Sprinter Usain Bolt just announced the name of his baby girl: Olympia Lightning Bolt.
If Bolt is an appropriate last name for the world’s fastest man, then Lightning (not to mention the Olympics connotation of Olympia) ups the stakes.
“The thing I worry about with my daughter is the pressure of people wanting her to run,” Bolt told a reporter. “I know people are gonna push her towards track and field. I’ll show her everything, but I’ll let her take her time and decide what she wants to do.”
Is Olympia Lightning Bolt’s future preordained? It wouldn’t be the first time. There’s a whole area of study devoted to the phenomenon. It’s called nominative determinism. The idea is that some people tend to be attracted toward professions that suit their surname.
In many traditions, the two went hand in hand. People used to be named for their family occupations all the time. Think of English surnames like Smith (a maker), Cooper (repairs/makes casks), Fletcher (maker of arrows), Chamberlain (someone who takes care of the sleeping chambers), Ward (a guard), Webster (a weaver), and obvious ones like Taylor, Dyer, Miller, Fisher, Hunter, Potter and Shepherd.
Assigning names based on jobs is one thing. Can people actually have a subconscious draw to certain fields?
The first time the term nominative determinism appeared was 1994, in New Scientist. The magazine ran a column that noted a book on polar explorations by Daniel Snowman, and a study of urology by a Dr. Splatt.
Brett Pelham, a psychology professor at Montgomery College in Maryland, says nominative determinism is related to the idea of implicit egotism in major life decisions.
“Because most people possess positive associations about themselves, most people prefer things that are connected to the self,” Pelham writes.
He studied U.S. census records to track a bunch of occupational surnames: Baker, Barber, Butcher, Carpenter, Farmer, Foreman, Mason, Miner, Painter and Porter. Pelham found that people were statistically more likely to work in jobs that bore their surname. In other words, it happened more often than it should have based on chance.
Making a name for yourself
Who knows if there are psychological impacts at play? I just get a kick out of the coincidence. Stories about nominative determinism reveal some exquisite career choices:
- water researcher Andrew Drinkwater
- firefighter Les McBurney
- dentists Justin Payne and Randall Toothaker
- supermarket meat manager Brad Slaughter
- funeral director Thomas Grieve
- geology professor Nick Rock
- business school dean James Dean
- journalist William Headline
- acoustical engineer Ron Rumble
- logger Todd Cutright
- garden centre manager Jonathan Mower
- meteorologists and TV weather forecasters Larry Sprinkle, Amy Freeze, Sara Blizzard and Storm Field
The medical field yields many examples. One of the most auspicious – the late Dr. Walter Brain, a British neurologist, author of the book Brain’s Diseases of the Nervous System, and editor of the neurological medical journal Brain.
The New Scientist sent out a call for examples. One reader combed through an American directory of physicians to find Dr. Rash (a dermatologist), Dr. Knee (a rheumatologist), Dr. Bone (an orthopaedic surgeon), Dr. Couch (a psychiatrist), and other doctors named Blood, Fix, Cure, Heal, Flesh, Gore and Ache.
There’s more. In Calgary, you’ll an allergist named Dr. Doctor. Rochester has a hand surgeon named Dr. David Mitten. In Calhoun, Georgia, there’s a chiropractor named Chris McCracken.
And tack on British physicians Dr. Dark (oncology) and Dr. Child (OB-GYN). The latter two came from an article on nominative determinism in the bulletin of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, authored by four doctors (husband, wife and their two sons) named Limb.
Then there are examples in the public eye. Like the former Chief Justice of England and Wales, Igor Judge. Former White House press secretaries Larry Speakes and Josh Earnest (about whom Stephen Colbert once said, “His name literally means just kidding, but seriously”). Current U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. Political analyst Krystal Ball. Or Righteous Brothers singer Bill Medley.
In sports, there have been football players with the names Spikes and Thrower (a quarterback, of course). Baseball pitchers with the last names Armstrong, Walk and Balfour, plus a couple of Fielders. Race car drivers named Lake Speed and Scott Speed. Tennis players Margaret Court and Anna Smashnova. Basketball player Tim Duncan. Marathon runner Holly Rush. And, of course, Usain Bolt.
The link between names and destiny is an age-old notion. That goes back to a Latin proverb from ancient Rome: nomen est omen – the name is a sign.
So if you see Olympia Lightning Bolt in the 2040 Olympic Games, don’t be surprised. Maybe she’s born to run, and right on track.
Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.
July 15, 2020