Crunchers, a family of grave-robbers and in David Copperfield, we meet the villainous Murdstone, whose name suggests “murder” and “merde.”

In the post-Dickensian era, the practice of naming literary characters based on their personality, was not overly popular. Of course, there were exceptions, such as Oscar Wilde’s Jack Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest and Shaw’s Candida. More recently, J.R.R. Tolkien in Lord of the Rings named Bilbo Baggins’ mother Belladonna and presented the reader with the riddle of whether the name referenced her beauty or her poisonous nature.

James Joyce used aptronyms sublimely. His selection of the name Leopold Bloom as his protagonist in Ulysses is a study in irony. “Leopold” means a free man who is strong yet “bloom” refers to a fragile flower. Also, Bloom’s real surname is Virag and this name seems to be a play on virago, a word designating a war-like woman. Then we have Stephen Dedalus. Stephen means a crown and Stephen is the crown of his family with the burden of making a name for himself in Dublin society.  His surname Dedalus derives from the character in Greek mythology, Daedalus, a crafty architect who built an elaborate labyrinth for King Minos of Crete so that he could imprison his wife’s monstrous son. Later, Daedalus builds wings, for human flight and this leads to the death of his son Icarus. It would seem in Ulysses that Dedalus too wants to “fly away” from the constraints that politics and religion places on an artist.

If you are a fan of literary aptronyms, you’ll be happy to know that they returned with a vengeance thanks to J.K. Rowling’s hugely popular Harry Potter series. Harry’s nemesis is the evil Draco Malfoy. Here, both the first and last names describe his character. Draco is Latin for “dragon” and it was also the name of the “zero-tolerant” seventh century B.C. Athenian lawmaker who lent his name to the word “draconian.” Mal foi is French for “bad faith” and the name Malfoy conjures all sort of malicious and malignant words. Harry’s supreme foe is Lord Voldemort whose name does double duty as vol de mort in French means “flight from death” or “theft of death,” and “vole” is also a type of rat-like rodent.Most of Harry’s teachers at Hogwarts wizardry school have evocative names. Professor Quirrel is both quarrelsome and squirrelly and Professor Severus Snape is severe and a cross between a snipe and a snake. Hogwart’s professors tend to gravitate to fields that match their names. Vindictus Veridian teaches a class on curses and Professor Sprout’s area of expertise is herbology. Professor Remus Lupin teaches a course “Defense Against the Dark Arts.” Guess what he turns out to be? Those who know Latin and Roman mythology will be able to divine that he is a werewolf. According to lore, Remus, the co-founder of Rome, was suckled by a wolf, and lupus is the Latin word for “wolf.”

So thanks to J.K. Rowling’s magical aptronymic characters, literary aptronyms might possibly be making a comeback.

Richler’s latest book is Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit

1 Comment on "The Word Nerd: What’s in a literary surname?"

  1. I don’t know if it is intentional or serendipitous but “virag” means flower in Hungarian. Wasn’t Joyce fluent in Hungarian?

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