The Ministry of Silly Names


The dark early hours of  a December Saturday morning are always magical for Phil and I.

We switch on the early morning talk radio channel, Radio 4,and listen to pastoral programmes about the countryside. Farming Today keeps us in touch with the farming community; and this week it was talking about a strange virus, the Schmallenberg virus, which affects cattle and calves.

We listened idly on in the companionable darkness, the rain smattering against the window.

“Ah,” Phil observed wryly, “I see that nominative determinism is alive and well.”

I had drifted off. I hadn’t been listening. I posted a question mark into the darkness as old married couples are wont to do.

“A vet called Gibbens..” Phil elaborated.

Indeed: it became evident that the UK Chief Veterinary Officer is called Nigel Gibbens. He joins the ranks of  those whose names are so comically apt for their occupation that it begs the question: did their name determine their future?

It sits in the realm of pop psychology, this idea. The Romans had a name for it – nomenet omen – but as they slaughtered chickens and based life decisions on what they found I wouldn’t put too much store on their methods.

Nominative determinism first appeared as a throwaway term in a column in the New Scientist less than 20 years ago, in 1994.

Its authors had received two books in quick succession: Pole Positions – The Polar Regions and the Future of the Planet, by Daniel Snowman, and, a couple of weeks later London Under London – A Subterranean Guide, one of the authors of which is Richard Trench.

And then they cited Manchester University psychologist Jen Hunt, who published an article in The Psychologist, in October 1994, arguing that ‘authors tend to gravitate to the area of research which sits their surname’.

Her example is authentic: an article on incontinence in the British Journal of Urology (vol 49, pp 173-176, 1977) by A. J. Splatt and D. Weedon.

And now, within two decades of this tenuous connection, there are people out there who actually collect these names, building up a whole nomenclature specific to how a name can shape a destiny.

There’s Judge Judge. Or, to be precise, Judge Baron Judge, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. He is redeemed only by the oddity that his first name is Igor. Writers will like that.

Or Rich Ricci,  Barclays Bank’s Chief Executive of Corporate and Investment Banking, who pocketed a hefty bonus of £44 million in 2010.

Once you begin, there is no stopping: everywhere you look, there they are, the funny names. For a rather engaging alphabetical roundup of nominatively deterministic names try Timothy Noah’s list here. They’re all there: Roberta L. Nutt. PhD, director, Counseling Psychology Doctoral Program, Texas Women’s University; a dentist called Dalbert Phear; and the renowned gastroenterologist Angel Colon.

But in my research the last word must surely go to the very antithesis of the deterministic surname: that name which is the very opposite of its owner’s occupation. There are those who battle fate to such an extent, to find their way to an occupation their very name decries.

Pardon the Carry-On moment. If you abhor duel entendre, abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

But hats off to New Scientist Editor Roger Highfield writing in the London Evening Standard, who discovered a consultant urologist at Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton, Somerset.

His name?

Nicholas Burns-Cox.


57 thoughts on “The Ministry of Silly Names

  1. I’ve always loved these, though not to the point of actually collecting them, something I’ve always regretted.

    My parents named me with the unwieldy moniker Christopher Allan Leslie Michael, perhaps in the hopes that initial letters would determine my character. I would like to believe this, but Emily snickers at the very suggestion. My mother’s initials spelled DOLL, so perhaps she was hoping to continue a family tradition (it was not intentional, but we subsequently referred to our daughter Florence Anne as sweet FA).

    I know this isn’t nominative determinism; perhaps its acronym determinism?

      1. Music graduate, violin shop manager, nutrionalist therapist, pharmacy assistant, oh, and wife and mother, among other things. Not really acronym determined!

  2. I love these!
    Another area of fascination is the poor women who must have to think long and hard about adopting their married names. Two I have known are Wendy House and Rose Early. Some are given names which invite ridicule by thoughtless parents. If your name is Sole, do not choose a first name beginning with R! I also knew a WC Commode, and a WC Liu. The latter’s special claim to fame was banking with Chemical Bank, Flushing.

  3. I envision an entrepreneur sitting somewhere, reading this and creating a pre-parenthood consulting service on naming children; a bit of numerology, an expensive consultation, ah — destiny.

  4. I posted on something similar a while back about doctors with specialty-suitable names. It seems urologists have some of the most fitting monikers, don’t they? Fun post! 🙂

  5. Ha! My aunt, the one of the Clapper Christmas fame, worked for the phone company in directory assistance – back in the day when someone would actually call a number, get an operator, need a phone number and it would be given out. Imagine? I digress. The name in question was Nicholas Lett. Unfortunately for my aunt’s composure, when she looked it up it read Lett, Nicholas P!

  6. Nominative Determinisn didn’t fuel career aspirations for the vikings:
    Erickson . . . need only aspire to be the son of Erick.
    Johnson . . . the son of John.

    They nailed that role from birth . . . without the slightest effort.

    Hmm . . . I wonder whether your proclivity to “dig up” engaging stories with solid centers at the core has something to do with YOUR last name, Kate.

    I expect it might. 😉

    1. Ah, except that that name is just a married name, Nancy: my real, real name is an ancient one which came over with Mr W. De Conqueror himself. Who, incidentally, lived up to his name very well indeed.

  7. Thank you for putting a name to the phenomenon I had always called coincidence. I grew up hearing about Ima Hogg and her sister Ura. Turns out Ura was only a joke, but Ima was real. Cruel parents, IMHO. I bent over backwards to make sure my son’s name (and initials) would never be the butt of ridicule or unwarranted expectations. He’d have to earn those on his own.

  8. I used to go to an eye doctor by the name of Dr. Glass. I worked as a pharmacy tech during college and we had a Dr. Butcher who would call in scrips. He was a surgeon. I have worked in the medical field for around 25 years and have seen many interesting names for doctors. Also, names for offices. Like Dr. Gilligan’s Eye Land.

  9. While I was as student nurse in the early 1980s there was a doctor by the name of Cockin at the JRII- he worked in casualty, and he had a clinic once a week, looking specifically at hand injuries. It was, indeed, Cockin’s hand clinic.

  10. Amusing post, Kate. I’ve stumbled across some funny or intriguing names related to careers over the years. But the one that cracks me up belonged to someone who had a mortgage at the bank where I had my first job. His last name was Duzey. His wife’s first name was Ima.

  11. Another informative and amusing post! A few names to ponder: a dermatologist I once saw- Dr. Peachy- and our long time family dentist- Dr. Zeifang (OK- stretching it a bit :))

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