Tito Beveridge and
the Dennis System
Dick Chopp Strikes
(Slashes?) Back Against
Nominative Determinism
DeeDee Trotter,
and Races and Race
Storm Field, And Fathers And Sons
The Graham Finale

Not By Any Other Name: Here’s What Shakespeare Got
Wrong (And Science Gets Right) About Your Name

Scroll to Explore

If he, Other Graham, were content to merely squat on my appellative property, that’d be one thing. The indignity of sharing could be eased by my hold on the middle initial “K,” with its arsenal of sharp, manly points. But without ever asking, Interloper Graham has scooped up huge swaths of my identity: We grew up as only children in the same Virginia city, had mutual friends, graduated from nearby colleges before heading overseas for teaching stints in Japan, went to law school five miles from one another—at good-but-not-great institutions named after separate patriotic Georges—and resided for years as uneasy (I imagined) neighbors in Washington, D.C.

Scoundrel Graham even hugged my mom once, at a hairstylist where we (meaning S.G. and I) both happened to get haircuts.

She claims she didn’t enjoy it, if you’re wondering. I have my suspicions.

For years, when girlfriends giggled and I, staunch individualist, fumed at the universe buckling from the weight of a Graham-and-Graham meetup, I wondered why. Why had this fiend—this claim jumper, this Bizarro Me—copied my every move so exactly? What drove him to commit identity theft most foul? Why has the Usurper Graham kept usurping for so long? Like, get a life, man.

Or maybe he had no choice.

As much as I hate to admit it, there’s an alternative explanation that lets Graham off the hook. It’s entirely possible that he didn’t and doesn’t steer his life toward mine. Rather, it might be that our shared name steers us—to some unknown but mutual destiny. A humble collection of five different letters—four consonants and one redundant vowel—molded into one syllable with a dull meaning of “gravelly homestead” may have dictated our common paths in life.
Names, it turns out, might have more power than you think.
Ask people to explain, or simply pronounce, “nominative determinism,” and you’re likely to get blank stares. (Believe me, I’ve tried for a few weeks now.) But the concept, officially coined in 1994 in a response to a reader letter in New Scientist magazine, makes sense to even the youngest of us. We all chuckle at the comic serendipity when a man named Plummer fixes our leaky pipes. We all nod at the rightness of the universe when Usain Bolt breaks land-speed records. Comic and cosmic, after all, are only one letter away.

I’d be remiss not to shower you with a few great, weird examples of names matching sublimely with career. There is Daniel Snowman, author of Pole Positions: The Polar Regions and the Future of the Planet. There is Richard Vice, police officer in an anti-pornography unit—no doubt he is hard-nosed and softhearted and has problems with by-the-book superiors. But the bee’s teeth may just be U. Bite, a Canadian surgeon who authors medical papers on bite wounds.
That names have a power over reality is not entirely new thinking. The Bible, a work very concerned with names, commands the observant to not to take them—or at least take one specific one—in vain. Certain Native American tribes considered the naming of a child too important to leave solely to the parents; instead, tribal leaders bestowed it. And Carl Jung wondered whether the connections between names and destiny are the “whimsicalities of chance … or are they meaningful coincidences?” Of course, Shakespeare, the dramatist with a name almost too dramatic to make up, comes down squarely on the side of “no connection whatsoever.” According to him, a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet.

New to the discourse, however, are modern studies that seem to back up our instincts about a name’s importance. To put the theories simply: your plumber named Plummer is not just a weird, isolated coincidence. Some research indicates that names or the letters in them can predict careers—and even the city in which you’ll end up. In other words, while a rose by any other name may or may not smell as sweet, a woman named Rose may indeed be more likely to work as a gardener and live in Rosewood.

But do our names cause us to change our thinking? Are our destinies set in stone the minute our parents pick our names? If so, perhaps the abundance of baby-naming books on Amazon are, in fact, important literature. Also, I should run to the courthouse to change my name to Richie Rich, and let the wealth flow.

In the name of science, I crisscrossed the country to talk to people whose distinctive monikers seem to show that nominative determinism is indeed real. That names matter very much. I asked them about destiny, statistics and the stories of their (somewhat strange) names. And, despite the risks to the universe at large and to my own ego, I finally confronted Graham Nelson, The Other, about our shared name.
Mr. Tito Beveridge and The Beveridge System
Tito Beveridge
The Founder and Owner of Tito’s Handmade Vodka
(What, you hadn’t noticed the Tito’s Handmade Vodka ads looming over us?) In fact, if it weren’t for the need to cling to the rock of journalistic objectivity here, I’d probably say that Tito Beveridge is the coolest guy I’ve ever met in person. He has the thick, tousled gray hair, handsome face and steady gaze of a guy in the “after” takes of a Just For Men commercial, who, with but a tiny dab of product, is once again able to woo much younger women.
It also doesn’t hurt that he immediately gets the idea for this story. “Nomenclature,” he quotes his wife as saying, “is destiny.”
That’s a fair (and, dare I say, more poetic) way of summarizing a phenomenon that psychologists and social scientists have been studying since the late 1980s. The scientific term favored by the oodles of studies on the matter is “Name-Letter Effect”: it’s a kind of life-momentum sparked by an unconscious affinity for the first letter of one’s name. While “nominative determinism” may just be tongue-in-cheek, Name-Letter Effect is serious stuff. Proponents of this theory have tested it in a number of different circumstances and found that, yes, the letters in a name have a significant connection to the shape of a person’s life.

Take the name Dennis: solid, dependable, a little boring maybe—but not, you might think, suggestive of any particular type of career. (Besides, perhaps, menacing.) According to supporters of the Name-Letter Effect, however, you’d be wrong.

