What’s in a Name?


Your career choice, place of residence, and spouse, apparently.

I recently ran across the phenomenon known as “egotism” or sometimes “implicit egotism,” which is the statistical probability that the letters that form your name will in some way correspond to or predict what career you go into, where you will live, and who you will choose for a spouse or partner.

In a thumbnail: People named Dennis or Denise are very likely to become dentists. Dennis and Denise are also likely to live in Denver. And, they are also likely to marry someone with a surname that begins with the same letter as their own: a Smith would more likely marry a Sanchez than a Zelig.

The research on egotism was begun by U Buffalo psychologist Brett Pelham and you can read more about him on his homepage, as well as reading the initial study, which was published in 2002. Previous scholarship had posited the “name letter effect,” which holds that people have positive associations with the letters in their own names. Subsequent scholarship has pursued the implications for egotism on other “life choices,” such as a recent study that showed that names influenced people’s responses to disaster and charitable giving: someone named Katherine was more likely to donate to a Hurricane Katrina fund, for example.

This is all very interesting to those of us who study language and literature and who find ourselves often trying to make the case for the power of language and the constructedness of reality or identity. In ENGL 2350, I often struggle to explain the structuralist/deconstructionist idea that there is no reality outside of language/the text — my skeptical students are confident that they know reality as well as the difference between what’s real and what’s written, and they have a hard time embracing the proposition that what they know is shaped by the language system in which they exist. Maybe Pelham’s statistics can serve as more persuasive fodder for a discussion of these issues?

Of course, there are many out there who will recoil from the idea of name as destiny. In fact, we would scoff at a creative writer who constructed a character named Dennis who was a dentist who lived in Denver. What a lack of imagination!, we would say.

So what do you think? Has your name determined your life choices?

— Desiree Henderson


  1. No correlation whatsoever with my name to my career, spouse, etc. I’m intrigued to see the study, though.

  2. “Implicit” thinking is fascinating in and of itself. Last summer I took some of Harvard’s “implicit personality” tests: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/research/. The test can show that even while a person may state a preference, there can be opposing implicit preferences. Having students review these tests is a another way in which to investigate language and reality.

    The only connection to my name and career is that I do not like particular demarcations for women on forms: “Mrs,” “Miss,” “Ms.” This is an old system that harks back to property & availability & should not be on official forms. I tend to skip this part on forms unless its an online form and has an asterisk by the field and is required.

  3. Another note on filling out required forms for careers: In the Safe Zone training I attended last Fall, we discussed what intersex people go through while filing out forms (how they name/identify themselves). Most (all) of us agreed that there should be a third category for gender. Then we got into a complicated discussion of what this would do to the discussion on the civil institution of marriage. How can there be marriage regulations if there is a third category for gender?

    I am not intersex, but if I do not like the Mrs, Miss, Ms, issue on official forms for filling out career forms, it follows (because I can empathize) that intersex people do not like having a fussy issue over which box to check for gender.

    I do not see these issues as implicit. These are real ways to name and define people on application forms that are on career paths.

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