Ian McMillan: Rooney’s a football, but I’m more of a typewriter

THE lady in the thickly-rimmed glasses was breathlessly explaining all the delights they’d got coming up in their festival. “And then we’ve got a chef doing a cookery demonstration and he’s called…”

I forget his first name but his second name, as she told me in an excited fashion, was ‘Burn’. Now surely that’s not a great name for a chef. If I went to eat out somewhere I’d want my food to be prepared by somebody called Mrs Cook or Mr Sweet, not Mr Burn.

Imagine that chap’s careers officer at school. “Now then, young Burn, what do you want to be when you grow up?” “I’d like to be a chef, sir.”

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Imagine the pause as the careers officer looks out of the window and tries not to chortle. “Aye, lad…have you considered being a fireman?”

You might think I’m just being daft but I’m actually talking about the phenomenon known as Nominative Determinism. This is a theory whose roots go back thousands of years and, simply put, it reckons that your name has a huge bearing on your job, your lifetime profession, or even your character.

So Mister Burn is a terrible name for a cook but a great name for somebody who puts out fires. Think about it: we’ve all known somebody whose name fitted their job or whose job appeared to spring fully formed from the name they were born with.

So Mrs Sharp was a strict teacher and Mr Small was quiet and unobtrusive. I remember a plumber somewhere in South Yorkshire called Mr Leake, although there were rumours that it wasn’t his real name. His real name was Mr. Tap. Ho Ho.

The term was apparently invented by New Scientist magazine (editor Mr Boffin. I’m joking, but this kind of thing gets addictive) in 1994. They noticed a book on the polar regions by Mr. Snowman, and a book about subterranean London by Mr Trench.

They dug further and discovered an article in a urology journal by Mr Splatt and Mr Weedon. Of course, the system isn’t foolproof because Bert Weedon’s name didn’t stop him becoming a great guitarist and we had a teacher called Mr Manley and as far as I know he’d never been a lifeguard.

On the other hand there’s a Welsh judge called Judge Judge and a Canadian copper called Law Power. And wasn’t there another policeman called Constable Constable? No, that was in a Carry On Film, and Carry On Films aren’t real life, unless you happen to be a vicar called the Reverend Vicar.

Once you start thinking about Nominative Determinism though, you want to burrow into the origins of it and find out where it really came from. Sadly my name isn’t Mr Burrows and the only Mr Burrows I ever knew was a bus driver, so that doesn’t work.

After a while you start to edge into Mr Men territory and those 18th century plays with characters called Miss Goodbody and Mr Cuckold, and then you know that maybe you’ve gone too far.

Historically, though, the job must have come before the name, so somebody called Cooper or Miller is called that because of what their ancestors did. In the old days they would have pointed at somebody and said ‘He’s a miller’ and so the name stuck. In this chicken and egg situation I’m sure the job came before the name.

We’re going right back to the birth of language and naming here, of course, but I’m convinced you didn’t become a miller because your name was Miller; the fact is that there weren’t any millers before you.

This brings me to a theory I’ve been working on for a while that I’m going to call Nominative Determinism Plus. In this variation of Nominative Determinism, the sound of your name influences certain things that happen in your life even more than your name does.

For instance: if you’re called Wayne Rooney it’s not in the stars that you’re going to become a footballer. But say the name a couple of times, and you’ll see why Mr R could never have been anything else.

The word Wayne sounds just like a boot hitting a ball and the word Rooney sounds just like a ball flying through the air into the back of a net; indeed you could say that the ey at the end of Rooney is the start of the noise of a cheering crowd, but that might be going a bit too far.

Peter Kay had to be a comedian because if you say Peter Kay over and over again it sounds like you’re laughing and all those clicking consonants in Dickie Bird sound like a wicket falling so his career path was chosen for him at birth. Even the name Ian McMillan sounds like somebody tapping away at a keyboard so I had to be a writer.

Nominative Determinism Plus: the sound of the name fits the actions of the named. Remember where you read it first.