What's in a Name? (2000)

Some so-called primitive societies believe your True Name is a serious thing that should not be trifled with. In most religions, to name is to create ("in the beginning was the Word"). Ergo, to re- name is to introduce chaos. This kind of magical thinking persists in the modern era, as shown by the recent lexical lather over Mount Logan/Mount Trudeau.

From newborn babes to timeworn rock formations, officially prescribed monikers have the force of holy writ. Consider the strange case of Chinese Communist Party secretary, one Li Hsueh- feng, who fell out of favour with his superiors during the Cultural Revolution. Writes language guru Charles Berlitz: "The slight modification of a character, while preserving its sound, has long been a medium of official language insults. This is especially true of a language where a single syllable can have more than 40 different meanings, depending on how it is written." Li woke up one morning to discover his name had been changed from "Snowy Mountaintop" to the equivalent of "Bloody Weirdo."

At least he was spared the phonetic fate of Fu Chu'ung Pi, a former commander in the Peking garrison. According to Berlitz, the commander found his name subtly altered from "Magnificent Precious Stone" to "Corpse of Miserable Worm."

This brings us to the queer case of "nominative determinism," the notion that humans are compelled to take up a line of work suggested by their surnames. The British science weekly New Scientist got on to this a while back in a tongue-in-cheek way. Among their many examples of names punning on occupations, the editors cited Cardinal Sin, the Archbishop of Manila, and Paul Bellringer, spokesman for the amusement arcade gaming machine industry in England.

Being a periodical with geekish associations, New Scientist found the best examples of nominative determinism in the hallowed halls of academe. For example, J. W. Splatt and D. Weedon published a paper on incontinence in the British Journal of Urology. Not to be outdone, readers fired off their own examples to the magazine. For example, Grant Warmbath is the manager of a family hotel in Invernessshire. Steve Cook married Jane Best, a Tokyo restaurant owner, resulting in Jane Best Cook.

New Scientist thought it pioneered nominative determinism, but the topic first popped up in a 1975 journal paper called "Put the Blame on Name" by Lawrence Casler. The author listed more than 100 examples in research papers, including such winners as "Effects of tactile stimulation" by a fellow by the name of Finger; "Sequelae of orgasm in male guinea pigs" by a Mr. Grunt; "Animal behaviour" by Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox; "Intra-uterine contraceptive devices" by Gamble; "Juvenile delinquency" by Lively and Reckless; and the lovely "Effects of parental pressure on school performance" by a person called Mumpower.

Before Casler's paper, no less an authority than C. Jung wondered about the association of names with professions in his 1952 oddball classic Synchronicity; An Acausal Connecting Principle. Jung bumped into the phenomenon in his work often enough that he was inspired to ask if something more than a toss of the nomenclatural die was at work. "Are these whimsicalities of chance," he wrote, "or the suggestive effects of the name ... or are they 'meaningful coincidences'?"

You have to wonder when you hear such gems as John Doolittle & Tom DeLay, Republicans, arguing against any action on the ozone hole, or Gene Shearer, a biologist with the U.S. National Institute of Health. You don't necessarily have to cite paranormal explanations when more mundane possibilities are on hand. Many surnames derive from an occupation in the familial past (Smith, Hunter, Fisher, etc.), so it's not outrageous to imagine a fascination for the culinary arts may have persisted in the Baker family line, or a constructive impulse was passed from parent to child among the Masons.

As for Sir William Logan (the surname taken from the Scottish place of the same name in Ayrshire), it appears he has his mountain back. Chaos has been undone, and order restored.

Geoff Olson