Would you be surprised if I told you Frank Fish was a marine biologist? Or that Carla Dove is the director of the Feather Identification Lab at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.?
These are examples of aptonyms, –people with names that fit their careers. This concept shouldn’t be too surprising, since sometimes people received surnames that were derived from their occupations. I personally know a Baker and a Farmer.
Of course, today people have a multitude of career options. And yet, occasionally someone’s name exactly fits their career path. Could this be more than mere coincidence?
It could. This possibility is explored in the article “How Much Does Your Name Influence Your Future? The Data May Surprise You” from the National Geographic website (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/premium/article/aptonyms-names-psychology-careers?).
Take Betsy Weatherhead, an award-winning atmospheric scientist who has served on NOAA’s Scientific Advisory Group. “Occasionally I find out that some people think I changed my name because I was so thrilled with my career. And that’s just not the case.” After losing her graduate-school position in physics, Weatherhead applied for a summer job assisting an atmospheric scientist. There were nearly a dozen applicants, but she was later told by the scientist’s secretary that it was her name that really got her noticed. The scientist was “walking around going, ‘Weatherhead. Weatherhead. We’ve got to hire her!’”
Is there any scientific data to support the idea of a link between names and careers? There was a 2015 study in the journal Self and Identity that used census data to look for evidence of implicit egotism, which is “an unconscious preference for things resembling the self.” And there were some fascinating trends. Brett Pelham, a professor of psychology at Montgomery College in Maryland and the study’s coauthor, said “We found that for last names that are also occupations—so Butcher, Baker, Carpenter, Miner, Mason, Porter, Painter, etc.—men with that last name were pretty noticeably over-represented in those occupations.” Pelham continued, “In that same paper, we found that people are about 6.5 percent more likely to marry another person if that person’s birthday number is the same as their birthday number, relative to chance expectation.” Another interesting finding was men named Cal and Tex were more likely to move to California and Texas.
No matter the psychology behind it, most of the people interviewed for the article say that having an aptonym has led to notoriety in their field, which can be a good thing. “Most people have to work really hard and do a few phenomenally good things in science to be remembered,” jokes Weatherhead. “But people just kind of naturally remember me, which I’m grateful for.”