Nominative determinism

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Nominative determinism (ND) is the hypothesis[1] that a person's name may have a significant role in determining key aspects of job, profession, or even character. Writing in 1953, Carl Jung gave the example of a food minister named Herr Feist ("Mr Stout"). He also mentioned his own last name and that of fellow psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, which respectively, mean "young" and "joy" in German. He pointed out that these are potential examples of what he called the compulsion of the name, considering Freud's pleasure principle and Jung's idea of rebirth.[1]

Such a connection between name and character was a commonly held notion in the ancient world and the Latin term nomen est omen (from Greek όνομα ορίζοντας) is still commonly heard in English and other languages, but translations such as nomenclature is destiny,[2] Jung's compulsion of the name, and others are sometimes heard.

The term nominative determinism was coined in 1994 by New Scientist editor John Hoyland.[3] Synonyms and related concepts include: aptronym, apronym, aptonym, euonym, jobonyms, 'namephreaks', onomastic determinism, 'perfect fit last names' (PFLNs), psychonymics. Tom Stoppard in his play Jumpers labelled the phenomenon cognomen syndrome.[4]

A related term, to refer to a name peculiarly suited to its owner, is the aptronym, said to have been coined by the U.S. 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. Sometimes ND researchers are 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.[5]
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."[6]

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'?"[7]

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…"[7]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ a b "BBC News - Today - When the name fits the job". 
  2. ^ "SBF Glossary: no to NOYDB". 
  3. ^ "A person's surname can influence their career, experts claim". 20 December 2011. 
  4. ^ Noah, Timothy (Dec 16, 2005). "Charol Shakeshaft, Topped!". Slate. 
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ New Scientist,, Feedback, November 5, 1994
  7. ^ a b New Scientist,, Feedback, April 20, 1996

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