Nominative determinism is the hypothesis that people tend to gravitate towards areas of work that fit their name. The term nominative determinism was first used in the popular science magazine New Scientist in 1994, after a series of observations of recent studies done by researchers with remarkably fitting surnames, including a book on polar explorations by Daniel Snowman and a urology article by Splatt and Weedon, raised suspicion of the existence of a psychological effect. Previously a few scientists had expressed their suspicion, most notably psychologist Carl Jung, citing as example Sigmund Freud, who studied pleasure and whose name means "joy". Since its inception, nominative determinism has been an irregularly recurring topic in New Scientist's Feedback column, as readers continue to submit examples.
Since the turn of the century a few empirical studies have found some evidence possibly validating nominative determinism. Researchers concluded that US men disproportionately worked in eleven occupations whose titles matched their surnames, for example, baker, carpenter, and farmer. The theory of implicit egotism explains why effects such as nominative determinism would happen, stating that humans have an unconscious preference for things resembling the self. The name–letter effect, the fact that people prefer letters of their own name, is at the foundation of this theory. An alternative explanation for disproportionately high name-occupation matches is genetic: people who were named, for instance, Baker, Carpenter, or Farmer because that was their occupation, passed on their genes through the generations, making their descendants more apt for those occupations.
Nominative determinism differs from the related concept aptronym, and its synonyms aptonym, namephreak, and Perfect Fit Last Name, in that it focusses on causality. An aptronym merely means the name is fitting, without saying anything as to why it has come to fit.
The aptness of names has changed over time. In pre-urban times a single name naming system sufficed, for example, the Anglo-Saxon name Beornheard.[A] Single names were chosen as nicknames or because of their etymological meaning. In England it was not until after the Norman conquest that surnames were added when one name no longer uniquely identified a person, because there were too many Williams or Robins in an area. Surnames were created to fit the person, mostly from patronyms (e.g., 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 becomes John Acton). Surnames were not hereditary initially; only by the mid 14th century did they gradually become hereditary. Surnames chosen from trade or craft were the first to do so, as the craft often persisted within the family for generations.[B] But the aptness of surnames has decreased over time, because tradesmen did not always follow their fathers. Early cases of notable lack of aptness date from the 14th century, e.g., "Roger Carpenter the pepperer." With the rise of the British Empire the English surnames and naming system subsequently spread across large portions of the globe.
Five hundred years later aptness is remarkable. Two of the three most frequently occurring English surnames are occupational, viz. Smith and Taylor, although few smiths and tailors remain.[C] 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 it is now remarkable, various people have coined terms for the concept of a close relationship between name and occupation. The term aptronym is thought to have been coined in the early 20th century by the American newspaper columnist Franklin P. Adams.[D] Linguist Frank Nuessel coined aptonym in 1992. Other synonyms include euonym, Perfect Fit Last Name (PFLN), and namephreak. In literary science a name that particularly suits the character is called a charactonym. Notable authors who frequently applied this as a stylistic technique are Charles Dickens, (e.g., Scrooge, the tightfisted miser), and William Shakespeare, (e.g., the lost baby Perdita in The Winter's Tale).[E] The concept of aptronym, and its synonyms, does not say anything about causality, about why the name has come to fit.
The humorous aspect of aptronyms has led quite a few newspapers to collect 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, Bob Levey on occasion listed humorous examples sent in by readers of his column in the Washington Post: food industry consultant named Faith Popcorn, a Lieutenant Sergeant, and a tax accountant called Shelby Goldgrab. Dutch newspaper Het Parool had an irregularly featured column called "Nomen est omen" with Dutch examples. Individual name collectors have also published books with aptronyms. Onomastic scholar R.M. Remnick called for more verification of aptronyms appearing in newspaper columns and books. The US radioshow "Car Talk" has taken this one step further and weekly mentions fictive staff members (e.g., official spokesperson Howie Vasive and head of security Barb Dwyer), and their fictive legal representation by law firm Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe. Lists of aptronyms in science, medicine, and law are more reliable because they tend to be drawn from easily verifiable sources.
Nominative determinism, literally "name-driven outcome", is defined as the hypothesis that people tend to gravitate towards areas of work that reflect their names. The name fits because people, possibly subconsciously, made themselves fit it. It differs from the concept of aptronyms in that it focusses on causality.
The term nominative determinism had its origin in the "Feedback" column of the British popular science magazine New Scientist in 1994. A series of events raised suspicion by its editor, John Hoyland, who wrote in the November 5 issue:
- "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.
- 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."
Feedback editors John Hoyland and Mike Holderness subsequently adopted the term nominative determinism as suggested by reader C. R. Cavonius. The term was first printed in the December 17 issue. Even though the magazine tried to ban the topic numerous times over the decades since, readers kept sending in curious examples, including the US navy spokesman put up to answer journalists' questions about the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, one Lieutenant Mike Kafka; authors of the book The Imperial Animal Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox; and the UK Association of Chief Police Officers' spokesman on knife crime, Alfred Hitchcock.