In a 2002 study entitled, wonderfully, “Why Susie Sells Seashells by the Seashore: Implicit Egotism and Major Life Decisions,” a trio of professors from the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York, found that Dennises may indeed have a common calling: dentistry. First, the researchers measured the number of lawyers named Dennis and the number of dentists named Dennis.
...In other words, if your name is Dennis, you’re more inclined to fill teeth than file briefs
Second, they compared the number of dentists named Dennis with the number of dentists with names of equivalent popularity—in this case, Jerry and Walter. The results are pretty shocking. Despite the same frequency in the population at large, there were “482 dentists named Dennis, 257 dentists named Walter, and 270 dentists named Jerry,” the study said. Although law is the more popular profession among the population, dentistry sways Dennises more strongly than does law, compared with what would be expected. In other words, if your name is Dennis, you’re more inclined to fill teeth than file briefs—at least compared to the average Joe (or Jerry).

The same trend held for other names that began with “Den”—for example, Denise, Dena, Denny and Denver—and for female lawyers whose names began with “La.” The authors theorized that “implicit egotism” was the cause; in layman’s terms: we really, really love ourselves and everything that reminds us of us. (This may also explain why we all buy dogs that look like us.)

Subsequent studies seeking to confirm what we might call the “Susie Sells Seashells” theory rolled out of universities with regularity. So: names influence the places people live (if you’re named Louis or Jackson or Virginia or Mildred, you’re more likely to live in St. Louis or Jacksonville or Virginia Beach or Milwaukee); the people they marry (you’re more likely to marry someone with your last name, or at least the same last initial); the grades people earn (people with names beginning with “C” or “D” are more likely to get them); and even the likelihood that they’ll donate to disaster relief for a particular storm (donations by those with “K” names significantly increased after Hurricane Katrina, relative to other names).

And lest you think that Dennises are simply peculiar people who like to put their hands in other people’s mouths, the same trio of UB researchers found similar Name-Letter Effects among hardware store owners, roofers and geologists, who are somewhat more likely to be named George.

A massive square table on the first floor of his vodka empire’s marketing and administrative office plays host to my discussion of life, names and destiny with Mr. Beveridge. I really haven’t seen many marketing and administrative offices of vodka empires, but—wild stab in the dark—most aren’t like this. Apart from a few pieces of comfortable, thrown-together furniture, the room embraces a kind of sparseness that says to me: I’m a basement rec room, and I’ve been under construction for five years. Later, I learn that this room connects to a garage, which cements my theory.

The ancient, sticker-coated fridge in the corner is my favorite of the room’s weathered charms. Its rust patterns are like liver spots. Tito’s public relations handler laughs sheepishly when I ask about it, explaining that Tito won’t let her throw it away because he used it to store early batches of Tito’s Handmade Vodka when the Austin-based brand was just taking off. But she needn’t handle; it’s emblematic: the company is homespun, cognizant of its roots and durn proud of it.

The Ballad of Burt Butler Beveridge II begins when Burt—aka Burtito, aka Tito—was 18 years old and working in Texas oil fields. There he encountered a geologist who changed his life, spurring him to make rocks his focus in college. (Was his name George? Or Geoff? I nearly interrupted Tito to ask, eager for more proof of the Name-Letter Effect.) “He had on this spotless suit, and we [workers] were covered in drilling mud,” Tito tells me, his face scrunched in memory, “He was carrying one bottle of Jack Daniel’s, and a bottle of Crown. And I thought, Man, I wanna be that guy.”

then the bottle turned half empty. Oil dried up everywhere.
At that instant, when young Tito set eyes on the muck-free finery and plentiful beverages of the passing geologist, he started to plot his escape from the day-to-day drudgery of the oil fields, where his co-workers had names like—I kid
you not—“Three Fingers Benny” and “One-Eyed Pete.” Tito studied geology and geological geophysics at the University of Texas Austin. He then found himself overseeing oil fields and searching for new deposits. Suits were donned; liquor was purchased. When the Texas oil fields busted, Tito left the state and relocated to South America, where he flew with dynamite seismic crews on frickin’ helicopters. He describes the period, with what I perceive as a mischievous chuckle, as “adventurous.”

Then the bottle turned half-empty. Oil dried up everywhere. Tito trudged to mines and steam electric stations, dumps and jungles, as an environmental regulator. He tired of the travel and spent a year as a mortgage broker until that field cratered, too. One night at age 32, not knowing what to do and having “a few beers” in his system, Tito sat down and wrote out a list of things he liked and things that he was good at. The list included vodka, which he was already (quietly) making as gifts for friends, and being around “pretty women,” whom he had reason to believe liked vodka. That was the night that Tito’s Handmade Vodka was born. “As soon as I sat there and wrote down the list,” he says, “I thought, ‘And my last name’s Beveridge. What could be better than that? People are just not going to believe, they’re going to think I changed my name!’”
A lot of good ol’ boys talk about their big dreams. What separates Tito, I found, is his training as a geologist. Geology expands one’s view of time. His studies taught him that he’s no more than “a butterfly on an oak tree,” Tito says. Only a slice of the cosmos is ever visible to us. This belief sustained him in the beginning, when Tito’s Handmade Vodka was a side business into which Tito sunk his money. (He maxed out 19 credit cards in the process.) Friends viewed the enterprise with skepticism and eventually alarm. After seven years, they staged an “entrepreneurial intervention,” he recalls. But Tito, with the bigger picture in mind, knew that the math was right. Like carving valleys and raising mountains, it all just took time. (He was right, of course.)

