Nominative Determinism or Aptronym?

Ever since the BBC sent a reporter called Phil McCann to a petrol station to cover the fuel crisis, there has been much mirth and merriment about people's names on social media, with lots of people posting images of others with similarly appropriate names.


What's in a name? Before getting into the nitty gritty of whether the recent barage of witicism around names are just examples of aptronyms or whether nominative determinism is a more appropriate description, here are some of the social media posts.


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.


Nominative determinism 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 England's Royal Horticultural Society. Three 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). And the man appointed as president of the RHS? He's called Keith Weed.


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.


However, 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 Ireland, called Argue and Phibbs; the divorce lawyer in Surrey, by the name of Mr Loveless; a public notice board outside a church in Dorset that read: ‘Morning Service: the Reverend Heaven, Evening Service: the Reverend Pugh’; and the former Somerset cricketer Peter Bowler (whose statistics show he was in fact better with bat than ball).

Today's OGN Sunday Magazine articles:


Sweden is building the world's largest algae factory. Why? To create emission-reducing seaweed feed for cattle - the world’s most polluting animal.


Beethoven: His unfinished 10th Symphony has just been finished by Articial Intelligence.


Earthshot: Prince William and Sir David Attenborough host a documentary series on ideas that could help save the planet. It launches today.


More Fun Facts: Another collection of a dozen little known facts about countries around the world.


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