In Praise of Ancient Technologies, and Aptonyms

There was an interesting article in the New York Times sports section the other day about how the All England Club has kept the Wimbledon tournament free of pigeons since 1999 by employing a man named Wayne Davis to bring in his small flock of peregrine falcons. Until Davis came along, the pigeons were a real nuisance. “In the old, old days, they probably used to shoot them,” a Wimbledon spokesman told the Times. “But in these touchy feely times, they probably decided that wasn’t the best option.”

I love it when ancient solutions like falconry are kept alive or resurrected. It is easy to be dazzled by new technology, much of which is truly dazzling. But it is also easy to assume that each generation of our species is smarter than all previous generations combined. There is another ancient technology — the art of impregnating paper with ink to create highly legible and portable reading materials — that has been badly maligned of late. But as much as I love the electronic alternatives, I still think paper reading is wonderful, and pray that it never ceases.

On a different note, the Times article cited above was written by John Branch. Branch. Nice name, yes, for an article about birds? I love when people’s names are aptonyms — names that correlate with their professions. It seems to happen an awful lot with bird people. There’s John Flicker, president of the National Audubon Society, and the renowned birder Phoebe Snetsinger. That has to be one of the best aptonyms ever — “phoebe,” which is a kind of bird, and “snetsinger,” which sounds like a bird but isn’t, but which is composed of “singer” and “snet,” an anagram of “nest.”

Other good aptonyms, dear readers?


IIRC, the Executive Director of M.A.D.D. was named Pam Beers. Really.


My father had a dentist named Dr. Toothaker.


There's a guy who used to play the bassoon in the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra named Stephen Basson.


For economists, we have Price Fishback (econ history and labor econ, University of Arizona:


When I was a kid I was on a stone age summer camp were we made pots, spears, stone knifes and such. The leader, a historian from the local university, was called Sten Berg. Translated to English it literally means "Stone Mountain". Didn't think much of it then as I was only 10, but my parents found it hilarious.


On the cruder side, there's a urologist in Toledo, Ohio named Dick Tapper. And no, he doesn't introduce himself as Richard. I went to high school with his son, and I've met him a few times, it's definitely "Dick".


There's always Margaret Spellings, U.S. Secretary of Education.


For a really politically incorrect example, a famous anthropologist who wrote extensively on human races was named Carleton Coon.


A piece on NPR the other week featured an interview of an economist with the last name Economy, seriously. Can't remember the first name or subject matter.


A lot of conservation measures are actually ancient technologies. That's because in the old days, things were scarce and it was important to use things efficiently. They already figured out how to do it.


Small homes.

Sod roofs.

Rain barrels (there are new twists on them nowadays that keep mosquitoes out! probably the analogy to new and improved falconry equipment).


In a footnote in The Inflationary Universe (p. 28), Physicist Alan Guth recounts this attempted autoaptonymization:

"I never like to miss a chance to publicize my ideas, so I mention here that I am trying to persuade my colleagues that the acronym "GUT" [for "Grand Unified Theory"] is incorrect. The word "theory" should be abbreviated as "TH", since the original Greek word "theoria" (?e??a) uses the single Greek letter theta (?) to indicate the "th" sound. I must admit, however, that this improved orthography has not been widely accepted."


Strange, before i even read the last comment I was remind of this passage from Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time:

"This picture of a hot early stage of the universe was first put forward by the scientist George Gamow in a famous paper written in 1948 with a student of his, Ralph Alpher. Gamow had quite a sense of humor – he persuaded the nuclear scientist Hans Bethe to add his name to the paper to make the list of authors “Alpher, Bethe, Gamow,” like the first three letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha, beta, gamma: particularly appropriate for a paper on the beginning of the universe!"


My barber was a guy by the name Jimmy Barber.


The Dean of my college was named Dean Mills -- so his name and title were the same.

There is also a major in the Kansas City, MO police department named Major Majors...with Majors being his last name.

Pat McGee

What's the opposite of an aptonym? My mother must have collected these people. Our dentist was Dr. Payne. Our GP was Dr. Slaughter.

I was reminded of her on the 4th when I went to the National Mall. My bags were checked by a policeman wearing the nametag "Coward".

Of course, my mother must have also liked aptonyms, because our optometrist was Dr. Stare.

How about poker player Chris Moneymaker?


Of course, there is American F1 driver Scott Speed.


Designer Kelly Deck hosts a landscape/outdoor living design show called "Take it Outside!" on the cable channel HGTV (in Canada).

Also, in college we had a guest professor of chemical engineering (specializing in petroleum, IIRC) named Professor Fillerup.


One of my favorite examples is Martin Seligman, who coined the term "positive psychology." His German surname translates to "happy man." He was preceded in the discipline by Samuel Smiles, a Scotsman who wrote the first self-help book, "Self-Help," in 1859.

Over at, Timothy Noah has been compiling a list of such namephreaks, which he calls aptronyms (with an R):


Arguably the most well-known aptonym is a myth: Thomas Crapper, would-be inventer of the toilet. He did not, though he owned a plumbing company, so in a way, his name is still an aptonym.

Somebone once wrote about Crapper a tribute that any of us would love to have as our epitaph: "If ever there was a man who left the world a better place for his having been in it, surely it was he."