March 30, 2008

Occupational eponymy

Gerry Mulhern of the Queen's University Belfast wrote a letter to Times Higher Education (2/28/08) after he looked at the list of the vice-chancellors of the Russell Group of the top (and hence most prosperous) UK research universities. He had noticed that there were two named Grant, and several other money-related names like Sterling (the honorific adjective used for the British pound), Thrift (the virtue of good budgeting), and Brink (the cash transport trucking company). He said it reminded him of the name of a director of human resources he once knew (back when Human Resources was still called Labor Relations, I expect), named Strike. The vice-chancellor of the University of Portsmouth later sent in letter (3/13/08) saying simply that he had "never had the guts to study onomastics." His surname, the signature revealed, is Craven. There is a childish joy to these odd coincidences that have given us people apparently named for their jobs (or people who obediently selected the jobs their names foretold). Eric Bakovic nearly choked up his oatmeal last December when he noticed an item about a food company executive with a name suggestive of hurling. I noticed with delight and amazement today that the name of the public relations man cited on this Arts and Humanities Research Council page is Spinner. Honestly. I swear this is not one of my little deadpan jokes. Spinner really is working as a spinner.

By the way, let me not forget to note that the current US Secretary for Education is named Spellings.

Names suited to the occupations of their owners in this way are sometimes known as aptonyms. There is a huge list of them at this site (thanks to Andrew Leventis for this). Some (like New Scientist magazine) refer to the phenomenon under the heading "nominative determinism". The New Scientist got into the business of supplying aptonyms in its Feedback column after noticing an article about incontinence in a urology journal with a truly astounding by-line that I really don't think I want to reveal to you.

Oh, all right. It was Splatt and Weedon. You have John Cowan to blame for me mentioning this (thanks, John; don't send any more).

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 30, 2008 05:18 AM