When René Magritte painted a pipe along with the text “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”), he created one of his most famous works. He also commented on our tendency to conflate representations with reality.

I thought of this recently while listening to a radio talk show where two linguists debated aptonyms. Some words are onomatopoetic; “meow,” “woof,” and “quack” imitate sounds, as do “splash,” “boom,” and “crash.”

Aptonyms are somewhat similar. They are words used to name something in the world, often a person, where the name is aptly suited to its bearer. Examples mentioned included Annika Winsth, the chief economist at a major Swedish bank, and Lisa Frost, a weather reporter. “Frost” is directly related to weather, while “Winsth” sounds like the Swedish word for profit, “vinst.” (A homophone, of course, is a term for two words that sound the same but are spelled differently, like “to” and “two.”)

Well-known aptonyms outside of Sweden include Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt, British judge Igor Judge, and my favorite, Jules Angst, a psychiatrist known for his research on anxiety (“angst” means fear or anxiety in German).

There are also inaptonyms, names that seem ironically unsuitable. An example would be a dead serious introvert named Joe King. But that’s a tangent.

The reason this topic resurfaced in my mind was while reading Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. In it, he describes how physicist Murray Gell-Mann, a 1972 Nobel Prize recipient, discovered that protons and neutrons are made up of smaller particles, which he named quarks.

“Quark” is a nonsensical word Gell-Mann borrowed from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Joyce had a knack for inventing such words, including “slanguage,” “skreeking,” “tattarrattat” (often cited as the longest palindromic word), and “Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk.”

There’s a term for what Gell-Mann did when he named “his” particle a word without existing ties: a nonce word. Nonce words are coined for a single occasion or a specific use. Another example is the monster in Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky.”

After naming quarks, Gell-Mann opted for a straightforward aptonym for the particles that glue quarks together: gluons.