The area of influence of nominative determinism as used in New Scientist is restricted to work. In other media its editors have not extended the area, with the exception of Roger Highfield in a column in the Evening Standard, where he includes key attributes of life.
Other terms for the suspected psychological effect were sporadically used prior to 1994. Onomastic determinism was used as early as 1971. German psychologist Wilhelm Stekel spoke of "Die Verpflichtung des Namens" (the obligation of the name) in 1911. Outside of science, cognomen syndrome was used by playwright Tom Stoppard in his 1972 play Jumpers. 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. This saying is still in use today in English and other languages such as Dutch, German, Italian, and Slovenian. In 17th century England it was believed that choosing a name for a child should be done with significance. 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." English historian William Camden wrote before him, in 1623, when a new type of first name had emerged, viz. Puritan names such as Faith, Fortitude and Grace, that names should be chosen with "good and gracious significations", as they might inspire the bearer to good duties.
New Scientist coined the term nominative contradeterminism for people who move away from their name, creating a contradiction between name and occupation, for example Andrew Waterhouse, a professor of wine, would-be doctor Thomas Edward Kill, who subsequently changed his name to Jirgensohn, and the Archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Sin.[F] The synonym inaptronym is sometimes used.
The first scientists to publish about the concept of nominative determinism were early 20th century German psychologists. Wilhelm Stekel spoke of the "obligation of the name" In the context of compulsive behaviour and choice of occupation; Karl Abraham wrote that the determining power of names might be partially caused by inheriting a trait from an ancestor who was given a fitting name, for example referring to pride, where the fitting name imposes a duty on the descendents. In 1952 Carl Jung referred to Stekel's work in his theory of synchronicity (a meaningful but acausal falling together of events):
- "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'?"
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 ..."
In 1975 psychologist Lawrence Casler called for empirical research into the relative frequencies of fitting names to establish if there is an effect of the name or whether we are being seduced by Lady Luck. In anticipation he provides three possible causes for nominative determinism: 1) self-image and self-expectation being internally influenced by one's name; 2) the name acts as a social stimulus, creating external expectations of others that are then communicated to the individual; 3) genetic predispensation – attributes suited towards a particular career that have been passed down the generations along with the appropriate occupational surname.
In 2002 researchers Pelham, Mirenberg, and Jones explored Casler's first explanation and argued that people have a basic desire to feel good about themselves and behave according to that desire. People's positive automatic associations about themselves may influence their feelings about almost anything that people associate with the self. Given that people like objects more when they have been given to them, the mere ownership effect, they theorise that people should develop deep affections for objects and concepts that are chronically associated with the self, such as their name. The unconscious power they call implicit egotism. Uri Simonsohn's subsequent contribution to the theory of implicit egotism consists of proposing its area of influence is restricted to small marginal stakes, where people are nearly indifferent between options. "The number of Georges who are nearly indifferent or are ambivalent between living in Georgia and another state may be too small for the impact of implicit egotism in their choice to be detectable." But choosing a charity is a small stakes decision and therefore will show an effect. Raymond Smeets later added the prediction that if the implicit egotism theory is indeed based on evaluation of the self, then people with low self-esteem should not gravitate towards choices associated with the self, but possibly away from them. A lab experiment confirmed this.
First-hand accounts of people with fitting names do exist. Igor Judge, former Lord Chief Justice in England, 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 he cannot remember wanting to do anything else ever. "I remember as a child people saying to me 'of course you are going to be a barrister because of your name'. How much is down to the subconscious is difficult to say, but the fact that your name is similar may be a reason for showing more interest in a profession than you might otherwise. Any link in adult eyes may seem trivial but to someone in their formative years starting to think about their career it's possible it may have an effect." Psychology professor Lewis Lipsitt lectured about nominative determinism in class when a student pointed out that Lipsitt himself had been subjected to the suspected effect since he studied babies' sucking behaviour. "That had never occurred to me."[G] But William James was the first psychologist to challenge the validity of introspection; specifically, the objectivity of introspective reports by owners of fitting names has been questioned as well.
To claim that a name affects life decisions is an extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence. By selecting the cases that fit the argument one ignores those that do not. Analysis of large numbers of names is therefore needed. In 2002 Pelham, Mirenberg, and Jones analysed various databases with first names, surnames, occupations, cities and states. In one study they retrieved the number of dentists called Dennis (482) from a database of US dentists. They looked up in the 1990 Census database which male first names were the next most popular name, Walter, and the previous, Jerry. The likelihood of a US male being called Dennis was 0.415% and Walter and Jerry on average 0.416%. They then retrieved the number of dentists called Walter (257) and Jerry (270). Comparing the relative frequencies of Dennis, Walter and Jerry dentists, they concluded that people named Dennis gravitate towards dentistry. However, in 2011, Uri Simonsohn published a paper in which he criticized Pelham et al.'s lack of looking for confounding factors and reported on how the popularity of Dennis, Walter and Jerry as baby names has varied differently over the decades. Therefore, it was far more likely for Pelham et al. to find Dennis to have any job, not just a dentist, and Walter to be retired. Simonsohn did indeed find a disproportionally high number of Dennis lawyers compared to Walter lawyers.[H][I]
Aware of Simonsohn's critical analyses of their earlier methods, Pelham and Mauricio published a new study in 2015, describing how they now controlled for gender, ethnicity, and education confounds. In one study they looked at census data and concluded that men disproportionately worked in eleven traditionally male occupations whose titles matched their surnames, for example, baker, carpenter, and farmer.
