Thursday, June 10, 2010

Nominative determinism in fiction

Blogger and social media consultant Sunshine Mugrabi introduced me to a word the other day: aptonym. Some use the term aptryonym. Neither is in Merriam-Webster, but Wictionary and Macmillan both confirm Sunshine's definition:
when a person's name matches their personality or career choice," a.k.a., "the phenomenon of nominative determinism."

Sunshine has been blogging about wine and food lately. One gentleman she blogged about recently is social media director at a Napa Valley winery; his name is an Americanized from the proper spelling of the Roman god of wine, Bacchus. This isn't the first time she's blogged about aptonyms. In fact, Sunshine admits to something of an obsession with this oddity of language. I cede the field to her demonstrated connaissance, but she did get me thinking about inversions of this phenomenon.

Creating a name to suit a character is something I toy with all the time when I write fiction. In one short story, for example, I named a character who mentors another "Raymond," because I liked that the name is composed of Germanic words that mean "counsel" and "protection" (says the appendix of an old Random House College Dictionary I often rely on for such things, not to mention Wikipedia).

While I say "toy with," I'm actually pretty circumspect when playing with etymologies of names. These days, unless one is writing with tongue firmly planted in cheek, one doesn't want to lather it on too thickly. I'm not really expecting readers to notice that "Raymond" is aptly named. It's the kind of detail I attend to for my own satisfaction.

Sure, laying it on thick works for some. It worked for Edmund Spenser, whose Faerie Queene (the queen's name is Gloriana) is littered with monsters named for the sins they allegorically represent; and brothers name Priamond, Diamond, and Triamond; and Una who represents the one True Church; and Duessa who ... doesn't. It worked for arch, parodic cartoon characters like Dudley Do-right the straight-arrow Canadian Mountie of Rocky and Bullwinkle Show fame, not to mention his horse, Horse. It works for arch, parodic novelists too, like Ian Fleming: think Tiffany Case, the diamond smuggler in Diamonds are Forever; or Red Grant, an executioner run by Soviet counterintelligence in From Russia With Love. And then there's Darth Vader and Voldemort and the like, but we're talking serious cheesiness there.

Another twist on characters named to amplify aspects of their occupation or personality are characters who walk out of stories to inhabit our common vocabulary. Have you ever called someone a scrooge? You have Charles Dickens to thank. Ever say "No sh*t, Sherlock" to some dimwit who has just articulated the obvious? Thanks due to Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle. Might you call "a monstrous creation" a "frankenstein"? Mary W. Shelly will accept your homage. It works for mythical characters too. A singular vulnerability is an "Achilles' heel." Extraordinary power is "herculean." And if it makes you blush to say that someone masturbates, you could always say he practices "onanism."

Then, of course, there's the pedestrian fact people's surnames were once commonly adopted to indicate what they did for work. Ever known somebody named Miller or Baker or Smith?

None of these twists gives quite the same frisson as an aptonym. The thing that prickles one's scalp on meeting a person whose name describes their fate is just that possibility. Fate. Was this person destined to become what she became simply by accident of a name acquired at birth? In a culture that values choice and agency, evidence suggesting you become what you're called is disquieting. A name given by a writer to a character conceived and shaped in imagination is something altogether different -- a handle for a character type or an allegory, in some cases. And a character whose name becomes shorthand for describing a personality trait or type is tribute to fine storytelling, not a sign of predestination.

I think it's a thin line for fiction writers to walk. What do you think? Do you always roll your eyes when an author signals character through the name s/he's chosen? Or only when it's too, too obvious?


  1. The cutesiness of "Snow Crash", particularly exemplified by the choice of Hiro Protagonist as the name for the main character, turned me off of Neal Stephenson for years. Andy had to bribe me to try one of his more recent books, and I was pleased to see that he had developed some subtlety in the interim.

  2. Great post, Steve. And thanks for crediting me. Of course credit goes to the New Scientist for coining the term "nominative determinism." One of my favorite literary aptonyms is "Basil Ransom" in Henry James's The Bostonians. His rival for the affections of the gorgeous naif Verena Tarrant is none other than Olive Chancellor. Between these two names we have a something of an appetizer struggling to spice up the tension between law and order and felonious forces.

  3. love this word steve!

  4. greaaaaaat would u plz describe the 12 virtues in faerrie queen myb email is

  5. @dost.hira86: Wikipedia's article on The Faerie Queene lists them in the section titled "A Celebration of the Virtues."