Nominative Determinism

Implicit egotism

Nominative determinism is the hypothesis that people tend to gravitate towards areas of work that fit their names. The term was first used in the magazine ‘New Scientist’ in 1994, after its humorous ‘Feedback’ column noted several studies carried out by researchers with remarkably fitting surnames.

These included a book on polar explorations by Daniel Snowman and an article on urology by researchers named Splatt and Weedon. These and other examples led to light-hearted speculation that some sort of psychological effect was at work.

Nominative determinism differs from the related concept ‘aptronym,’ and its synonyms ‘aptonym’ and ‘namephreak’ (a term coined by San Francisco columnist Herb Caen for people with names peculiarly appropriate or inappropriate to their vocations or avocations) in that it focusses on causality. ‘Aptronym’ merely means the name is fitting, without saying anything about why it has come to fit.

The idea that people are drawn to professions that fit their name was suggested by psychologist Carl Jung, citing as an example Sigmund Freud who studied pleasure and whose surname means ‘joy.’ A few recent empirical studies have indicated that certain professions are disproportionately represented by people with appropriate surnames (and sometimes given names), though the methods of these studies have been challenged. One explanation for nominative determinism is ‘implicit egotism’ (the hypothesis that humans have an unconscious preference for things they associate with themselves).

An alternative explanation is genetic: a person might be named Smith or Taylor because that was originally their occupation, and they would pass on their genes to their descendants, including an aptitude for activities involving strength in the case of Smith, or dexterity in the case of Taylor.

Before people could gravitate towards areas of work that matched their names, many people were given names that matched their area of work. The way people are named has changed over time. In pre-urban times people were only known by a single name – for example, the Anglo-Saxon name ‘Beornheard.’ Single names were chosen for their meaning or given as nicknames. In England it was only after the Norman conquest in the 11th-century that surnames were added, although there were a few earlier bynames that were not hereditary, such as ‘Edmund Ironside.’

Surnames were created to fit the person, mostly from ‘patronyms’ (e.g., ‘John son of William’ becomes ‘John Williamson’), occupational descriptions (e.g., ‘John Carpenter’), character or traits (e.g., ‘John Long’), or location (e.g., ‘John from Acton’ became ‘John Acton’). Names were not initially hereditary; only by the mid-14th century did they gradually become so. Surnames relating to trades or craft were the first to become hereditary, as the craft often persisted within the family for generations. The appropriateness of occupational names has decreased over time, because tradesmen did not always follow their fathers.

Another aspect of naming was the importance attached to the wider meaning contained in a name. In 17th-century England it was believed that choosing a name for a child should be done carefully. Children should live according to the message contained in, or the meaning of their names. In 1652 William Jenkyn, an English clergyman, argued that first names should be ‘as a thread tyed about the finger to make us mindful of the errand we came into the world to do for our Master.’ In 1623, at a time when Puritan names such as ‘Faith,’ ‘Fortitude,’ and ‘Grace’ were appearing for the first time, English historian William Camden wrote that names should be chosen with ‘good and gracious significations,’ as they might inspire the bearer to good actions. With the rise of the British Empire the English naming system and English surnames spread across large portions of the globe.

By the beginning of the 20th century, ‘Smith’ and ‘Taylor’ were two of the three most frequently occurring English surnames; both were occupational, though few smiths and tailors remained. When a correspondence between a name and an occupation did occur, it became worthy of note. In an 1888 issue of the ‘Kentish Note Book’ magazine a list appeared with ‘several carriers by the name of ‘Carter’; a hosier named ‘Hosegood’; an auctioneer named ‘Sales’; and a draper named ‘Cuff.” Since then, a variety of terms for the concept of a close relationship between name and occupation have emerged.

The term ‘aptronym’ is thought to have been coined in the early 20th century by the American newspaper columnist Franklin P. Adams. Linguist Frank Nuessel coined ‘aptonym,’ without an ‘r,’ in 1992. In literary science a name that particularly suits a character is called a ‘charactonym.’ Notable authors who frequently used charactonyms as a stylistic technique include Charles Dickens (e.g., ‘Mr. Gradgrind,’ the tyrannical schoolmaster) and William Shakespeare (e.g., the lost baby Perdita in ‘The Winter’s Tale’).

Because of the potentially humorous nature of aptronyms a number of newspapers have collected them. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen reported irregularly on reader-submitted gems, including substitute teacher ‘Mr. Fillin,’ piano teacher ‘Patience Scales,’ and the Vatican’s spokesman on the evils of rock ‘n roll, ‘Cardinal Rapsong.’ Similarly, the journalist Bob Levey on occasion listed examples sent in by readers of his column in ‘The Washington Post’ such as a food industry consultant named ‘Faith Popcorn,’ a lieutenant called ‘Sergeant,’ and a tax accountant called ‘Shelby Goldgrab.’

Prior to 1994 other terms for the suspected psychological effect were used sporadically. ‘Onomastic determinism’ was a term coined by language historian Roberta Frank in 1970. German psychologist Wilhelm Stekel spoke of ‘Die Verpflichtung des Namens’ (the obligation of the name) in 1911. Outside of science, the term ‘cognomen syndrome’ was used by playwright Tom Stoppard in his 1972 play ‘Jumpers’ a satire of the field of academic philosophy. In Ancient Rome the predictive power of a person’s name was captured by the Latin proverb ‘nomen est omen,’ meaning ‘the name is a sign.’

