Column: It’s fun to know what’s in a name

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Roger VanHaren

I recently read a strange little book called “The Department of Sensitive Crimes.” The author, Alexander McCall Smith, is from Scotland, but the book is set in Sweden. The protagonist is a detective named Ulf Varg and he works to solve “sensitive” crimes. For example, his first case is one in which a man is stabbed in the back of his knee. Another involves the disappearance of a non-existent boyfriend. Weird little book, but kind of funny.

At one point, Ulf is questioning a man named Ahlberg. Ahlberg says: “Of course. I noticed that when I saw your name. Both (Ulf and Varg) mean wolf in old Norse, don’t they?”

Ulf nodded. “Some people find my name repetitive,” he said.

Ahlberg laughed. “Names are odd, aren’t they? Some people talk about nominal determination, but I find it a bit of an odd idea, frankly. Do you think one’s name can be one’s destiny.”

“I’m not sure about nominal determination,” Ulf said. “Although I did once arrest a motorcycle thief by the name of Vroom.”

The commissioner laughed. “And you read about dentists called Drill, and so on.”

So … what’s in a name. It’s a question that goes back at least as far as Shakespeare. In “Romeo and Juliet,” Juliet says, “What’s in a name? It is neither hand nor foot nor any other part belonging to a man. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet …”

Are our names our destinies? What jobs should we have based on our names? I have a friend from college days whose surname is Lenz; he’s an optometrist. Cool?

I can think of lots of other names which might fit under this classification of “nominal determination.” How about Walker — someone who likes to hike, maybe? Potter? One who makes pots. My friend Bill Baxter should be a brewer instead of a social studies teacher. Norm Loomer could be a weaver (Weaver? Or Webster?) instead of a math professor.

A Cooper made barrels and a Hooper made the hoops for the barrels. There are many very obvious names: Baker, Archer, Barber, Butler, Cook, Mason. Messenger, Shoemaker, Taylor, Gardner, Hunter.

The current champion on “Jeopardy!” is James Holzhauer, but he should be named Gamble, don’t you agree? He takes big risks with his earnings every show.

I don’t think I’m a believer in nominal determination. Most of the occupational surnames we have today have derived from the Middle Ages in England when there were guilds and labor organizations and people were named for the work they did. We don’t do that anymore, so all the Archers, Bowmans, Butlers, Turners, Bishops, Clarks, Glassmans, and Carpenters are just the heirs to a long tradition.

So, what’s in a name? A great question.

Contact Roger VanHaren at