Which is not to say there weren’t blunders. Tito laughs heartily at moments of “stupidity” along the way. He modeled his business after “micro-distilleries” such as Knob Creek—a label that he later found out wasn’t “micro” at all, but rather a sub-brand of alcohol giant Jim Beam. This made Tito’s Handmade Vodka, he claims, the first micro-distillery. Tito hired his first salesman, believing the applicant had managed a “securities company”; it turned out he had really managed a “security company.”
But what better evidence for destiny is there than realizing a dream in the face of giant mistakes?

I wonder what keeps Tito Beveridge going. How does he contend with lawsuits, attempted acquisitions, upstart micro-distilleries and all the other headaches incurred by the poster boy of American vodka? How does his energy overflow into creative endeavors that include a play about Southern matriarchs, a CD produced by Tito and his “fishing buddy,” and a painting hobby?

Hand dangling limply over the chair in this office, or rec room, or whatever it is, Tito Beveridge gives the impression that he made it exactly to where he should be. “I kinda feel like everything’s made of stardust,” he muses. “We breathe it in, breathe it out. Drink it in, pee it out. It’s moving through us. I don’t really feel like it’s a limited thing inside [of] me ... It’s limitless ... people pay to go to distilleries and drink out of the still. I’d do all this for free.”

I ask him how much his name made a difference in getting him there. He laughs his big laugh and says, “Thank God my last name’s not ‘Bricklayer.’”

“I kinda feel
like every-
thing’s made
of stardust. We
breathe it in,
breathe it out.
Drink it in, pee
it out.”

Wednesday, I decided, was as good a day as any to start the end of the world.
So, one Wednesday, I set out to find Graham Nelson.

The problem: Graham Nelson didn’t want to be found.

In the era of ineradicable online footprints, where anyone with working Wi-Fi can be a sleuth, Graham was a phantom. Searches only turned up one Graham Nelson: me. But through mutual friends, I finally tracked down the Washington, D.C., law firm where Graham worked as a Japanese-fluent patent attorney. I also discovered that he had cleverly discarded a mystery first initial—a “B”—in favor of going by my—er, our—name. His secretary (Graham has a secretary, I realized, breaking into a sweat) seemed to swallow her own voice when I told her that I, Graham Nelson, was calling for him, Graham Nelson.

If Graham was surprised by my call after 32 years of co-existence, he betrayed nothing. Cool as a cucumber is Other Graham. The date was set. The showdown fixed. A pizza place in Arlington was our O.K. Corral.

Dr. Dick Chopp Strikes (Slashes?) Back
Against Nominative Determinism
Dr. Dick Chopp
Despite my sensing the hand of an amateur humorist, I am feeling—oh, what’s the word—bashful, when I reach the office by phone. Names, after all, can be sensitive things. Lord knows what sort of bullying a child endures when his name carries certain phallic connotations. So I ease into the phone call as gingerly as I can, reciting the science of the Name-Letter Effect in my best “I am a serious and dedicated journalist—a Walter Cronkite of silly-name science, if you will” voice, delaying the moment where I potentially offend or scare off my potential interviewee.

“Oh, great!” exclaims Chris Dufresne, the exceedingly friendly woman who runs marketing for the Urology Team. “Then you must be looking to interview Dr. Chopp.”
“What size t-shirt do you wear? I’m gonna get you one of our ‘I’ve been chopped’ shirts.”
The first thing I learn about the urologist Dr. Richard Chopp—known to many as Dick—is that he doesn’t shy away from his name. In fact, he and the marketing team at his practice basically employ it as a prominent selling point. Above his online profile reads the fateful quote, “There are more vasectomies to be done.”

Dr. Chopp, his bio reads, is well known throughout Austin for performing vasectomies.
This will prove to be an understatement.

“What size T-shirt do you wear?” Chris asks after we arrange my interview with the doctor. “I’m gonna get you one of our ‘I’ve Been Chopped’ shirts.”

A week later, I’m trying to keep my eyes low and my notebook out of sight as I loiter around in Dr. Chopp’s waiting room before my interview appointment. This is no place for the healthy, and healthily curious, journalist to wander, I reckon. Instead, I study the puzzling and exceedingly specialized literature that’s tacked up against the lobby’s bulletin board. Cartoon figures advertise something called “Vas Madness & The Vasters,” which sounds like a band, but not one that I particularly want to see. There are also pamphlets. Goodness gracious, are there pamphlets. Every headline of every pamphlet takes the form of an alarming and slightly accusatory question. Not feeling as “up” as you used to? one asks. Another: Pills not working? One pamphlet only bothers to shout Erectile Dysfunction? at its reader. Skimming them was a regrettable move; I feel a not inconsiderable amount of performance anxiety.

Shaken, I’m led upstairs by Chris, practically giddy, as she shows off Dr. Chopp & Co.’s impressively large operation. The urology business booms in Texas. When I’m ushered into Dr. Chopp’s office, Chris takes the moment to snap a few quick shots of us sitting together, for the website.

“Hold on,” Dr. Chopp says after our quick handshake, “I’ve got something for you to read.”

The doctor rummages through stacks of papers and books above his desk, eventually yanking out a pristine back issue of Playboy like it’s the sword from the proverbial stone. He presents it to me for inspection: The cover features a tuxedoed Leslie Nielsen, pumping a squirt gun with large water tanks and draped with half-naked Bunnies. Flipping through at the doctor’s urging, I find an article retelling the story of when the writer and his longtime friend underwent simultaneous vasectomies, both performed Dr. Chopp. I ask Dr. Chopp if tandem vasectomies are a common occurrence for urologists.

“Well,” he says, considering it. “For me it is. Because of my name, of course.” Dr. Chopp was surprised when a few weeks after the procedure he got a call from Playboy asking him if the magazine could use his name for the article his recent patient had written. “For the next several months I had these guys coming out of the woodwork telling me ‘Hey doc, read about you in Playboy.’”

