What’s in a literary surname?

Names that colourfully describe their bearers enjoyed a big comeback with the Harry Potter series of novels

WHAT DO THE DICKENSIAN character Ebenezer Scrooge, the Shakespearean character Mistress Quickly, and Richard Sheridan’s character Mrs. Malaprop all have in common?

The answer is, 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” (a name derived from the given name of a father or male ancestor), and arrived at the word “aptronym,” meaning an “apt” name.

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 Damon Wildeve; R. S. Surtees named a character Leather in Mr. Sponge’s Sporting Tour; and Anthony Trollope created the (pre-Kevorkian) Dr. Fillgrave character for 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 as hard and sharp as flint, and Mr. Fezziwig, who sports a large Welsh wig. Oliver Twist gives us the trio of the fussy, official parish beadle, Mr. Bumble; Mr. Grimwig; and the burglar, Toby Crackit. In Hard Times we meet the austere Mr. Gradgrind, and Mr. M’Choakumchild, who teaches in Gradgrind’s school. A Tale of Two Cities presents the Crunchers, a family of grave-robbers; and in David Copperfield we meet the villainous Murdstone, whose name suggests “murder,” and something hard and cold.

In the post-Dickensian era, the practice of naming literary characters based on their personalities was not hugely popular. There were exceptions, such as Oscar Wilde’s Jack Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest, and Shaw’s Candida, his comedy’s titular heroine. Later, 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 for his protagonist in Ulysses is a study in contrasts. The Germanic “Leopold” means “bold people,” while a “bloom” is a fragile flower. Then we have Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man who also appears in Ulysses. The name Stephen is derived from the Greek word meaning “wreath” or “crown,” and Stephen is the crown of his family, with the burden of making a name for himself in Dublin society (Saint Stephen is venerated as the first Christian martyr). His surname, Dedalus, derives from Daedalus in Greek mythology, a crafty architect who built an elaborate labyrinth for King Minos of Crete in which to imprison the Minotaur. Later, Daedalus builds wings for human flight, leading to the death of his son Icarus. In Ulysses, Dedalus, too, seems to want to fly away from the constraints that politics and religion places on an artist.

Literary aptronyms returned with a vengeance in J. K. Rowling’s hugely popular Harry Potter series. Harry’s nemesis is the evil Draco Malfoy: Draco is Latin for “dragon,” and was also the name of the seventh-century B.C. Athenian lawmaker who lent his name to the word “draconian.” Mal foi is French for “bad faith.” Draco Malfoy belongs to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry's Slytherin House, named for its founderr, Salazar Slytherin, who speaks the language of serpents; “Slytherin” includes the words “sly” and (phonetically) “slithering.” Harry’s supreme foe is Lord Voldemort, whose name does double duty: vol de mort in French means “flight of death” or “flight from death,” and a vole is a small rodent.

Indeed, most of Harry’s teachers have evocative names. Quirinus Quirrell is both quarrelsome and squirrelly, while Severus Snape is severe, and a cross between a snipe and a snake. And their areas of expertise match their names: Vindictus Viridian teaches a class on curses, while Pomona Sprout’s field is herbology. Remus Lupin has taught the course “Defense Against the Dark Arts,” and those familiar with classical mythology may not be surprised to learn this character is a werewolf. In Roman myth, Remus (who co-founded the city of Rome) was suckled by a wolf in infancy, while lupus is the Latin word for “wolf.”

Thanks to J. K. Rowling’s magical aptronymic characters, literary aptronyms may be making a comeback.

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