Wordsworth the Poet, Aptronym Extraordinaire
This month the Oxford English Dictionary added the word “aptronym.” I found out about this wonderful word when the Grammar Girl did a quick blurb about it on her blog. My immediate thought upon reading her article was, “hey, I saw a ton of aptronyms in The Hunger Games.”
Although I had never known a word for the idea, I’ve always been fascinated by its use in fiction. Sometimes I find it childish or annoying when every character in a book has a name that blatantly describes his personality. Other times it’s done so cleverly and even subtly that I am thoroughly impressed by the author’s wit. (Interestingly, the Wikipedia article has a list of real-world examples that I found to be entertaining.)
I began reading The Hunger Games sometime in November last year. Progress slowed to a halt after the first third of the final book due to some of my classes and changes at work, but I’ve since resumed making progress. This post isn’t meant to be a review of the story in any way. Rather, I hope to shed some light on what I feel are some pretty clever aptronyms in the books.
Three basic rules that I feel apply in these character names are as follows:
- Primary characters generally have subtle and clever aptronyms.
- All other characters have simple, sometimes blatant (and even annoying) aptronyms.
- Not all characters have aptronyms, or if they do it’s so abstract that it’s easy to miss.
Essentially, it’s not hard to see which names the author labored over carefully, and which names the author selected without much deep thought. Some of the connections between personality and name that I found might be considered a stretch by other readers. In fact, many of them may have been unintentional on the author’s part. I know I read into things a little too deeply sometimes, but there are some interesting things to be found when you dive that deep into something.
In fact, I’m sure the author, Suzanne Collins, would have a good chuckle or two over my analysis. This comes to mind:
Before we begin, a quick note:
I noticed that many names in The Hunger Games included references to Greek and Roman (mostly Roman) historical figures. This was purposeful, almost aptronymic, and it helps the reader do a couple of things with the characters in their minds.
First off, it distances them from us in time. Since the reader knows this book is in the future, but the names come from the past, it gives him a sense of backward progress. Rather than sounding futuristic in a positive, progressive way, these names from the future bring us back to more primitive, violent times.
Secondly, we often view Roman names in light of Roman mythology, powerful rulers, and unethical drama. Mythology lends itself to the futuristic technology (which, to us, is indistinguishable from magic), the powerful rulers remind us of the ironfisted dictatorship President Snow operates, and unethical drama is what encircles the entire basis for the plot.
I researched all of the following items on my own, but in the midst of my research I came across a book that I am now interested in reading. If aptronyms, symbolism, and The Hunger Games are all interesting to you, I suggest you check out what appears to be a well researched book, Katniss the Cattail: An Unauthorized Guide to Names and Symbols in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.
So here we go. I now present, for your amusement, a list of characters from The Hunger Games and how I see their names as aptronyms:
The main character’s name was carefully chosen and is intricately woven into the story. Anyone who’s read the first book knows the bit about her father telling her, “As long as you can find yourself, you’ll never starve.” Katniss is an aquatic plant (also known as Sagittaria or arrowhead, among other names), the root of which is edible. Additionally, according to Wikipedia:
The generic name means “belonging to an arrow” in Latin and refers to the shape of the leaves.
Katniss Everdeen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The plant also shares its name with a constellation in the Zodiac called Sagittarius, or “The Archer”, which may also reference Katniss’s skills in archery.
But wait, there’s more. Katniss (the character) is said to be very beautiful, thus it is no mistake that the plant has a flower. And here’s where I start getting too deep into it, but I found it interesting that her relationship with her sister’s cat is as complex as it is. In fact, at one point she even hisses at the cat. Perhaps there is a connection between this behavior and the first syllable of her name.
Even the last name was chosen purposefully. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Suzanne Collins said:
Katniss Everdeen owes her last name to Bathsheba Everdene, the lead character in Far From the Madding Crowd. The two are very different, but both struggle with knowing their hearts.
I found that to be interesting, even if it doesn’t directly add to the aptronymic value.
