What's in a name?
When Nintendo of America hired its new Vice President of Sales in mid-2015, the company knew its press release had to acknowledge the—well, let’s just call it coincidence for now.
Stepping into the role was a man who had just spent the previous eight years at Electronic Arts, so it would seem he’d be a natural fit at Nintendo. It was also fitting because his name was Bowser.
Bowser! Mario’s princess-kidnapping nemesis. Leader of the Koopa. Fucking Bowser. How perfect could that be?
So there it was, as it had to be, the subhead Nintendo affixed to the press release: “Doug Bowser Brings Decades of Experience, Not Fire Breath, to New Role.”
For many years I’ve been obsessed with this kismetic phenomenon—this flirtation with providence—of someone either fulfilling their destiny or stumbling by chance into the sort of coincidence that makes you a believer in higher powers. Is causation or correlation ultimately at work here?
This is called an aptonym, or an aptronym with the ‘r’ in there if you really want to consult the OED about it. (My preference is the less verbose “aptonym,” so let’s stick with that.) Surely there’s a listicle or two out there full of People Who Were Born For Their Jobs, like Les McBurney, a firefighter who ended up on Jimmy Kimmel Live! because of his name, or Usain Bolt, who you may know is quite fast, or Paddy Driver, the legendary South African racer, or Emily Wines, master sommelier.
But stretch the definition of the word, and often the best aptonyms extend beyond occupation—to misdeed, to accomplishment, to task fulfilled, to true crime. This is the good shit.
There’s a Final Destination quality to a distinct name. Say, if your surname is Popadick, how likely is it, statistically and metaphysically, that you can make it your whole life without an indecent exposure allegation? One Canadian man made it 63 years before being picked up by police for jogging naked. Six decades on and he couldn’t outrun his fate, clothed or otherwise.
Take Christopher “Dudus” Coke, who rose to the role atop the family business when his father died in 1992. It’s hard to escape a father’s pressure; it may have been harder still to escape becoming a drug lord when your last name is Coke.
I’ve spent much of my adult life as a newshound searching for aptonyms, collecting and tweeting headlines that may finally provide some clarity as to whether this is truly a cosmic wink. There are famous villains, like Bernie Madoff, who did exactly that with billions of dollars, until he didn’t. There are legal precedents, like the 1990 case about the expectation of privacy for a man named Limberhandmasturbating in a public toilet stall. Heck, there’s even a racehorse called Party Till Dawn that tested positive for meth after coming in second.
Perhaps my favorite form is what I like to call the Assigned Aptonym, because it really messes with the notion of what were designed to do. This is when a member of the media tackles a subject they were seemingly born to cover. When the Wall Street Journal published “Google Sued by Job Candidate for Age Discrimination,” the editors wisely tapped Jeff Elder. Reuters may or may not have a sperm beat: “French men not producing as much sperm” and “Few lifestyle factors influence sperm shape and size: study” were both written by Andrew M. Seaman. When Vanity Fair offered up “Donald Trump’s Short Fingers: A Historical Analysis,” who better to go mano a mano than Bruce Handy? And, of course, there are the marijuana pieces authored by Mary Jane Weedman, Julie Weed and Andy Cush.
Then there are judges’ decisions and total stretches. Does it count when U2’s The Edge gets a little too close and falls off the stage, as he did around the time of Bowser’s hiring? Was it an aptonym when BBC presenter Greg Foot filmed himself eating his own leg? Is Alan Cumming, whose personality and sex-positivity screams perpetual orgasm, the ultimate aptonym?
I’ll leave you with one last story for your case files—that of a scorned lover. In March 2014, a woman tried to set fire to her ex-boyfriend’s home. The inebriated, jilted woman put a pound of bacon on a baking sheet and turned the stove up to high. A police officer intervened before a grease fire burned the place down, and the woman was eventually charged and handed a suspended sentence and 18 months probation.
The bacon arsonist’s last name? Crispi. Ya burnt.
Slade Sohmer wishes he were a cool aptonym. Maybe when he is brutally murdered? Follow him @slade.