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Does the Name Make the Man? A Look at Nominative Determinism

Photo by slgckgc

My high school physiology classes consisted of countless lessons involving the study of how the human body works, the ins out outs of it all, how things operate, how things don’t. Appropriate then, when you consider my teacher was a Doctor Payne, complete with a dentist for a daughter. True story. The question, however, is: is the fact that Doctor Payne’s name ‘Doctor Payne’ a simple coincidence? Or does it lead into the much bigger debate that your name can influence the direction your life will follow?

You heard me, anxious expecting parents! There is indeed a fair amount of pressure in deciding on the moniker you attach to your squealing baby – it could in fact be the difference between a Nobel Prize and a jail term (not that they’re completely unrelated – just look at Nelson Mandela). Choose wisely, folks.

The Science

The concept is widely known as nominative determinism – the ability your name has to influence your job, profession, or even your personality. Some theorists relate it to ancient times, where an intentional correlation made bakers Bakers and blacksmiths Smiths, but the more modern twist suggests something quite psychological. Carl Jung, renowned Swiss psychotherapist, on wondering whether these are the ‘whimsicalities of chance, or the suggestive effects of the name’, noted that even Freud (meaning: ‘joy’) focused on the pleasure principle, and Jung himself (meaning ‘young’) on the idea of rebirth.

But the discussion of names influencing one’s future can be related to more than just a strange psychological inclination – it can also affect your chances of being hired for a job, for instance. Over the years, ethnically strong names (mostly from Asian communities) have been altered – or added to – to make children stand out a little less. The opposite has happened with the African American community, where names have taken on a distinct ethnic flavor, and the Shaniquas, D’Andres, and Tayshawns of the world may now find themselves victims of racial bias in the job environment (50% less likely to get a callback, in fact).

The Coincidence


Photo by Steven Zwerink

What does this all mean? Are our futures pre-destined not by some greater being acting as puppet-master, but by our very own parents and their capricious creativity? When we do have the choice, do we follow the path already laid out for us? One has to wonder whether Usain Bolt would be quite as fast on the track, or Anna Smashnova quite as able on the court. Would Dr. Richard (Dick) Chopp be quite as good at vasectomies by any other name?

The theory that this is some sort of cosmic self-fulfilling prophecy is only reinforced by the Fites of the world writing books on Aggression and Violent Behaviour, the Ron Rumbles being experts in acoustical and vibration engineering and the Sue Yoos as lawyers (I’m not making this stuff up). Hey, as long as my name managed to steer clear of Kinky or Shufflebottom, I’m happy.

Do you have any examples of nominative determinism you can share with us? If you’re looking for a more foreign-sounding name but need to learn the language first, contact us for courses!