I still remember the first time I thought of this name as being an aptronym (though the word “aptronym” didn’t come to mind since I hadn’t heard of it before). In my head it went something like this:
Hm. Peeta. Pita. Baker. Pita bread. Bread. Baker, pita bread. Oh boy, how clever I must be.
Peeta Mellark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
But there’s more. Petra, the Greek word for stone, also came to mind. Later he painted himself to blend in with the rocky terrain.
Then I found the name on babynology.com and found a few more things. The name is a girl’s name. Peeta’s a “pretty boy.” Well, he’s not described that way in the book in those words exactly. Katniss says he’s got a “stocky build and medium height with bright blue eyes and ashy blonde hair that falls in waves over his forehead.” That just reeks of “pretty boy” to me.
Also according to babynology.com, the meaning of the name in Finnish is stone. So I was right. And in addition to painting himself to look like stone in the book, he’s also a figurative rock in the life of the main character. He is a constant, someone whose behavior is predictable, honorable, and steady. Stone, stone, stone.
But what of the last name? My first thought made me chuckle:
Mellark? How about malarkey. He’s full of it.
The thing is, Peeta’s got a talent for words. He makes me think of a politician. I’m not sure if it was intentional on the author’s part, but the last name feels like a blatant aptronym to me.
This one was pretty easy for me to spot as well.
His first name is, I think, pretty blatant. Gale, wind, storm. A gale is typically defined as a very strong wind. Wind, when thought of as a personality, is considered fearless and ever changing. Gale’s role in the main character’s life is constantly shifting around. He is fearless and strong, but in the end not much more than a gust that has blown through the life of Katniss, our heroine.
The last name was interesting. I got some initial ideas from the book’s text, but some research uncovered a lot more.
My initial impressions were related to the “thorne” part, thinking of him as someone who is a bit thorny on the outside. He seems to get angry over little things quickly (like the wind, quick to change), and can respond sharply to people, even those he loves.
Research unveiled that “Hawthorne” was probably, essentially, a “hedge-thorn.” These would be thorns that were used to form defensive barriers around homes, cattle, and more. His role as a defender and protector in the book is clear, making even his last name a strong aptronym, even though you’d have to have already known the meaning of it to get the full effect.
The author actually invented (or appears to have invented) the name Haymitch. Frankly, this one doesn’t feel as much like an aptronym, despite being nearly a primary character. If you have any thoughts on how this one indicates his personality, please let me know in the comments.
It’s a bit of a stretch, but the only thing I can come up with is the “mitch” part – Mitch comes from Mitchell, which descended from Michael, which means, “who is like God.” In a small way Haymitch is like God to Katniss and Peeta, since he guides them through something that could have been fatal. I know, it’s a big stretch.
His last name, however, is real. It means, “mouth of the river Nethy (a river in Scotland).” Nethy may mean gleaming, and its root is lent to many rivers in the region. When I think of all the gleaming alcohol flowing straight from the mouths of the bottles from which Haymitch regularly drank in the books, I am certain this name could have been chosen purposefully. However, I somewhat doubt it was intentional, and I’m fairly sure Collins just liked the way it sounded.
The aptronym is straightforward here. Primrose is a family of flowering plants, and Prim is said to be a beautiful, young girl. However, she has a lot more to her, so what else can we glean from her name?
Her name is shortened to Prim much of the time, the word itself having a little more to offer her personality. She is often portrayed as being prim and proper. She is much more multidimensional than all of that, but I do feel that the first name is a pretty strong aptronym, even on the surface.
Her last name was inherited since she had to be sister to the main character, but I think she shares some of the same traits as her sister when it comes to what I felt her last name indicated. Again, for both of them, I don’t feel that the last name is as much as an aptronym, but it certainly is fitting.
I had one final thought on this one. Some people may be familiar with the phrase, “to lead someone down the primrose path.” This means that someone (usually a hypocrite) leads someone astray by means of deception. A lot of that happens in The Hunger Games, but how much of it has to do with Prim? I’ll leave that to you to decide.