Dr. Chopp’s voice pings with wry humor. It’s soft, decibel-wise, but deep, firm, authoritative. He tends to smirk, not smile. Not to compare Dicks or anything, but with his Northern Midwest accent and bare head he reminds me of a vastly cheerier version of former Vice President Dick Cheney. I imagine that, if he were your doctor, you’d long for the brief-but-reassuring moment when Dr. Chopp would visit your hospital room, glance at your chart, deliver a one-liner, pat a calf or some other protruding limb and continue on his merry way. Indeed, as I sit in front of him, it’s hard to picture Dr. Chopp as anything else but an extremely successful surgeon. His calling lives in the way he steeples his hands while he talks, the way he rocks back assuredly, even the way in which he draws an obtuse angle with his thighs, hitting at least 8.5 on a manspreading scale.

He’s clearly an excellent candidate to show that names create a destiny.

Unfortunately, convincing Dr. Chopp that his name may have led him straight to urology proves difficult. He doesn’t quite believe me. After I reveal what evidence I’ve found for nominative determinism, he “quite frankly” questions whether it has a “basis in science.” (This disappoints me greatly.)

Nor do his views change when I point out that other members of his practice—like the I’m-not-ribbing-you Dr. Hardeman, who focuses on impotency, and a retired Dr. Les Wang—provide firm support for the theory. Even Chris revealed that her childhood dentist was one “Barth Toothman.” Academic papers could be written on this place. It has to be the nexus of all nominative determinism.

Dr. Chopp just shrugs, unbent by the big fat coincidences of the universe.
“We deal with people’s genitalia 50 times a day. the whole issue of that gives us ... great banter.”

Admittedly, even studies about the supposedly scientific Name-Letter Effect have their detractors. Professor Uri Simonsohn of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania wrote a scholastic smackdown of the theory that is almost breathtaking in its scope and viciousness. (Simonsohn titled the rebuttal “Spurious? Name Similarity Effects (Implicit Egoism) In Marriage, Job And Moving Decisions”—mirroring the tone of certain urological office literature.)

Simonsohn’s argument boils down to this: the proponents of Name-Letter Effect erred in setting up their studies’ methodologies. They let hidden variables run amok. Finally, they generally mistook cause with effect. In one study, for instance, researchers concluded that implicit egotism led people to be more likely to marry someone with similar initials. Simonsohn countered that the ethnic makeup of the participants skewed the data—after all, certain initials appear in higher frequency than others in some populations. The professor even found direct evidence that many brides in the sampled group actually changed their names—or were related by marriage to the groom—before being wed. (Which may have annulled the earlier study, if not the union.)

Sadly, dentists named Dennis fare no better under Simonsohn’s scalpel. Remember them and their outnumbered colleagues named Walter? The question, Simonsohn says, is not only whether they occur with the same frequency in the population, but the relative ages of people with those names. “Walter” turns out to be a relatively outmoded name, and therefore there are fewer Walters working in dentistry or any other profession. Nevertheless, the Name-Letter Effect has undoubtedly won its share of hearts and minds: Simonsohn admitted in an email to me that several readers have pointed out that “spurious” contains his name, Uri.

Caught up in all the statistics fever, I boldly tried what few law-students-turned-writers have ever done: I conducted my own study. The American Urological Association helpfully allowed users to search by first name, so I went and searched for instances of Richard among urologists. There were 171 out of 12,193. I then pulled census data for every decade since 1950, and averaged the percentage of Richards in the general population. (Let me tell you: Dick Nixon did a number on that name’s popularity: see the graph.) Comparing the general frequency in America to that of urologists, I found that there were actually fewer Dicks in urology. This was a significant blow for nominative determinism.

Another blow was the story of Dr. Chopp’s career, which, according to him, unfurled in a way unconnected to his name. When faced with the choice between medical school and a tryout for the NHL’s Boston Bruins’ farm team, he chose the security of a medical career. He gravitated toward a urology specialty because, unlike other surgical specialties, its practitioners exhibited a looseness, a sense of humor. Even his acceptance into a fellowship at the prestigious Memorial Sloan-Kettering Clinic relied partially on luck. It was a secretary that took a liking to him.

I ask him why he thinks urologists stayed so “loose” compared to their peers. “I think part of it is that the population in general probably has some hangups about genitalia, OK? So, you cover yourself up. People don’t like to take their pants down at the doctor’s office, ta-dada-dada. We deal with people’s genitalia 50 times a day. The whole issue of that gives us ... great banter.”

Dr. Chopp, I realize, is the personification of reverse causality.
He didn’t become a urologist because his name was Dick Chopp. He leaned into the name Dick Chopp because it helped his patients go to the urologist.
But is there anything like destiny? “The best is that you’re presented with points that you can pivot on,” Dr. Chopp explains. “You just have to work hard in the new direction.”

He certainly has. I ask for his accomplishments, and he lays out his statistics: 12,000 vasectomies done. Twelve thousand men who can claim that they’ve been chopped.

done. Twelve
thousand men
who can claim
that they’ve
been chopped.

DeeDee Trotter, and Races
DeeDee Trotter
Olympic Gold Medalist

I’ll be interviewing DeeDee Trotter, two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 4x400-meter relay, but that’s still six hours of flying time away. Sleep doesn’t appear likely for two reasons: 1) I get heart-poundingly anxious before interviews, and 2) by virtue of my seat location in the middle of their bloc, I may have been common-law adopted by an extended family of Chinese tourists. I’m not even sure family does them justice. This is a full-on clan. A brigade, even. An inordinate number of them are men with cigarette-scorched voices and general cool aloofness. Men who only want to play cards across the aisle as we race the sun. Men who could only be uncles. No one radiates fatherly vibes here.