New Scientist coined the term ‘nominative contradeterminism’ for people who move away from their name, creating a contradiction between name and occupation. Examples include ‘Andrew Waterhouse,’ a professor of wine, would-be doctor ‘Thomas Edward Kill,’ and the Archbishop of Manila, ‘Cardinal Sin.’ The synonym ‘inaptronym’ is also sometimes used.

In 1952 Carl Jung referred to Wilhelm Stekel’s ideas about names in his theory of ‘synchronicity’ (events without causal relationship that yet seem to be meaningfully related): ‘We find ourselves in something of a quandary when it comes to making up our minds about the phenomenon which Stekel calls the ‘compulsion of the name.’ What he means by this is the sometimes quite gross coincidence between a man’s name and his peculiarities or profession. For instance … Herr Feist (‘Mr Stout’) is the food minister, Herr Rosstäuscher (‘Mr Horsetrader’) is a lawyer, Herr Kalberer (‘Mr Calver’) is an obstetrician … Are these the whimsicalities of chance, or the suggestive effects of the name, as Stekel seems to suggest, or are they ‘meaningful coincidences?’

In 1975 psychologist Lawrence Casler called for empirical research into the relative frequencies of career-appropriate names to establish if there is an effect at work or whether we are being ‘seduced by Lady Luck.’ He proposed three possible explanations for nominative determinism: one’s self-image and self-expectation being internally influenced by one’s name; the name acting as a social stimulus, creating expectations in others that are then communicated to the individual; and genetics – attributes suited to a particular career being passed down the generations alongside the appropriate occupational surname.

In 2002 the researchers Pelham, Mirenberg, and Jones explored Casler’s first explanation, arguing that people have a basic desire to feel good about themselves and behave according to that desire. These automatic positive associations would influence feelings about almost anything associated with the self. Given the ‘mere ownership’ effect, which states that people like things more if they own them, the researchers theorized that people would develop an affection for objects and concepts that are associated with the self, such as their name (implicit egotism). Social psychologist Uri Simonsohn suggested that implicit egotism only applies to cases where people are nearly indifferent between options, and therefore it would not apply to major decisions such as career choices. Low-stakes decisions such as choosing a charity would show an effect. Dutch researcher Raymond Smeets theorized that if implicit egotism stems from a positive evaluation of the self, then people with low self-esteem would not gravitate towards choices associated with the self, but possibly away from them. A lab experiment confirmed this.

Those with fitting names give differing accounts of the effect of their name on their career choices. ‘Igor Judge,’ former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, said he has no recollection of anyone commenting on his destined profession when he was a child, adding ‘I’m absolutely convinced in my case it is entirely coincidental and I can’t think of any evidence in my life that suggests otherwise.’ ‘James Counsell’ on the other hand, having chosen a career in law just like his father, his sibling, and two distant relatives, reported having been spurred on to join the bar from an early age and he cannot remember ever wanting to do anything else. ‘Sue Yoo,’ an American lawyer, said that when she was younger people urged her to become a lawyer because of her name, which she thinks may have helped her decision. Weather reporter ‘Storm Field’ was not sure about the influence of his name; his father, also a weather reporter, was his driving force. Psychology professor ‘Lewis Lipsitt,’ a lifelong collector of aptronyms, was lecturing about nominative determinism in class when a student pointed out that Lipsitt himself was subject to the effect since he studied babies’ sucking behavior. Church of England vicar ‘Reverend Michael Vickers,’ who denied being a Vickers had anything to do with him becoming a vicar, suggesting instead that in some cases ‘perhaps people are actually escaping from their name, rather than moving towards their job.’

A 2002 study analyzed various databases containing first names, surnames, occupations, cities and states. It concluded that people named Dennis gravitate towards dentistry. An update of the study in 2015 controlled for gender, ethnicity, and education confounds. It concluded that men disproportionately worked in eleven occupations whose titles matched their surnames, for example, ‘baker,’ ‘carpenter,’ and ‘farmer.’

In 2015 researchers Limb, Limb, Limb and Limb published a paper on their study into the effect of surnames on medical specialization. They looked at 313,445 entries in the medical register from the General Medical Council, and identified surnames that were apt for the speciality, for example, ‘Limb’ for an orthopaedic surgeon, and ‘Doctor’ for medicine in general. They found that the frequency of names relevant to medicine and to subspecialties was much greater than expected by chance. Specialties that had the largest proportion of names specifically relevant to that specialty were those for which the English language has provided a wide range of alternative terms for the same anatomical parts (or functions thereof). Specifically, these were genitourinary medicine (e.g., ‘Hardwick’ and ‘Woodcock’) and urology (e.g., ‘Burns,’ ‘Cox,’ ‘Ball’). Neurologists had names relevant to medicine in general, but far fewer had names directly relevant to their specialty. Limb, Limb, Limb and Limb did not report on looking for any confounding variables. Another found that the initial letters of physicians’ last names were significantly related to their subspecialty. For example, Raymonds were more likely to be radiologists than dermatologists.

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