What's in a name? More than you might think

Birds, bikes and even recycling... Joyce Fegan meets the people whose names match their jobs
What's in a name? More than you might think

Taz Kelleher and Geraldine Carton of The Useless Project: "When it comes to climate change, what we are trying to show is that a huge part of the solution is using less."

The week we found out we could start putting soft plastics in our recycling was the same week Geraldine Carton realised that her name matched her job.

"Nominative determinism at its finest. Ireland’s plastic recycling expert is called Geraldine Carton," read the now-viral tweet by Twitter user Dónal Og O'Donovan.

Geraldine Carton, of The Useless Project, was a guest on Claire Byrne Live recently, and when she came off air she realised she'd made an impact of a different kind. 

Nominative determinism is the hypothesis that your name can affect or be reflected in key areas of your life - such as being unconsciously drawn to certain areas of work because of your surname. The millionaire banker Rich Ricci is one example.

The pop culture term was coined in 1994 in the New Scientist magazine's Feedback column. Since then, it has undergone robust scientific research. In 2002, a paper called "Why Susie Sells Seashells by the Seashore: Implicit Egotism and Major Life Decisions" was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The authors looked at the assumption that "people prefer things that are connected to the self (for example, the letters in one's name)". Their conclusion? People are disproportionately likely to "choose careers whose labels resemble their names (for example, people named Dennis or Denise are over-represented among dentists)".

But the hypothesis isn't just related to one's career, but also their health. 

The Brady Bunch

Irish cardiologist Dr John Keaney studied the phenomenon in relation to a person's health - co-publishing a 'humorous' paper with several colleagues in the British Medical Journal's Christmas edition in 2013.

"The Brady Bunch? New evidence for nominative determinism in patients’ health," is the paper's title.

Carrying out the research in a university teaching hospital in Dublin, their objective was "to ascertain whether a name can influence a person’s health, by assessing whether people with the surname 'Brady' have an increased prevalence of bradycardia".

Bradycardia is where the heart adopts an abnormally slow heart rate. Pacemakers are used to help people with the condition.

This paper's conclusion? "Patients named Brady are at increased risk of needing pacemaker implantation compared with the general population. This finding shows a potential role for nominative determinism in health", was the conclusion.

However, Dr Keaney explained the context around the research paper to the Irish Examiner. "Every Christmas the British Medical Journal publishes something that is a bit more light-hearted, so our research was directed towards that journal because it wasn't that serious," he explains eight years later.

He does not consider it a robust piece of scientific research, rather a "quirk of statistics". 

The reaction from the medical community was appropriately humorous when it was published.

"There is no biological plausibility for this, there is no way that if your name is Brady that means you're going to have a slower heart rate," the cardiologist said. The research simply came about after he and colleagues were fitting a pacemaker to a man by the surname of Brady, and the link was casually mentioned.

"It just grew legs," says Dr Keaney.

The phenomenon is far more common in the area of career choices; the Irish Examiner spoke to four people, Geraldine Carton included, about how their name is reflected in their job.

Colm Ryder 

Colm Ryder is chair of cyclist.ie - he has always been aware of the irony of his name. "I mean growing up you were made aware of it with jokes like 'get on your bike'. It was all a bit of fun," says Colm, who has been riding a bike since the age of 6.

As a cycling advocate, who petitions county councils and government departments, does he think his name had an influence on his career choices?

"I was always interested in social and community issues, I was involved in youth club in my teens and the running of a football team, and I've been riding a bike since I was six years of age," says Colm.

A civil engineer by profession, something from which he is now retired, he is the volunteer chair of cyclist.ie.

"I devote a lot of time to the cycling advocacy agenda," he explains. But he does not think his family name was the reason he does the work he does.

"I think it's just a complete accident of fate," says Colm, who does admit it works as an "icebreaker" in meetings and media interviews. "People do remark on it and say how my name is perfectly suited to my work," he adds.

And what is his day-to-day work as a cycling advocate?

Colm Ryder, the volunteer chair of cyclist.ie, says his choice of career is "just a complete accident of fate".
Colm Ryder, the volunteer chair of cyclist.ie, says his choice of career is "just a complete accident of fate".

"My weeks would be taken up dealing with local authorities and government departments. The agenda is broadly to get more people out of their cars and moving around their towns or cities on foot, on bikes, or on public transport," says Colm.

But it's not as simple as people buying bikes or sending their children off to school on a bike, it comes down to planning - and this is where his civil engineering comes into the frame.

"My background is as a civil engineer. I'm very interested in public planning and planning for people and making places safer and better-looking and more amenable for people so we can use the cities without being in a tin can driving around the whole time. It's been my driver from a young age. With cycling a lot of issues come together - the environment, community and cycling advocacy," he explains.

"I've a friend whose sister lives in Germany, and she has two kids about 7 and 8 years of age. They cycle to school every day without their parents, and do so safely," he adds.

