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Must Dennis be a dentist?

A group of psychologists recently published a paper claiming that nominative determinism actually works. They found that men named Dennis were more likely to be dentists, the theory being that 'people choose – or are unconsciously drawn to – careers that resemble their own names.'

David J. Phillip/AP
Jamaica's Usain Bolt celebrates setting a new 100m World Record after the final of the Men's 100m during the World Athletics Championships in Berlin on Aug. 16, 2009.

In psychology and linguistics, word association is defined as the recall or production of one word in response to another. If someone says “dog,” you might say “cat.” If you hear “light,” you might think “dark,” or perhaps “joy” or “sunglasses.” 

These are semantic associations, based on the meanings of the words. We also make phonological (according to sound) and orthographic (according to spelling) associations. If you are writing an article about former FBI Director James Comey, as we discussed last week, your mind might turn to “comity,” because the words share similarities of sound and spelling. 

Semantic word association might not immediately bring to mind “fun,” but it actually makes a great party game. The first person says a word, and then people take turns coming up with related words, with the final word often being quite far from the original. “Dog,” for example, might lead to “cat,” “claw,” “sharp,” “intelligence,” “spy,” etc.  

Some, however, have seen word association as more than a game. Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung thought that it could reveal people’s emotional problems and unconscious hang-ups. He would have his patients play the word association game, paying careful attention to any hesitations or unexpected responses. If a patient fidgeted when prompted with “mother” and then came back with “eclipse,” Jung would investigate. 

More recently, a group of psychologists published a paper claiming that nominative determinism actually works. They found that men named Dennis were more likely to be dentists, the theory being that “people choose – or are unconsciously drawn to – careers that resemble their own names.”  

There are many such examples: Usain Bolt, the fastest man alive; meteorologists Amy Freeze and Sara Blizzard; weight loss guru Dr. Mike Loosemore; chef Tom Kitchin; and my favorite, Canadian police officer Law Power.  

But researchers have found problems with the “Dennis” paper and in fact nominative determinism is perhaps nothing more than what academics call a stylized fact, a catchy idea that we feel must be true. It has, after all, been around for thousands of years, dating back to a Roman proverb that declared Nomen est omen (roughly, “a name is a prophecy, or sign”). 

Is this good news for the Diamonds and Stars of the world or for the Smellies and the Longbottoms? The jury is still out.

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