But boy howdy are they awake this morning. Even with my music at ear-shielding frequencies, Mandarin has the ability to photon-torpedo right on through. Hypothesis: volume may be the only way an individual voice gets heard in a country with 1.3 billion souls and counting. Moreover,
China not only possesses an abundance of people, but it also suffers from a deficit of names.

The Chinese family of languages has fewer syllabic tools than, for instance, English. The older among you may remember when monitors displayed limited numbers of colors; think of Mandarin, then, as the equivalent of a 16-bit language. There are about 400 syllables and four tones (level, rising, falling and high rising) that are now enfilading my eardrums—whereas English stretches to about 11,000 syllable combinations.
americans’ complete freedom to name our children something bizarre-and-possibly-detrimental-to-their-development is pretty durn nifty.
This may account for the relative dearth of names in Chinese. (I’m spitballing here, but a name like Darth Vader would probably not be a Chinese creation.) According to the New York Times, 100 Chinese surnames cover 85 percent of the Chinese population. Assuming for a moment an even distribution, among those members of the Chinese populace, each person would be one of more than 11 million sharing a surname. Of course, in real life things aren’t so evenly distributed. If your name is Wang, population data says you are one of 93 million. Should the Chinese Wangs of the World unite and form their own country, Wangland would have about the number people in Vietnam. In fact, it’d have more people than all but 13 other countries.

What, then, of his or her name denotes special-delicate-snowflake status on a Chinese person? The name’s written characters. As the language of one of the world’s oldest civilizations, modern Mandarin lugs around the linguistic equivalent of an attic’s worth of boxes. Each has some sentimental meaning, and Chinese parents dig through the dust to find a name with rich written, if not phonetic, symbolism.

Yet even that is subject to limits. The Chinese government database of names excludes about 22,000 of 55,000 possible characters, and those with odder names often face pressure to change them. Such was the case with Ms. Ma Cheng, whose given name’s character possessed a rare meaning of three horses. (In combination with her surname, which also means horse, she had four equine characters in her name. Ma Cheng is literally her own four horsemen.) When Ms. Ma attempted to renew her expiring identity card, officials rejected her and told her that her “problematic” name should be changed. Ms. Ma eventually got a new card through backdoor connections, but not without strings: the new card had to be renewed every three months.

One guesses that the Chinese translations of Dick Chopp and Tito Beveridge—not to mention Agape, Zeppelin and the other indulgences in human labeling that appear on the list of strangest names of 2014—would likewise run afoul of Chinese naming laws.

So, too, would the name De’Hashia Tonnek (aka “DeeDee”) Trotter. And as I’m bombarded by decibels from the Chinese family’s apparently full-contact game of poker, a feeling of patriotism wells up: Americans’ complete freedom to name our children something bizarre-and-possibly-detrimental-to-their-development is pretty durn nifty.

This has never happened to me before, but I’ve got to say that it feels very Los Angeles: I’ve been asked to wait while DeeDee Trotter, superstar Olympic runner, changes into something more “appropriate” for our interview. DeeDee lives in a newly built apartment building in downtown Los Angeles, “just down the road” (according to her) from her University of Southern California training facility where she volunteers on the track and field staff. I think the sheer mass of cars and asphalt jumbles the typical Angeleno’s perception of time and space, though, because the trek from apartment to track requires 30 minutes and a handful of (according to me) perilous interstate changes.

Her living room is gleamingly white, sort of how I imagine a boat showroom in Heaven looks. I sit on a nacreous leather couch facing a white entertainment center an inch or so removed from a white wall adorned with a cream canvas slashed by a single shiv of purple paint. DeeDee later refers to her interior-decorating scheme as “Miami Beach,” but the conspicuous absence of other pictures, tchotchkes, mess and, well, color gives me the feeling that DeeDee doesn’t actually live here. Maybe it’s fitting that a Trotter would choose to spend all her time at the track.
And that’s the question that wears on me long after my conversation with DeeDee: did she really even choose this at all? Do we fulfill our names’ meaning? Or do our names control us?
The ancient Greeks pictured the Fates as three sisters weaving and snipping at strands of peoples’ lives, even lording over the gods themselves. Crossing the centuries and the Atlantic, Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho said, “Destiny means there are opportunities to turn right or left, but fate is a one-way street.” I personally think of fate as one of those airport moving walkways, but no need to quibble with Coelho: destiny is the freedom to achieve in life, but fate is confinement to one track. Destinies are fulfilled. Fates are sealed.

destinies are fulfilled. fates are sealed.
And it’s not all just mythology. To cite just one famous study on “fate,” in the 1960s a psychologist at Stanford named Walter Mischel set up what he called “The Marshmallow Test.” He found that the longer a young child could hold out when offered a marshmallow, the more successful they would prove to be later on in life—happier, healthier and wealthier, and less likely to go to jail or become addicted to drugs. (Yes, all this was determined by a marshmallow.)