This is in comparison to Colm's daily experience of witnessing parents having to shepherd their children around the busy traffic of south Dublin.

His work, of lobbying councils and departments, is about designing towns and villages to be more accessible and amenable which he breaks down into a long and short game.

"It's a long game but there is also a short game, and that part needs to be taken up by local authorities. The money is there but the money needs to be spent in a coherent manner.

"Cycling lanes need to be wide enough and coming up to lights cyclists need protection. They're the simple things, and because the funding is available we need to just go and do it.

"Long term we need to be looking at an improvement in infrastructure. And speed is another big thing, we recommend a default of 30km an hour in every town and village," says Colm.

This week also happens to be National Bike Week, which runs until September 18. He was heartened to see "hundreds and hundreds of children" with their bikes at one event in the capital city on Sunday, but there are many events around the entire country.

Right now about 12% of people entering our capital city do so on a push bike every day, this is measured by the footfall crossing over the canals into the city centre. It is one of the lowest rates in Europe.

As a lifelong cyclist who started as a young child, Mr Ryder says talking about cycling in relation to children is where the message gets driven home.

"One of the big things is safe routes to school, so kids can cycle and walk safely to school. If we don't get children in this generation they won't be cycling when they're adults. At a time when we need to be thinking about climate change, we need to reverse our planning methodology and plan for cycling and walking," he says.

But back to his name - are there many other Ryders in Ireland and does he know where his name comes from?

"There are not that many Ryders around," says Colm, "but loose genealogy traces it to Mayo and then France. In Irish, it has nothing to do with cycling and instead translates to son of a knight."

bikeweek.ie

Geraldine Carton 

Geraldine Carton, who was working in a glossy women's magazine, became an “accidental recycling expert” without intending to be. She had transitioned to working in sustainability, starting with Sustainable Fashion Dublin in 2018 - a clothes swapping event, before going on to set up The Useless Project with Taz Kelleher.

The whole concept is how we can feel useless in the face of climate change, but the organisation offers tools we can all employ in our day-to-day lives, including using less. Advocacy is part of their work, hence Geraldine Carton was speaking on RTÉ's Claire Byrne Live last week, after the news that we can now start putting soft plastics in our recycling bin.

But it was her name that really caught viewers' attention, with Twitter users connecting her work to her name.

"I only made the link last week about my name and this work. I didn't know there was a phrase, nominative determinism for it. 

And I myself had a geography teacher called Ms Flood.

"It's funny because we never noticed it and we give talks in schools and businesses and one of our talks is 'Recycling 101' and you'd think it's glaringly obvious - a Geraldine Carton talking about this, but we didn't connect or see. Here I was then on Claire Byrne, introduced as a recycling expert and talking about pizza boxes and cartons and what can go in the green bin," says Geraldine.

But the comic connection is not lost on Geraldine who understands just how overwhelming climate change can be for people and hence makes it as accessible as possible for people with The Useless Project.

"At a time when people are feeling so useless when it comes to climate change, what we are trying to show is that a huge part of the solution is using less, be that as an individual and or big businesses, it's about minimising the negative and maximising the positive.

"It's about connecting with our fellow humans and engaging in our community. At every event we've ever done we've always seen that when people come together it just brings everything to life.

"We would never try to shame any individual person because big businesses have such a powerful marketing machine, there is so much more at play. It's people not realising, once people hear how destructive the fashion industry is they make changes," says Geraldine, which was her entry point to the work she is now doing.

"I was definitely on the other end of the spectrum, working for a woman's fashion magazine and buying fast fashion clothes, but then I always had a grá for flea markets and I lived in Melbourne for a year where they're very popular. And I didn't realise it was sustainable," explains Geraldine.

A year working in a consumer magazine led Geraldine to "re-evaluate" the work she was doing in the world.

"I asked myself: 'Was I put on this earth to write about leggings, or is there a more positive livelihood for me?" she says.

It was around this exact time that she met her now business partner Taz Kelleher who was running Sustainable Fashion Dublin, and the two would go on to set up The Useless Project.

It has grown exponentially in five years, so much so that it is now both of their full-time jobs. Geraldine says the growth is a direct reflection of a consumer shift towards sustainability.

"We never anticipated this to be our full-time job, we couldn't have made it our full-time job if there wasn't the interest there. Comparing Irish society today to five years ago it's become so much more mainstream and it's the only direction it's going," she says.

The Useless Project is running its first post-pandemic event at the Workman's Club in Dublin on September 18 as part of Sustainable Fashion Week. See theuselessproject.com

Eoin Lettice 

The irony of being a plant scientist whose name is almost identical to a green leafy vegetable is not wasted on Eoin Lettice. While he isn't convinced on the actual science of nominative determinism, Eoin, a lecturer in UCC, believes the connection between his name and his career is "a happy coincidence".

Was he always destined to work in botany because of his name? "I don't think one has led to the other, I think it's a happy coincidence," says the scientist.

