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Can our names inspire our choices in life?


My friend Hattie recently introduced me to aptonym (also known as aptronym). This is, delightfully, when a person’s name is well-suited to its owner, whether that be in character or profession. Just this week, I read about a surgeon called Professor Kneebone. Some of you may be familiar with Igor Judge, former lord chief justice. There are many famous examples: the sprinter, Usain Bolt, for instance. William Wordsworth, who, lest we forget, as well as his poetry, also petitioned to reform British copyright law. Regular pub quiz question: who invented the toilet? Thomas Crapper. (He didn’t invent it, just improved it. But he did invent the manhole cover.)

Hattie should really be a milliner. I should probably be an expert on diseases. Aptonym is not a new phenomenon, nor recently discovered. In his 1960 book Synchronicity, Jung wrote that there is “sometimes quite grotesque coincidence between a man’s name and his peculiarities”. Nominative determinism is the theory that aptonyms are not merely happy coincidences (or grotesque ones), but that our names can inspire our choices in life and careers, possibly because of egotism. In the past, it was the opposite – the profession came before the name: Taylor, Smith, Baker. Spiderman.

But I am quite a silly person and it cheers me to think that aptonyms are by chance, rather than logic. There is Sara Blizzard, a BBC weather presenter. What a gas! Margaret Court, the Australian former world No 1 tennis player. Smashing. Cecil Fielder and his son Prince, both US baseball players. Knocked it out of the park there. There’s the Starbucks executive Rachel Brewer. Marilyn vos Savant, who was once listed as having the world’s highest-recorded IQ. Some names are wonderfully appropriate in more ways than one. As Stephen Colbert observed of Barack Obama’s press secretary, Josh Earnest: “What a name for a press secretary. Josh Earnest. His name literally means, ‘Just kidding, but seriously’.”

The internet has brought aptonym fans together. On one dedicated forum, someone had spotted that a fact-checker for a magazine was called Paige Worthy. A man’s mother’s orthodontist was one Dr Toothman. And a medical student scored a hat-trick with his college professors, Dr Paine (an anaesthetist) and Dr Stoolman (a gastroenterologist), and his former high school English teacher, Mr Read. I have checked these; they appear to be real.

But perhaps I am an even bigger fan of inaptonyms, such as the Filipino Archbishop Jaime Sin, who, as if that wasn’t enough, was made a cardinal in 1976, to become Cardinal Sin. There is just no way that’s not going to make me laugh, even on the most hellish of days.