What’s in a name? Your job, possibly

Abstract: You could be more connected to your career than you realise…

“What’s in a name?” wrote Shakespeare, “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. An admirable line for a man who was in the wrong job – he should have been a soldier, or at least an ironmonger. The clue is in his own name.

Not so long ago I was doing some research for an article on bar-headed geese (not for this magazine obviously). They’re remarkable creatures that, it is believed, can fly right over the top of the Himalayas, at altitudes that would kill a human. Anyway, my investigations led me to a study by a Dr Hawkes. I suggested to her that it was interesting that someone called Hawkes was studying birds. She agreed.

But then she took me in a direction where things got a little weird. Dr Hawkes explained to me that the first account of bar-headed geese flying so high was reported by a famous naturalist who had joined Edmund Hillary on an expedition to the Himalayas back in the early 60s. His name? Lawrence Swan.

Coincidence? Apparently not if you’re a fan of nominative determinism.

This is a theory that suggests that in the world of academia and literature, authors are unconsciously attracted to areas of research that are reflected in their own names. For example, someone with the surname Krabb would study marine biology, specifically crustaceans, and someone called Batt would search for the subject of his research in caves.

Sometimes the links are not that obvious, they just need a little sideways scrutiny. Examples include a book titled Pole Positions – The Polar Regions and the Future of the Planet, by Daniel Snowman; and a book called London Under London – A Subterranean Guide, one of the authors of which is Richard Trench.

However, one of the best examples is the one that first inspired this area of study. It dates back to 1994 when the respected New Scientist commented on a paper on incontinence in the British Journal of Urology that was authored by J.W. Splatt and D. Weedon!

It was this rare combination that took what was previously referred to as an aptronym – a purely coincidental matching of a person’s name to their profession – to the next level: suggesting that a person’s name somehow, unconsciously, determined their area of study or career.

I remember asking this of a leading – read ‘expensive’ – landscaper my wife insisted we use to rearrange one or two plants in our small garden. His surname was Blom. He smiled when I asked him if he had always wanted to be a landscaper (“landscape artist” he insisted). He said “no” and that for some unknown reason “he had been drawn to it”.

Make of that what you will, but if there is some merit in the theory of nominative determinism it has some serious implications for parents of newborn babies. For example, if your surname is Steele, you don’t call your son Robin unless you want to commit him to a career in petty crime when he’s older. Similarly, if your surname is Stone and you call your daughter Roxanne, you might as well buy her a geologist’s hammer for her first birthday.

Of course, all of this could be purely speculative as well as selective in that examples are being singled out to fulfil some kind of theory. This is similar to the “Curse of the ninth” that points to the deaths of some leading classical music composers (e.g. Beethoven, Schubert, and Dvořák) after completing only nine symphonies, as a proof of some kind of curse. All those composers who completed more than nine symphonies without dying are conveniently forgotten.

However, it does present a rather exciting exercise next time you find yourself with a cup of coffee in one hand and little to do with the other. Use it to call someone in HR, and ask him or her to go through the names of the staff and look for examples of possible nominative determinism.

Perhaps you have someone in finance called Vikash, someone in security called Locke, a sales executive called De Koop, and a charming receptionist called Welcome Mkhize.

Originally published in the April 2012 edition of Leadership