What your name really means and how it can affect your life

This post is adapted from my Indy Voices article of the same title originally published on 17/07/23

What do these three people have in common? Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man, Margaret Court, the former world-number-one tennis player, and Thomas Crapper, the plumber and toilet designer who, contrary to popular belief, did not actually give an abbreviated form of his name to a slang word for defecation.

You can probably guess it straight away. Their names are all aptronyms – names which are particularly suited to their owners.

Possibly less well-known examples, but arguably even better fitting are the Jamaican cocaine trafficker Christopher Coke, the British judge Igor Judge, and the American columnist Marilyn vos Savant (who between 1985 and 1989 was listed in the Guinness Book of Records as having the world’s highest IQ).

Sara Blizzard, Dallas Raines and Amy Freeze are all television weather presenters, Russell Brain is a British neurologist and Michael Ball is a former professional footballer. I could go on. Some of these examples seem almost too apposite to have happened by chance.

Some scientists suggest that the reason these people ended up being renowned for their particular speciality is a result of the influence, from an early age, of the name they bore. The hypothesis that such causative links exists is known as nominative determinism – a self-fulfilling prophecy I investigate in more detail in my new book, How to Expect the Unexpected.

One proposed explanation for why people might be drawn to professions which fit their name is a psychological phenomenon known as implicit egotism – the conjecture that people exhibit an often unconscious preference for things associated with themselves. That might be marrying someone with the same birthday, donating to good causes with a name that begins with their initial, or gravitating toward a job which relates to their name.

In support of this idea, James Counsell mused on his eventual career path as a barrister: “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.”

There are a limited number of studies which purport to provide evidence that nominative determinism is a real phenomenon. Perhaps the most amusing of these studies was conducted in 2015 by a family of doctors and soon-to-be doctors: Christopher, Richard, Catherine and David Limb. Together the four Limbs clearly had a vested interest in understanding whether their appendage-related name had drawn them towards their anatomically focussed professions. Indeed, given the vocation of David Limb as an orthopaedic surgeon (specialising in shoulder and elbow surgery), the Limbs decided to ask a more in-depth question – whether a doctor’s name could influence their medical specialisation.

By analysing the general medical council’s register, they found that the frequency of names relevant to medicine and its specialities was far greater than would be expected by chance alone. One in every 21 neurologists had a name directly relevant to medicine, like Ward or Kurer, although far fewer had names relevant to that particular speciality – no Brains or Parkinsons, for example.

The specialities next most likely to have medically relevant names were genitourinary medicine and urology. The doctors in these subfields also had the highest proportion of names directly relevant to their speciality, including Ball, Koch, Dick, Cox, a single Balluch, and even a Waterfall. As the Limbs pointed out in their paper, this may have had something to do with the wide array of terms that exists for the parts of the anatomy relevant to these subfields.

Ironically, despite the purported evidence for the phenomenon, the fact that the two younger Limbs followed their parents into their profession hints at a strong role for familial influence in determining careers (in medicine, at least).

Before we decide whether we believe that our names can influence our future trajectories though, it’s important we remember that for every aptronym we hear about, there are plenty of Archers, Taylors, Bishops and Smiths, for example, whose names do not have a clear correlation with corresponding employment. It is also important to remember that correlation does not imply causation. Not every aptronym is an example of nominative determinism.

Whether or not nominative determinism is a self-fulfilling prophecy, or just a fancy name given to a series of amusing coincidences, finding examples of aptronyms like the lawyer Sue You, the Washington news bureau chief William Headline, the pro-tennis player Tennys Sandgren, or the novelist Francine Prose will always make me smile.