In 2009 Michalos reported the results of an analysis of the occurrences of people with surname Counsell or Councell registered as independent barristers in England and Wales versus those in the countries as whole. Where it was expected to find no one registered (0.3 of a person), three barristers were found.
In 2015 researchers Limb, Limb, Limb and Limb published a paper on their study into the effect of surnames in medical specialisation. They looked at 313,445 entries in the medical register from the General Medical Council. They identified surnames that were apt for the speciality, for example, Limb for an orthopaedic surgeon, and for medicine in general, for example Doctor. 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 in 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 the specialty (1 in every 302). They did not report on looking for any confounding variables. In 2010 Abel had come to a similar conclusion. In one study he compared doctors and lawyers whose first or last names began with three-letter combinations representative of their professions, for example, "doc," "law," and likewise found a significant relationship between name and profession. Abel also 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.
As for Casler's third possible explanation for nominative determinism, genetic predispensation, researchers Voracek, Rieder, Stieger, and Swami found some evidence in 2015. They report that today's Smiths still have the physical capabilities of their ancestors who were actually smiths. People called Smith reported above average aptitude for strength-related activities. A similar aptitude for dexterity-related activities among people with the surname Tailor, or equivalent spellings, was found, but it was not statistically significant. In their view, although further research is needed, genetic predispensation for occupations appears more viable than the hypothesis of implicit egotism effects.
- Aptronym includes lists of examples
- Even the Romans, whose naming system is generally assumed to have used three names, actually started out with a single name, e.g., Romulus. Over the course of fourteen centuries this then first evolved to two names, to three names (e.g., Marcus Tullius Cicero, where Marcus is the praenomen, Tullius the nomen gentilicium, and Cicero the cognomen), back to two names, and finally one name again.
- Ancient Roman fathers passed on their cognomen to their children as well. According to Gaius Plinius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Elder, cognomina derived from occupations were initially taken from agriculture, for example, Cicero means chickpea. Ergo, Marcus Tullius Cicero, the orator, was a descendent of a grower of chickpeas.
- Over time many surnames in patrilineal systems go extinct, sometimes leaving a few to dominate, depending on factors such as number of male children, immigration and merging women’s surnames with their spouses upon marriage. A Korean surname has a 43% chance of being either Kim, Lee or Park. The Galton–Watson process models mathematically how much chance a surname has to survive. Under constant assumptions of 1 in 3 chance of 0, 1 or 2 sons, there is a 67% chance that by the fourth generation the surname has died out.
- Franklin P. Adams chose aptronym because it is an apt anagram of patronym.
- Dickens applied an interesting twist: the more meaningful a character's name, the more determinedly he would conceal it. Oliver Twist being a notable example. Concealing the meaning is so common among authors that there is a whole subfield in the literary sciences, called literary onomastics, dedicated to the decoding of names.
- Over the years New Scientist has reported on variations on the theme, including onomatopoeic nominative determinism (e.g., European Space Agency chief mission scientist Bernard Foing), nominative indeterminism (to explain the existence of hundreds of scientific articles whose authors include a Wong and a Wright), and occupational preferentialism (the hypothesis that one’s work influences one’s taste, for example policemen liking Constable’s paintings).
- Church of England vicar Reverend Michael Vickers, who denies being a Vickers had anything to do with becoming a vicar, suggested the age-old family traditions that led to the creation of some English surnames are the difficult thing to overcome, not the lure of a particular name. "Perhaps people are actually escaping from their name, rather than moving towards their job," he says.
- Simonsohn's critique inspired New Scientist to award him with the Feedback Wet Blanket Award for possibly depriving its readers of one of their favourite topics.
- Confounding variables have also played a role in research into monogrammic determinism: in 1999 Christenfeld, Phillips, and Glynn concluded that people who have positive monograms (e.g., ACE or VIP) live significantly longer than those with negative initials (e.g., PIG or DIE). This conclusion was based on analysis of thousands of California death certificates between 1969 and 1995. Morrison & Smith subsequently pointed out that this was an artifact of grouping data by age at death. Frequency of initials changing over time could be a confounding variable. Indeed when grouping the same data by birth year, they found no statistically significant relationship between initials and longevity.
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