The thing about DeeDee’s course is this: it is frankly astounding that she ever became a professional runner, much less an Olympic-level one that won gold and bronze in two separate Olympiads. Of course, she’s freakishly fast. When she jokingly/not-jokingly says she smoked pretty much everyone else through college, I believe her. When she says she made her cousin Shon cry with her speed, I believe her. (“Oh, he’ll get over it,” she says of this public salt-in-wound.) When she completely seriously says that she’s always top three in the world, I believe her. But it’s just that she dislikes, well, heat. I cannot say I’m much of a runner, but I’m certain that heat tends to be generated when a person runs. She doesn’t really care for the sun, either, which apparently gives her heat rash, and causes her to wear long-sleeve clothing and to stand under umbrellas and to seek out whatever specks of shade form on racetracks. When her brother bought her an action figure of track great Jackie Joyner-Kersee, she recalls (jokingly) thanking him and wondering who it was.
“[I had] not one inkling in my entire body I would be a track runner. I didn’t even have a smidgen of a dream.”
“I was not a track baby,” she says after she has finally emerged, dressed in a black tracksuit indistinguishable from the one she changed out of, “and this is the truth, Graham, [I had] not one inkling in my entire body I would be a track runner. I didn’t even have a smidgen of a dream.”

When DeeDee starts getting into the conversation, there’s a bit of sports-poet to her. A bit of Muhammad Ali. She gesticulates and dances and is, in general, delightful. If I had a late-night talk show, I would book her on a regular basis. It helps that DeeDee is a tall, slim, attractive woman with cutting cheekbones and elegant fingers and a genuine laugh. She even manages to make her track suit look West Coast stylish instead of East Coast slubbish. The only thing that betrays her running prowess is the way she pushes the soles of her feet against the base of the sofa—as if she were constantly yearning for starter’s blocks.

She certainly didn’t start out yearning for the track. Her earliest infatuation with the world of sports wasn’t with running, but with basketball. It’s a topic she returns to throughout our conversation. Exhibit A: her first love and her first broken heart, she quips, was for Wilson, i.e., the popular brand of basketball. Exhibit B: when speaking of her legacy, she name-drops Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, then, almost as an afterthought, she adds track greats Joyner-Kersee and Gail Devers. “All I loved was Pat Summitt and Lady Vol basketball,” she confesses. “My brain was like one frequency: basketball. That’s all I loved. That is what I thought my destiny was.”

“My brain was like one frequency: basketball. That’s all I loved. That is what I thought my destiny was.”
But running—the perpetual side gig, the off-season activity—kept disrupting. In senior year of high school, a coach signed DeeDee up for a track meet at the Georgia Dome. Despite DeeDee’s protests that she had just finished basketball season, the coach wouldn’t relent. DeeDee ran, won and broke the state high school indoor record for the 200-meter. As luck (or fate) would have it, the University of Tennessee track coach was present and convinced DeeDee to join the team on scholarship—on the condition that they, the coaches, would try to get DeeDee onto the Lady Vols basketball team.

She almost fulfilled her chosen destiny. Summitt, the Lady Vols coach, entertained an audience with DeeDee, and even, according to DeeDee, announced open tryouts for the first time in 13 years at which DeeDee was sure to triumph. But, just as the dream seemed poised to come to fruition, fate reasserted itself. The running coach at the University of Tennessee resigned. Her new coaches would not allow her to do both sports at once. Ultimatums were delivered. Her scholarship, suddenly in jeopardy, tied her to the track full-time.

Not that it worked out badly, of course. It eventually pushed DeeDee onto the Olympic medal stand in Athens and London: twice as a 4x400-meter relay winner, and as a bronze medalist in the 400-meter in London. The coach who diverted her to track stayed with DeeDee, and the two exchange roughly one bajillion cheerful phone calls during the five hours I spend in Los Angeles.

I ask her how much she thinks her name had to do with her course through life, and there’s no hesitation: “I’m a trotter,” she says. “The horse is probably the animal that best describes me ... I’m stubborn as a horse. I’m strong. I’m independent. I like to run free to some degree.” The 400-meter, the event she proudly says she “owns,” is reminiscent of a horse race. It’s not a flash sprint where brute muscle alone pulls a runner through, but a strategic endeavor taking superb timing and an awareness of an opponent’s limitation. DeeDee Trotter is a “championship” runner, who instinctively knows what races deserve to be raced at full speed.

But, as evidenced by the frequency with which she talks about basketball, a ruptured dream never fully heals. Running is a sport at which DeeDee excels—one which she calls, “her gift”—but one which, I think, she might not pursue if she had her druthers. “It took me a long time to find myself as a runner,” she says. “It should have been destined by the last name, I know.” However successful, it was the vocational version of an arranged marriage.

names are both particle and wave; closed-circuit television and satellite broadcast.
Which brings us to another aspect of name science. Our names matter not only because they provide, for better or worse, a lens through which we squint at the world, but also because they provide a filter through which other people view us. Names are both particle and wave; closed-circuit television and satellite broadcast. Perhaps DeeDee’s basketball dreams would have been received better if she were DeeDee Globetrotter.

While nominative determinism and implicit egotism are, at best, contentious science, it seems settled that names send subconscious signals that are read and interpreted by others. To put it another way: we give off name-waves. The name Richard tells us different things than the name Tito, for instance, even if we consciously work to combat the effect, and a Beveridge may receive a slightly warmer welcome in the alcohol industry than the ministry. I would not be surprised if everyone else around DeeDee Trotter paid more attention to her name than she did.

But surely, one must think, the consequences of a name must be limited. Character and ability communicate much more, don’t they? Free will is real, right?
The truth is that it might not matter as much as it should, and there are times when the wrong name can weave and cut threads as surely as the Fates.

A 2005 study by University of Florida professor David Figlio examined how factors other than ability—to wit, names—might affect a teacher’s assessment of a student. Using data from a single Florida school district, Figlio created a database of names typically associated with being “black,” and those typically associated with lower socioeconomic status. The latter were frequently, but not always, given to African-American children. What he found was remarkable and frightening: a boy named Dwayne was predicted to outperform a (empirically “blacker”) Damarcus by 1.1 percentage points in standardized testing. Damarcus, in turn, would outperform Da’Quan—a name associated with lower socioeconomic status—by .75 percentage points.

