Sydney author suffers from mild case of aptronymia

Lots of fiction writers suffer from it: The urge to create meaningful names for characters in novels. I was jogged into mental action on the topic by Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, set in an England not so distant from that of Dickens, and written in a style that pays homage to him; take Mrs. Sucksby for example, the stout lady who takes in foundlings and calls for an infant to squeeze when she is perturbed by events.

In fact, charactonyms, or less accurately aptronyms have a long pedigree in literature. (Actually the the best term in my view is semionym, which I invented, and then discovered already exists in a Danish Wikipedia entry.)

Oddly, this literary trope seems to be omitted from school English syllabuses; while students sweat over alliteration, parallelism, metaphor, simile, anthropomorphism and all the other fancy discussion points guaranteed to ruin a kid’s enjoyment of a good book, the meaningful naming of characters is seldom dealt with. And of course if you are reading in translation, you might miss a dash of charactonymming altogether; who knows that Kostoglotov, Solzhenitsyn’s stubborn bastard protagonist in Cancer Ward means ‘bone swallower’?

The Arabs have a very sensible attitude to this. I once met a man in Egypt called Harb Usfuur, which could be translated as ‘War Finch’, but there is an Arabic saying al’asmaa’ laa tu’allal , which officially translates as ‘names shouldn’t be explained’. Nothing more to say on that, then.

War Finches aside, I got to thinking about charactonyms in books I’ve recently read. William Boyd’s clunking Restless has Romer, an enigmatic European intelligence operative with a peculiar lovemaking style (one of the few highlights of the book): He does seem to pop up everywhere, i.e. roam around, and the name itself seems appropriately stateless but vaguely Central European. At least he didn’t end up with some funny marks above the vowels like those Scandinavian-looking ice cream brands whose names are completely concocted, or things you buy in Ikea. Randomly digging around my Kindle I had a look at Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, J.G. Farrell’s Troubles, and Lucie Whitehouse’s The Bed I Made, but I couldn’t discern strong symptoms of aptronymia.

That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of help around: There is a whole website[1] devoted to meaningful native American names for dogs. What bounty for the novelist whose has painted herself into a plot corner where the story can only be resolved by the hero discovering that his enigmatic grandfather was a Choctaw breeder of Maltese Terriers. And there’s succour for the Celtic rural romance genre with a site for  legendary Irish and Scottish dog names[2].

In my own writing I’ve found the naming of characters intriguing and often challenging . In The Play’s the Thing I created some very obvious charactonyms, but they didn’t come easily. I have Agnes Flint, the hard-as-nails billionaire matriarch and her dopey sister Pearl; is the dissonance between Flint and Pearl too obvious? But the nasty Flint dynasty started out as the Hardbottles, a name I eventually abandoned because its charactonymic effect wasn’t transparent, and the components of the name risked giving away a plot twist. Naming my Pakistani character Jehangir Arby took weeks of research, but my Arabs were easier because I know much more about the culture; however, I wasn’t game to try charactonymia outside of my own bailiwick – authenticity will do.

I confess that Messrs. Noble and Savage were initially named so that their media firm could be wittily (you may think archly or even cornily) named ‘Noble Savage’. But perhaps the names did to some extent determine character; Alex Noble has his gallant days, and Laurence Savage is a bastard.  Martin Mooney just popped out of my brain one day: He’s vain, a cynic and a manipulator, and while neither Martin nor Mooney individually suggest these qualities (I know perfectly nice Martins and at least one very personable Mooney), the alliteration seems to trigger something more than the sum of the two names. I’ve discussed the grotesque Shacka in another essay in this collection, but you’ll have to read the book to find out how he progresses from Sciacca to Shacka to Shaker. It’s complicated.

In my novel An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity the the Jack in Jack Walsingham was chosen because I wanted the character to have appeal across generations of readers, the name being one that is both old-fashioned and currently popular. Don’t ask me where Walsingham came from. Jack’s wife Thea is half-Greek, and I wanted her to have an element of divine wisdom – like a Greek goddess perhaps? And my detective Fiona Salmon – well, I like the contrast between the poshness of Fiona and the wet slap of fish; does it convey the notion that Fiona is deeply conflicted?

Signing off, your faithful twisty-mouthed pigsty keeper (which is apparently what my name means).

[1] http://solaras.hubpages.com/hub/Cool-Native-American-Names-for-Female-Dogs . Downloaded 29 May 2014.

[2] http://solaras.hubpages.com/hub/Strong-Dog-Names-13-Irish-and-Scottish-Names-for-Male-Dogs-from-Myths-and-Legends . Downloaded 29 May 2014.

I originally wrote this article a part of an anthology called ‘On Becoming a Butcher in Paris’. You can download the whole collection for free under a Creative Commons Licence here.

Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:

An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity

The Play’s the Thing

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