What's in a Name? (2000)
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
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
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.
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.