Figlio was even able to determine that school performance differed within the same family, and even for twins—the sibling whose name connoted lower socioeconomic standing performed demonstrably worse. In other words, he was able to isolate the effect of names. His conclusion: names sent signals about socioeconomic status. Based on a child’s name, their teachers formed assumptions about a parent’s involvement (or lack thereof) in a child’s education at home. The teachers then treated that child differently.

This sad trend echoes a 2004 study, which found that a “white-sounding” name conferred the equivalent of eight years or more work experience than its otherwise identical resume of a candidate with a “black-sounding” name. A Swedish study found that immigrant names similarly impeded a person’s income, everything else being equal.

What can this be but Coelho’s version of fate?
By the time your name puts you on a one-way street, it’s already too late to get off.

As a bad athlete, I’m always fascinated by what great athletes think about when they’re competing. (My own thoughts are along the lines of: oh no, oh please, don’t, stop, why are they coming this way.) DeeDee reenacts the final pass of her medal-winning heat in London for me. Her arms pump. She describes how the cacophony of the crowd dwindled to a singularity; how it was replaced only by a voice, Doppler-shifted as if from a great tunnel. It was a voice of insecurity, which she banished by telling herself repeatedly: “You’re fine. Trust yourself.”

DeeDee’s fate may not have been what she would have chosen, but she has banished the whispered doubts. We end up zooming around Los Angeles in her extremely capable black convertible, she chatty and me white-knuckled. She is only 32, but, in the fast lane of professional athletics, she’s already aware that her time is ending. “It’s like living two lives,” she tells me over burgers and spinach dip (her “indulgence” for the week). “Track is a journey that will eventually come to an end, and once it’s done I’ll get to start something new, literally start a new life.”

Maybe there is no escaping fate. Maybe all you can do is reinterpret what you have. DeeDee has finally found what running is.

We spend a lot of time talking about her next project, a nonprofit called Running 4 The People. She flashes from giddy to tear-struck as we talk about it. The organization plans on using runners to send messages of hope and encouragement to the sick, the disabled and the downtrodden by dedicating a run to someone. Long after I leave Los Angeles, DeeDee will email me the etymology of the name Trotter as if to say, “See? Tell me this isn’t destiny.” In olden times, Trotters were messengers.

I don’t know if it’s fate or it’s destiny. But for DeeDee Trotter, never one to stand still, things keep moving.

Maybe there
is no escaping
fate. Maybe
all you can do
is reinterpret
what you have.

It became clear, as I lumbered up on hour eight of my “express” train trip from New York to Washington, D.C., that someone at the universe’s helm was trying to prevent this Graham/Graham meeting from happening. Was it the Fates themselves? It was the only thing that explained the last minute, East Coast–paralyzing blizzard.

To make matters worse, I had forgotten Graham’s number and had no way of pushing back our interview time. In desperation, I called my parents, who know his parents, and got his parents’ number. Graham’s Dad picked up the phone. “Of course I know who you are, Graham,” he said. “We’ll give Graham your message.”

Storm Field and The Art of Naming Your Child
Storm Field
Retired Weatherman

Graham’s Mom: I shall name this infant the monosyllabic “Graham,” and he shall be forever without nickname, for I dislike them intensely! First Person She Encountered: Graham, eh? He’s gonna get called Graham Cracker a lot in life.

So I was hoping for something a little more dramatic when I asked Storm Field—trusted New York weatherman and son of New York weatherman Dr. Frank Field—to share his naming story. Something, I hoped, involving thunder and prophecy.

“No,” says Storm, “it wasn’t anything like that. Most people think it came from my dad, but it was my mom’s doctor. She was in for her checkup and I was in her stomach, bouncing around. So the doctor said I was a ‘stormy kid.’” The follow-up appointment was booked under “Stormy,” and the name stuck.

Storm looks at me apologetically. It must be obvious that my bubble just burst all over this restaurant. We are seated at a table in the Red Hat, in the quaint Hudson Valley village where Storm Field retired. Outside the restaurant’s large, river-facing windows, blocks of ice commute in tidy little lanes down the Hudson. Although he still looks young, Storm has adopted the uniform of the retired man: dark cardigan over button-down. A few escapees of chest hair test their freedom. Like most good weathermen, he’s incredibly friendly, open and likable. I suspect he’s got Canadian blood.

“Most people think it came from my dad, but...the doctor said I was a ‘stormy kid.” The follow-up appointment was booked under “Stormy,” and the name stuck.”
Having established that names do matter in some way or another, I’m here to investigate one last incredibly important thing: what’s the best way to name your child without, you know, screwing the kid up for life? And who better to ask than Storm? After all, he is the only of our candidates for nominative determinism whose given name alone evokes his fate.

My search has uncovered a dizzying number of books and websites dedicated to helping parents name their babies. Amazon identified more than 3,000 of them for me: books with names for Anglophiles and Indians, Irishmen and Jews; books that claim to be the “ultimate,” the “comprehensive,” and the “bible”; and books that purport to contain names that really “rock”—so I’m thinking Axl and Slash are well represented. My absolute favorite is a book that promises 33,000-plus baby names for fans of the Montreal Canadiens hockey team. The same author has books promising an equal number of names for Los Angeles Dodgers fans, and, curiously, atheists.