His name is actually not pronounced like the salad leaf lettuce, but instead is pronounced lett-eece.

"I don't correct people, and written down people can see the connection much more clearly," he says.

As far as his career goes, the connection - while not a director of his fate, it has served to allow people to remember him more easily.

"It's a useful calling card, people tend to remember my name and associate my name as a plant scientist, it's a really useful thing to have," says Eoin who grew up always being aware of his unique name.

"I would have got the ribbing growing up - a gentle making fun which is all fine," he says.

But today he is "very proud" of his name.

"There are not many of us out there, and we've done some genealogical work and we can trace our own family back to the 1830s to Co. Meath. 

My ancestors would have left at the famine and gone to Dundee, and then one generation after that - my great great grandfather came back to Cork and we've been here ever since.

"Having an obscure name makes genealogical research much easier, anyone around Cork or Ireland is related. We were peasant farmers just before the famine," explains Eoin.

Tracing the name back even further it is derived from Latin and a female name Laetitia meaning joy.

"In school growing up we never had an Irish version so we decided to invent our own, Ó Lúcháir," says Eoin.

Well past school days and now working in education himself, he says it's been hard to attract new researchers to plant science, people are more drawn to zoology and studying animals.

However, with the increasing awareness of climate change, interest in plant science or botany has increased.

"The interest has gone right back up again and I think that's tied in with the great staff we have and the modules, but also there's a sea change. Society is recognising things to do with sustainability and food security and plants are at the centre of these big issues like, how are we going to feed people on the planet? 

Dr Eoin Lettice, plant science lecturer at University College Cork and Deputy Director of the Centre for Organic Horticulture Research at UCC. "It's a useful calling card, people tend to remember my name and associate my name as a plant scientist, it's a really useful thing to have."
Dr Eoin Lettice, plant science lecturer at University College Cork and Deputy Director of the Centre for Organic Horticulture Research at UCC. "It's a useful calling card, people tend to remember my name and associate my name as a plant scientist, it's a really useful thing to have."

"It's great that plants are at the centre of big global questions, as we get to grips with climate change there is a renewed interest in all things plants," he says.

Something which really hammers home the importance of plant science to people is their use in our everyday life, explains the scientist.

From mint in our toothpaste to the fact that 25% of prescription drugs being plant-derived - these are the facts that wake people up from their "plant blindness". While aspirin is now synthetically produced it was derived from the willow tree, chemotherapy drug Taxol is derived from the bark of a yew tree.

"That tends to get people, once we understand how we start using plants, be it in food, medicinally or to build houses," says Eoin.

To learn more about plants and trees in Cork, people can take part in his virtual tree tour for Culture Night on September 17. See culturenightcork.ie

Steve Wing 

Steve Wing works as the wildlife officer for BirdWatch Ireland, on Cape Clear. For as long as he can remember he has always had an interest in all things wildlife, and birds in particular.

But has his name affected his career choice?

"Ever since I can remember, I have had an interest in all things in nature. Birds were probably the biggest as they were more obvious," says Steve. 

I couldn’t honestly say that, to my knowledge, my name has had any real influence in what I do, although BirdWatch Ireland has had a history of employees with ‘bird’ related names – Hatch, Bird and Crowe, for example.

Other staff members over the years include Mark Robins, Dónal Finch and Aisling Tallon.

Steve's own surname has always attracted attention, but specifically because of its connection to his work. However, the job he has now, he also got because he was a builder too.

"My interest in birds has always solicited the odd comments about my surname. I don’t ever recall thinking that it was the reason I got the job – that was more due to my holding a ringing licence and being a builder, as the observatory building needed renovating when I applied for the position," says Steve.

His job on Cape Clear entails running the only full-time, permanent bird observatory in the Republic of Ireland.

"My day-to-day tasks include keeping a log of all species I see throughout the day, including birds, mammals, lepidoptera and cetaceans. This data is then input into the daily log, which has been kept since 1957, making it one of the most complete datasets of its nature in the country," says Steve.

Birdwatch Ireland's Steve Wing ringing a juvenile robin. "It is an incredible privilege to be able to do this part of the job and requires a licence to do it." Photo: Barbara Fitzgibbon
Birdwatch Ireland's Steve Wing ringing a juvenile robin. "It is an incredible privilege to be able to do this part of the job and requires a licence to do it." Photo: Barbara Fitzgibbon

Covid, unfortunately, has meant that they have been closed for the past two seasons and a "very much reduced" log has been kept due to restrictions of movement around the island.

One of the most important parts of his job is "ringing" birds - catching them and placing a "uniquely numbered ring" on them.

These rings enable him to track the movements and survival rates of birds. "It is an incredible privilege to be able to do this part of the job and requires a licence to do it," says Steve.

In regard to the prevalence of his name in Ireland he is not aware of any other Wings here.

"Apparently, there is a complete graveyard in central North America, dedicated entirely to Wings, but I don’t know if they have anything to do with us," says Steve.

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