Nominative determinism: when names say more about us than we know

Have you ever met someone whose name ‘suited’ them to a tee? They just so happen to work in a field that reflects their last name, like the chef named Tom Kitchin. Perhaps they love nature, and their last name happens to be Bird. These unlikely occurrences are known as Nominative Determinism.

In storybooks, we frequently meet characters whose names represent their role in the narrative. Think of Richie Rich, the son of billionaires, Penny Sillin, a nurse in the book ‘Things People Do’, or even the snake-like Professor Snape. Just like our favourite characters, names also say a lot about us in the real world. 

In some African cultures, parents believe that giving a child a name with a meaning such as ‘peace’ or ‘prosperity’ will bring them such traits throughout life. Comparatively, in Korea and China, names begin with the family name to represent their commitment to their family unit before themselves.

Names impact every part of our lives. Researchers even found that children with names starting with A or B were more likely to be awarded better grades in school.

What is nominative determinism?

Nominative determinism describes the act of individuals choosing a career path or hobby that is reflective of their name. 

This concept may seem coincidental, but some psychologists argue nominative determinism is a likely byproduct of implicit egotism. Implicit egotism is the idea that we naturally gravitate toward people, places, and things that resemble ourselves.

The idea of nominative determinism isn’t new. In 1911, German psychologist Wilhelm Stekel referenced the “obligation of the name” on its owner’s identity. The same observation entered pop culture after a curious reader of New Scientist pointed out the following coincidences:

Daniel Snowman wrote a book on the north and south poles called Pole Positions.

Richard Trench penned the book London Under London—A Subterranean Guide.

Since then, New Scientist has been so inundated by commenters highlighting examples of nominative determinism the magazine tried to ban the topic multiple times. But curious minds and the internet continued to do what they do best, digging up compelling and often hilarious examples as we’ll list here.

Examples of nominative determinism

Nominative Determinism in Business

  • Wake & Paine – Funeral Directors
  • Frank Bird – Poultry Supplier
  • Derek Sarno – Creator of Wicked Kitchen Sandwiches (Sarnies) for Tesco

Nominative Determinism in Celebrities

  • Donna Singer, Mike Singer and Bobbie Singer – All, you guessed it, singers 
  • Usain Bolt – Runner and popular figure 
  • Mary Berry – Chef and TV personality
  • Edwin Starr – Singer-songwriter

Nominative Determinism in Politics

  • Bill Cash – An MP who made false expense claims
  • Crispin Blunt – Conservative MP fighting for the legalisation of drugs

Nominative Determinism in Academia/Science

  • Sue Starling – British Trust for Ornithology
  • Amy Freeze – Meteorologist
  • Professor Alan Heavens – Professor of Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh

Nominative Determinism in Law

  • Igor Judge – Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales
  • John Laws – British Lord Justice of Appeal
  • James Counsell – Barrister

Notably, a study found that in 2002 the population of lawyers with the last name ‘Counsell’ or ‘Councell’ exceeded the number you’d expect to find in a random sample of the general population by 1000%.

Nominative Determinism in Sport

  • Mark De Man – Belgian footballer
  • Svetlana Filippova – Russian springboard diver
  • Robbie Fowler – Footballer

I must note that in Svetlana’s case, Russian doesn’t hold the same connotation for ‘Flippova’. Comparatively, Psychologist Sigmund Freud’s last name sounds similar to the German word for ‘Joy’, and is lost on non-german speakers.

I will also cite ‘Trump’, the anglicised version of Donald Drumpf, as a translation challenge due to its unflattering associations. These are all examples of how translators need a detailed understanding of the secondary language’s norms to avoid adding unintended meaning.

Do our names push us towards specific occupations?

Unless you’re in the royal family, your name is unlikely to be the sole influence on your career choice. However, humans typically gravitate towards familiarity, and your name is possibly the most familiar thing you will encounter. Our propensity for names can materialise in someone with a nature-based name choosing a career in nature or someone with a foodie name choosing to become a chef or farmer. This familiarity principle is known as implicit egotism, the idea that we naturally gravitate toward people, places, and things that resemble ourselves.

Nominative determinism 2 1 LEaF Translations

A history of occupational family names

Nominative determination can be spookily on the nose at times, but it’s easy to understand why when you look at how surnames came to be. As populations grew, communities needed surnames to differentiate between individuals of the same name and clarify who was from set communities or families. The rapid mandate for last names is how we came to have common family names Baker, Smith, Taylor, and Miller, as it was the fastest way for authorities to assign names at a mass scale. Authorities also named people after their physical location, such as woods, which also lends to nominative determination.

Nominative determination in translation for business and writing

Whether it’s a Baker, Flippova, Freud, or Drumpf, in the individual’s culture or others, names can carry different connotations and meanings. Investing in quality translations for books, informative texts, or your business can ensure you respect an individual’s name without unexpectedly losing (or gaining) specific connotations.


If the implications of Nominative Determination in translations has piqued your interest, checkout our article on translating idioms from around the world. 

Or browse our examples of brand name mishaps from different cultures.

Working on a project and need high-quality translations? Our team considers cultural norms as crucial as grammatical requirements, which are rare in today’s AI-filled content world. Get in touch here to talk to us about your project.


Kitty LEaF blog 2021

About the Author

Kitty

Kitty Trewhitt is a translation project manager at LEaF Translations. She oversees each phase of the translation project and keeps in contact with both the client and linguists throughout the process. Besides managing our projects, Kitty also translates and proofreads texts from French and Italian into English, as well as creating LEaF’s monthly newsletter and managing the company social media accounts.