President Coriolanus Snow
This one is a big one. This primary antagonist was named after an anti-democratic Roman general who was eventually assassinated before a trial could be carried out for his crimes. Though we haven’t gotten this far yet, the judge and game maker Plutarch got his name from the historian who tells us the story of Gaius Marcius Coriolanus. Interestingly, Plutarch’s representation of the facts surrounding Coriolanus is disputed, and for a respected historian to misrepresent facts about a historical figure could point to some kind of conflict of interests. In the books, Plutarch turns out to be one of the rebels fighting against the evil dictatorship of President Snow. This assumed relationship could be quite a stretch, but I found it to be an interesting possibility.
The last name, Snow, has me thinking about the cold, emotionless way that he runs Panem. He does not care about people, and he regularly commits acts of murder. The snow comes during a time of death and sadness. It is winter; nuclear winter, even. Even still, he presents himself to be such a clean, innocent man, much like the crisp, clean, freshly fallen snow.
I already mentioned how his first name relates to President Snow. Additionally, as a historian, Plutarch (the historical figure) had a strong influence on how history appears to us. Plutarch (the character in the book) strongly influenced history by strongly aiding the rebellion from within the capitol.
But what of his last name?
I thought of it as “heaven’s bee.” He was like a bee, dangerous and painful, sent from heaven to assist the rebellion against President Snow.
This guy. Sheesh. I feel that his name is meant to highlight two things. First, the finicky nature of women. He is handsome, tall, and flirty. Though he doesn’t have a strong effect on Katniss, I can’t help but feel that he had her second-guessing her emotional disposition toward him a few times. Eventually their relationship smoothed out into a good, platonic friendship, but until that point “finicky” is the word I would choose to associate with their interactions.
Then, the Odair name. He has a sense of class about his public image. The name oozes high society, class, opulence, and luxury (to me). I think it definitely lent some ideas to my overall impression of the character.
This one’s easy, but I thought it worth mentioning here (rather than below, with the rest of the obvious ones). The plant, rue, has medicinal applications, but as a verb it fits more nicely. “To rue the day” means to regret it bitterly, to feel sorrow over it, or wish it had never happened. I am sure Katniss felt all of those things for Rue.
Fascinatingly, the first name, Seneca, doesn’t appear to do much for this character (other than what I mentioned above about the Roman names), but the last name did a lot for me.
I immediately thought of Ichabod Crane: the amoral, self-interested man who was haunted by a ghost after failing at his pursuit, and eventually disappeared and was rightfully assumed dead at the hands of the ghost. Even the first name, Seneca, at least has the same number of syllables as Ichabod.
Effie’s name reminds me of all things petty (the -ie on the end of her first name), superficial (the ‘trinket’ of her last name), and a little of France (like the Eiffel Tower, even though it’s a big stretch).
The name, Effie, is of Greek origin, and it means well spoken. She was, of course, careful and precise with her words.
President Alma Coin
Alma, in Spanish, means soul. She is the heart and soul of District 13, running things smoothly, if a little heartlessly.
She is also hard, and a little two-sided, like a coin. And coins are part of our monetary system, which symbolizes capitalism and often greed. Just thought I’d throw that in there.
Like a flickering television, Caesar is as flashy and showy as the name itself (think: Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas).
Finally, a list of the ones that I felt were too obvious to discuss.
- Beetee and Wiress
- Madge Undersee
- Mayor Undersee
- Delly Cartwright
- Hazelle Hawthorne
- Greasy Sae
The Hunger Games isn’t my favorite series of books, but it’s also not a bad series. I think many books are deserving of an in-depth analysis of what the author was getting at when they named characters (among other things), but I can’t think of a more prominent book today that is as well-deserving of this type of analysis. As mentioned before, if this is your thing and you enjoy learning about this stuff, I am sure the research that went into the book I linked to before will interest you.
Also, I encourage you to look through the list of characters from the books, and see if you can find any that I missed (or any additional information that I didn’t include).