Nominative determinism

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Nominative determinism (ND) is the theory that a person's name can have a significant role in determining key aspects of job, profession or even character. It was a commonly held notion in the ancient world.

Synonyms and/or related concepts include: aptronym, apronym, aptonym, jobonyms, 'namephreaks', onomastic determinism, 'perfect fit last names' (PFLNs), psychonymics and, classically, the notion that nomen est omen, or όνομα ορίζοντας. Tom Stoppard in his play Jumpers labelled the phenomenon cognomen syndrome.[1]

A related term, to refer to a name peculiarly suited to its owner, is aptronym, said to have been coined by the US newspaper columnist Franklin P. Adams. The distinction between cognitive determinacy and a mere aptronym is seen as subtle but fundamental: i.e. post hoc vs propter hoc. ND researchers are sometimes referred to as comiconomenclaturists — connoisseurs of humorous names.

Origin and meaning[edit]

The term nominative determinism had its origin in the 'Feedback' column of the British popular science magazine New Scientist in 1994:

"We recently came across a new book, Pole Positions - The Polar Regions and the Future of the Planet, by Daniel Snowman. Then, a couple of weeks later, we received a copy of London Under London - A Subterranean Guide, one of the authors of which is Richard Trench. So it was interesting to see Jen Hunt of the University of Manchester stating in the October issue of The Psychologist: "Authors gravitate to the area of research which fits their surname." Hunt's example is an article on incontinence in the British Journal of Urology by A. J. Splatt and D. Weedon.[2]
We feel it's time to open up this whole issue to rigorous scrutiny. You are invited to send in examples of the phenomenon in the fields of science and technology (with references that check out, please) together with any hypotheses you may have on how it comes about. No prizes, other than seeing your name in print and knowing you have contributed to the advance of human knowledge."[3]

An earlier and widely cited instance of the idea that name may significantly influence choice or behaviour is contained in Carl Jung's seminal 1952 paper on Synchronicity:

"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'?"[4]

Jung listed striking instances among psychologists — including himself:

"Herr Freud (Joy) champions the pleasure principle, Herr Adler (Eagle) the will to power, Herr Jung (Young) the idea of rebirth…"[4]

Though various social psychologists and others may have argued that a name can indeed significantly influence a life, New Scientist itself appeared finally to adopt a more equivocal position:

"Let the last word go to Andrew Lover, who writes to us expressing the earnest hope that nominative determinism is a real phenomenon. We hope so, too, young Lover."[5]


  1. ^ Noah, Timothy (Dec 16, 2005). "Charol Shakeshaft, Topped!". Slate. 
  2. ^ Splatt, A. J.; Weedon, D. (1977). "The Urethral Syndrome: Experience with the Richardson Urethroplasty". British Journal of Urology 49 (2): 173–176. doi:10.1111/j.1464-410X.1977.tb04095.x. PMID 870138.  edit
  3. ^ New Scientist,, Feedback, November 5, 1994
  4. ^ a b New Scientist,, Feedback, April 20, 1996
  5. ^ New Scientist,, Feedback June 22, 1996

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