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Nominative Determinism

Updated: Jan 2

Now that a man called Keith Weed has been appointed president of the Royal Horticultural Society, we thought it would be amusing to take a look at nominative determinism, i.e. how your name can influence your career. But it shouldn't be confused with an aptronym!

Keith Weed, President of RHS
Keith Weed | Credit: RHS

In Mr Weed's case, would it surprise you that his father’s name was Weed (obviously!) and his mother’s name was Hedges? ‘If a Weed gets together with a Hedges, I think they’re going to give birth to the president of the RHS,’ said Mr Weed (pictured), who lives near RHS Wisley in Surrey.

His appointment is a triumph for those who believe in what is officially called ‘nominative determinism’, which technically means ‘name-driven outcome’ - the theory that people gravitate towards areas of work or behaviour that reflect their name.

This is part of what researchers call ‘implicit egotism’. Certainly it seems to bear weight at the RHS. Two years ago, the organisation realised that one in eight of its staff had a name suited to their involvement with nature and the great outdoors. On the payroll were a Moss, Heather, Berry, Shears, various permutations of Rose and, naturally, a Gardiner (shame about the spelling).

Sometimes surnames denote scary possible outcomes, whilst others are reassuring. For example, your fear might well be exacerbated if you learnt that the hospital medic about to treat you was called Dr Coffin. On the other hand, it could be reassuring to know the emergency plumber you’ve booked to fix that water leak was called Mr Tapp. 

And it would be hard to suppress a smile if you ever came up before Lord Judge in a court of law, or listened to a BBC weather presenter on North West Tonight called Sara Blizzard, or watched a Belgian footballer called Mark De Man, or a goalie with the unfortunate name of Dominique Dropsy.

These are all true examples of people with appropriate names - along with Usain Bolt, of course, who just happens to be the fastest man ever to have run 100 metres; William Wordsworth, the great poet; Margaret Court, the Australian tennis player from the 1960s and 70s; and Bruno Fromage, who used to be head of the UK division of the Danone dairy company.

It wasn’t until 1994 that the term ‘nominative determinism’ was coined by John Hoyland, who wrote a column called Feedback in New Scientist magazine. Hoyland’s interest in the subject was sparked by finding a book called Pole Positions by a man called Daniel Snowman, and another, London Under London, by Richard Trench. 

Then he read a scientific paper about incontinence by two urologists, Splatt and Weedon. From that day forth, his column became a depository for news about people whose names matched their lives. 

But what, really, is it like to have such an appropriate name? John Illman, former editor of GP (a weekly magazine for doctors) has been writing about medical affairs for more than 40 years and co-wrote The Body Machine with heart transplant pioneer Christiaan Barnard.

But early in his career, he was phoned by an irritated editor who told him his ‘pseudonym’ was in bad taste. ‘Actually, I’ve always been grateful for my name. You could say it helped to raise my profile,’ says Mr Illman. ‘But perhaps being a “Wellman” would have been even better.’

Nominative determinism should not be confused with the study of aptronyms, which merely notes that a name matches the work or character of its owner, often in a humorous or ironic way but without any attempt to understand the science behind it.

In his 1992 book The Study Of Names, Frank Nuessel, a former professor of modern languages at the University of Louisville, in the United States, described an aptronym as the term used for ‘people whose names and occupations or situations have a close correspondence’. 

There is no shortage of them. In fact, a few years ago a book called Born For The Job was published. It noted a firm of solicitors in Sligo, Ireland, called Argue and Phibbs; the divorce lawyer in Farnham, Surrey, by the name of Mr Loveless; a public notice board outside a church in Stalbridge, Dorset, that read: ‘Morning Service: the Reverend Heaven, Evening Service: the Reverend Pugh’; a Bedfordshire policeman called Robin Banks; and the former Somerset cricketer Peter Bowler (whose statistics show he was in fact better with bat than ball).

There is a whole chapter devoted to dentistry, including dentists called Pullem, Killem, Payne, Bloodworth and Major Screech.

Yet while it is fashionable at the moment to talk about ‘following the science’, with nominative determinism there is no conclusive evidence that it definitely exists.

Original source: Daily Mail

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