Diana Nyad: nominative determinism strikes again

Photo credit: www.guardian.co.uk

On August 31 2013, record-breaking long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, aged 64, became the first person ever to swim the 110 miles of open water from Havana, Cuba, to Florida. She swam this distance in 53 hours and without the aid of a shark cage.

While this is a truly impressive feat of endurance and determination (this was her fifth attempt), what struck me was that with a name like Nyad she couldn’t have done anything else.

Nyad sounds like naiad – naiads in Greek mythology were water nymphs or spirits. That’s cute, I thought. Then I noticed that naiad is an anagram of her first name – Diana. *Cue dramatic chords* So, could this just be coincidence or is something else in play?

There is a notion – called nominative determinism – that a person’s name can somehow influence the type of work or activities they do, and maybe even their character.

The idea is an ancient one but the term nominative determinism was coined in the 1990s in the Feedback column of the popular science magazine New Scientist (one of the examples cited was an article on incontinence that had been published in the British Journal of Urology by J W Splatt & D Weedon.)

As Roger Highfield, editor of New Scientist, says in an article in The Evening Standard:

In 2002, nominative determinism became a serious study in its own right, with the publication of a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology entitled ‘Why Susie Sells Seashells by the Seashore: Implicit Egotism and Major Life Decisions’. On the assumption that ‘people prefer things that are connected to the self (for example, the letters in one’s name)’, authors Brett Pelham, Matthew Mirenberg and John Jones concluded that people are disproportionately likely to ‘choose careers whose labels resemble their names (for example, people named Dennis or Denise are over-represented among dentists).’

So, perhaps in naming her Diana, the Nyad parents had set something inevitable in  motion?

Once you start to be aware of the phenomenon, you’ll see examples of nominative determinism everywhere. For instance, where I live in Finchley, North London, there is a local dentist called Mr Fang.

Here are some of the examples Roger Highfield lists:

  • Usain Bolt Olympic champion and world record holder for the 100m and 200m.
  • Rich Ricci CEO of Barclays Capital who received a bonus package of £44 million in 2010.
  • Bill Cash MP who claimed more than £15,000 in expenses to pay his daughter’s rent.
  • Chris Moneymaker The first amateur winner of the $2.5m prize World Series of Poker in 2003.
  • Sara Blizzard Weather presenter for East Midlands Today.
  • John Doolittle & Tom DeLay Republicans who argued against any action on the ozone hole.
  • Wright Hassall Solicitors’ firm in Leamington Spa.

And, my favourite: Dr. Richard Chopp Leading urologist specialising in vasectomies.







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