What’s interesting is that Storm’s in utero naming—and modern comfort with that practice—seems to be a cultural and historical anomaly. Elizabethan English tradition, for instance, dictated that parents name their child at baptism, and usually after a godparent. The Miwok Native American tribe bestowed names based on the condition of a stream or river at the time of a baby’s birth. The Salish tribe, meanwhile, allowed a baby to shed his or her name throughout life as a snake sheds its skin: Tribal leaders replaced a child’s birth name with an adolescent name based on personality and achievement. That is nominative determinism, reversed.
The view that boys “carry” their family’s lineage is reflected in our names.
Though American society is slightly strange regarding timing, it is firmly rooted in tradition when it comes to the gender makeup of names. The view that boys “carry” their family’s lineage is reflected in our names. In a 1992 study on naming preferences, Harvard University and Cornell University researchers found that boys’ names, over time, held remarkably steady relative to girls. Using New York state birth certificates, they found that the 20 most common boys names were given to 45 percent of Caucasian boys. The 20 most common girls’ names, however, were given to only 31 percent of Caucasian girls. Six of the top 20 names for girls used the diminutive—for instance, Carrie for Caroline—and three had no historical roots whatsoever. The researchers concluded, “The results are very clear: there is less stability and more turnover” for girls’ names. Even as boys’ names appear to be less centralized in recent censuses, this result still holds true.

Speaking with Storm, I try to reconcile his distinctive name with the tendency toward tradition in male naming schemes. His life, in particular, seemed unlikely to veer toward his name. “Point of fact,” he confides to me, “I never wanted to go into weather. I’d asked my dad what the weather was going to be like, and he’d take me outside and make me look at cumulus clouds. I just wanted to know if I needed gloves.” Amazingly, he actually studied history and English at McGill University, only minoring in meteorology (I knew there was something Canadian about him!), and later went on to practice optometry at the SUNY College of Optometry in Manhattan. That is, until Storm’s dad called with a job for him consulting for TV News Inc. It didn’t take long for it to turn into an on-camera job as a science reporter for the syndicated news station.

Like most good weathermen, he’s incredibly friendly, open and likable. I suspect he’s got Canadian blood.
“I was a babe in babe’s clothing,” he says. “I had a really high voice. It’s a little embarrassing, but the sound guys would turn the treble down on all my tapes at first.”

That network shut down, and, through a lot of luck and one (yet another) influential secretary who took a liking to him, Storm ended up at New York’s ABC7 Eyewitness News reporting on health and science. Despite his father’s wishes, the weather desk had no place for Storm. It was full of big, forgotten names like Tex Antoine. The stories that Storm tells of the 1970s newsrooms and their internecine political jockeying and contract disputes make “Anchorman” seem like a vintage documentary. But throughout all his stories lurks his father, a pressure system that always seemed to push Storm away from optometry and science reporting. Always toward the weather.

His big break came about eight months later when a hideous Tex Antoine on-air gaffe created a space in the lineup. An ABC news director practically shoved Storm on the air one weekend, both due to his lineage and his name, to fill Antoine’s suddenly vacant post. It was the same weekend Hurricane Bell hit New York. Two days turned into decades of weather reporting. When I first talked to Storm, he doubted that his name made any difference. But as we wrap up our meal, he isn’t sure. “I might have achieved more success than I ever expected or hoped for, but my father was considered by most people, including myself, to be The Source when it came to weather.” He says, “[he] was always The King as far as I was concerned ... I was fine with being the Crown Prince.”

Kings and princes: This was the odd case where an unusual name preserved a lineage after all.
The doctor may have first coined the name “Storm,” but I think his Dad made sure his son lived up to it.

There is no right answer about how to name a child. There are patterns of popularity, of course. (The name Miley, data suggests, may be radioactive for many years to come.) Lawyers seem to have more diverse and unusual names. Republican women are more likely to be named Linda. Democratic men, Willie. Names that begin with “F” are poised to make a comeback after three generations lying fallow. But I cannot help you much beyond saying: put some thought into it because names matter.

Storm and I get up and walk out into the anemic winter sun. Like most local weathermen, Storm is sort of a deity in his town. With all the handshakes, it takes us a while to leave. (I encourage you to take a weatherman to lunch; I got free soup by virtue of sitting with him.) He tells me how he was on the train once from New York. He heard someone yell out, “Storm!” It turned out to be a mom talking to her young son. Storm Field told them that he, too, was named Storm. She replied, without recognizing him, that she had named him after her favorite weatherman. He wonders what will become of little Storm.
Yes, there may be no right name. On the other hand, you could do a lot worse than Storm.
But throughout
all his stories
lurks his father,
a pressure
system that
always seemed
to push Storm
away from
optometry and
science reporting.
Always toward
the weather.

The Graham Finale

I half-waited for sinkholes. The sucking sound that surely precedes reality’s implosion. But there was nothing. If the universe did wobble momentarily at this curious occasion—if it notices the beings within it achieving destinies or succumbing to fate—it righted itself pretty quick.

I sized Graham up. True to form, Graham was almost exactly my height and my weight. No athlete, but in passably good shape. Like me, he switched between slouch and lean with little in the middle. Like him, my stubble and my hair demanded cutting, although, important point, his was red. His hands reminded me of mine. The words “your” and “my,” I can tell you, grew very confusing.

We confirmed our many similarities—people we had known, places we had been and interests we had shared. I prodded him about his life and his career. Then, shockingly, he started asking me questions. Did I know of the Clan Graham of Scotland, whose Gaelic motto is “Don’t Forget”? What did I think our name meant in the development of our personalities?
Then I discovered the final similarity: Graham was just as interested in names as I was.
“Do [I] believe in destiny? Yeah… as long as it’s the kind I can tweak a little.”
We talked for an hour, and I found myself liking him so much that we agreed to get together again. After finally reasserting that I was the reporter Graham, I asked him the question behind all of this: do you believe in destiny?

He rubbed at his stubble and searched the ceiling for an answer. “Yeah,” he said, “As long as it’s the kind I can tweak a little.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself, Graham.