Howard Richler is a language columnist. His latest book is Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit
Synchronicity is a concept, first introduced by analytical psychologist Carl Jung, which holds that events are "meaningful coincidences" if they occur with no causal relationship yet seem to be meaningfully related. In 1952, Jung published the paper Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle, and alluded to the possibility that there may be a suggestive effect to names. Apparently, Jung was impressed that Sigmund Freud's surname meant joy, as his psychoanalytical colleague studied pleasure.
In 1994, the British magazine New Scientist went somewhat further. It posited the argument that people actually gravitate towards jobs that reflect their surnames. They called this process "nominative determinism" and suggested that there is a subconscious imperative that impels one to find a job that fits one's surname. Readers were asked to supply examples of this process and as a result, New Scientist was inundated by hundreds of "proofs." In 1998, New Scientist resurrected the controversy when they quoted the following underwhelming statement in Lawrence Casler's article "Put the Blame on Name," which appeared in the journal Psychological Reports in 1975: "There is a determinant whose effect may not be phenomenal but is probably more than nominal, namely the name."
As examples of this process, New Scientist listed John Barnacle's decision to become a marine-timber expert, and Daniel Snowman, who wrote the book Pole Positions: The Polar Regions and the Future of the Planet. Also cited were Britain's Meteorological Office, which features staff with the surnames Flood, Frost, Thundercliffe and Weatherall, and the U.S. National Weather Service employee Dave Storm. As a proud Montrealer, I was saddened that my hometown received short shrift in the New Scientist list of aptronyms. It didn't reference McGill ornithology professor David Bird, who wrote a column about birds in the Gazette for 28 years, nor the ill-fated Will Drop, a local window cleaner who died in a fall.
One finds many apt surnames of lawyers and doctors. To wit, the Florida Bar Directory lists eight lawyers named Law, and we also have famed British barrister James Counsell. Mr. Counsell, whose father was also a lawyer, said, "I remember as a child people saying, 'Of course you are going to be a barrister because of your name.' How much is down to the subconscious is difficult to say but the fact that your name is similar may be a reason for showing more interest in a profession than you might otherwise."
It would appear that academics in particular follow this onomastic imperative. For example, biology professor David Hoppe is an expert on deformed frogs, meteorologist Christopher Landsea has written several research papers on hurricanes and cyclones, Jules Angst has published works about anxiety and Peter Skidmore wrote a journal article on cow dung.
As karma would have it, astronomy buffs are guided not by the stars but by their names. We have professor of theoretical physics Alan Heavens, astronomy professor Charles Telesco, astronomer Sumner Starrfield – not to mention astronaut Sally Ride.
Probably due to some quantum dynamic process I'm not bright enough to fathom, nominative determinism sometimes works in reverse. While Wikipedia lists an American rabbi named Alexander Goode, this is countered by Cardinal Jaime Sin, an Archbishop of Manila who died in 2005. There are also these "inaptonyms": Aside from the countless lawyers named Lynch, we have David Soberman, who years ago worked in marketing for Dow Breweries; dentists Emily Payne and Keith Au; the British building company R. Crumbleholme & Son; psychiatry professor William C. Dement; and Henry Calamity, who in March, 1969, was voted the Santa Fe Railroad's "safety man of the month."
Maybe there is something to this nominative determinism process. After all, Thomas Crapper was the inventor in the 19th century of the modern flush toilet and he was a sanitary engineer. Toronto mayor John Tory was the former leader of the Tories in Ontario. Martin Short is short. The world's fastest man is Usain Bolt. The former U.S. congressman Tom DeLay was prone to filibuster, American Jacques P. Moron sold drugs to narcs and stockbroker Bernie Madoff "made off" with billions of investors' money. Just in case you're not convinced by this overwhelming evidence, take note that on Oct. 6, 1941, the unfortunate duo of Wilburn and Frizzel were given the electric chair at Florida State Prison.
So, what's in a name? Perhaps far more importance – and synchronicity – than Jung ever thought possible.