Monday, June 25, 2007

Names and professions

Bobby Cutts Jr. was charged with the murders of Jessie Marie Davis and her unborn daughter. We haven’t heard how Miss Davis was murdered. But given the suspect’s last name, I have to confess that my first question was: Was she stabbed?

It got me to thinking – in part to get my mind off this depressing story – about how so many people’s family names relate to their professions. While in Iceland, Tibet, Burma, and Java family names are often not used, throughout over 5,000 years of history most family names have derived from a profession, living area, or personal appearance. Some names have obvious meanings, such as Baker, Barber, and Butler. Other examples? Smith means to strike – it actually comes from the word smite used in the Bible – and is the occupational name for one working with metal; Cleveland refers to a section of Yorkshire, England that has cliff lanes; and Petit means small.

With modern travel, the Internet, and more cultural sharing and awareness, family names give us an increasingly important identity.

Which may or may not explain how so many matches exist today between a person’s name and profession. Some need no introduction, such as Tiger Woods. Larry Speakes was a White House spokesman under President Ronald Reagan, Storm Field a TV weatherman, Lord Brain a British neurologist, Tommy Tune an entertainer, and William Wordsworth a poet. Doctors are the most fun: Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Butcher – can you imagine?, plastic surgeon Dr. Gary Alter – I hope so!, anesthesiologist Dr. Payne – I wonder if he gives discounts, and pediatrician Dr. Needle – how does he get any patients? Baseball players are the easiest: Cecil and Prince Fielder, Bob Walk (there are actually a total of nine Walkers), and Craig Dingman.

Is this an accident? I did the math, as best I could given the lack of research in this area, and found that there’s a 1 in 5,000 chance that someone’s family name relates to their profession. Which means that in the USA alone there are 45,000 people whose last names match what they do for a living.

My personal favorite is Brian Cashman the General Manager of the team with the highest payroll in baseball, over $200 million, the New York Yankees, who despite spending sixty million dollars more than their nearest rival the Boston Red Sox, have been below .500 for most of the season. Which establishes that not only can money not buy love or happiness, neither can it buy a winning baseball team.

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