March 29, 2009

"Tim" v. "Tom"

David Warsh writes about the power struggle between Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and NEC supremo Larry Summers, which reminds me of one of the deepest-rooted and most irrational prejudices I'm afflicted with:

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, 47, was under fire again, some of it clearly fratricidal. Meanwhile, a talented and complaisant reporter, Noam Scheiber of The New Republic, rolled out a 6,000-word cover story assembled with the full cooperation of National Economic Council chair Lawrence Summers, 53: ''Springtime for Summers? Why the White House Needs to Unleash Him.''

Unleash him? Presumably he had in mind sending Summers back to the Treasury Department, which he had 18 months at the end of the Clinton administration. ...

Then Geithner himself ran into confirmation problems - those $40,000 in underpaid taxes in the years when he was moving from Washington to New York - and barely squeaked through on a 60-34 vote.

His first tentative plans to restore banking stability underwhelmed markets; his role in the initial AIG bailout (when he was president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York) came under fire; Democrats criticized his communication skills; and last week he was caught in a wicked crossfire over those bonuses....

No doubt that Summers possesses the skills to be a highly effective finance chief, beginning with the fact that he grew up as an economists in an intensely competitive arena, the quasi-official non-governmental policy institute that is the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Since moving to Cambridge, Mass., from Manhattan, in 1973 - and especially since Harvard professor Martin Feldstein (Summers's thesis adviser) became president, in 1978 - the NBER has become policy economists' West Point, a highly selective academy in which future leaders of the profession from all over the world meet, match wits, and learn to assess each others' strengths and weaknesses.

Indeed, much of the aura of unquestioned deference that Summers enjoys among his policy-circle peers derives from having successfully persuaded others of his credentials as an alpha male in innumerable late-night bull sessions in the early 1980s in the NBER offices, located midway between Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has been remarkably good at forging alliances as well. Since entering the political world full-time, in 1990, as chief economist for the World Bank, he has honed a second array of skills, including a deliberate manner of speech that conveys gravitas, disarming humor, a comfortable girth, and a baleful glare.

Geithner, on the other hand, has no such base among an academic discipline. Nor do his boyish face, runner's frame, or matter-of-fact delivery convey authority through a microphone (he has plenty of power in a conference room).

That reminds me that I realized when I was about 12 that I assumed that guys named "Tim" were skinny while guys named "Tom" were muscular. It's partly that "Timothy" requires more delicate pronunciation work than "Thomas," but I think it's mostly the different shape of the vowels in "Tim" and "Tom:" slender vs. sturdy. Granted, this is about as stupid a prejudice as you can imagine, but I suspect I'm not alone in feeling this way.

And I further imagine that a bit of Tim Geithner's image problem is that he came along and partly validated this pre-existing stereotype of what a "Tim" should be like, and then he got a lot of the rest of the stereotype dumped on him.

P.S. A reader points out that psychologists talk about the "Bouba/Kiki Effect:" they draw a jagged shape and a rounded shaped and ask people which one is most likely to be a "Bouba" and which one a "Kiki"? To find out what most people around the world think, see here. The implication is that how a word sounds is not wholly arbitrary. So, maybe Tim Geithner really does seem like what people expect a Tim to be like.

P.P.S. Also, the two Tiny Tims (Charles Dickens's and Johnny Carson's) don't help.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Dennis Mangan said...

Bizarre. No, you are not alone.

David said...

Nobody ever heard of a Timcat.

agnostic said...

There's a loose association across languages in where the vowels are produced and what magnitude of stuff they suggest -- size, force, etc.

The vowel in "Tim" is pronounced high and front in the mouth, while the one in "Tom" is pronounced low and in back of the mouth. Highness and frontness connote small things (in size, force, etc.).

E.g. -- chip vs. chop.

anony-mouse said...

Isn't 'Tim' the root of 'timid'?

Anonymous said...

Differences become even more pronounced if you take the diminutives one step further to the "y" endings. "Tommy" is suitable for adult, non-wimpy men, e.g. Messrs. Dorsey, Hilfiger, Lee, Lee Jones and Thompson, as well as the fictional Mr. Atkins. And that's not to mention the gun.

It's a lot harder to think of an adult man going by "Timmy." About the only celebrity, so to speak, using that moniker is the retarded boy from South Park. Not much of a role model.


Anonymous said...

I believe this wiki has relevance to Steve's observation. I agree about Tim/Tom too.

Anonymous said...

Tim Duncan is soft-spoken for an NBA power forward, but I might think differently if he was Rasheed Duncan.

testing99 said...

Timothy Dalton?

Tim Teebo?

Tim Duncan?

I mean, come on.

onetwothree said...

That's why I named my sons Bruce, Lance, and Julian.

Anonymous said...

Maybe Mr. Geithner had a low-testosterone father who felt comfortable with (or even attracted to) the name Tim precisely because of its un-masculine connotations. And apples tending not to fall too far from their trees, this hypothetical dearth of testosterone could have been inherited by his son.

I just looked up Tim Geithner on the Wikipedia, and the above-mentioned hereditary dearth of testosterone instantly became less hypothetical to me.

"His father, Peter F. Geithner, is the director of the Asia program at the Ford Foundation in New York. During the early 1980s, Peter Geithner oversaw the Ford Foundation's microfinance programs in Indonesia being developed by S. Ann Dunham-Soetoro, President Barack Obama's mother, and they met in person at least once.

Ford foundation! Microfinance! Indonesia! Stanley Ann! I'm picturing birkenstocks, vegetarianism, the whole thing. I'm picturing Van Driessen from Beais and Butthead. Steve, there is a good possibility that your prejudice wasn't irrational at all. Another commenter here imagined Tim Duncan as Rasheed Duncan. If a black parent names her child Rasheed, she's sending a message out to the world. Perhaps so did Tim Duncan's dad, only less wittingly.

Truth said...

Yeah, but Tim gets
laid more

(hit the link Testing 99 and Svigor, it will help you score.)

Anonymous said...

That's why I gave my sons solid masculine sounding hard names: Brutus, Trock, Mortgage and Clitoris.

Take THAT Uncle Tim!

Anonymous said...

Some relation ?

Anonymous said...

Synaesthesia is a field of study that might be fun. Random glitch or fundamental universal process?

Anonymous said...

I agree with you. I definitely have that association with the name Tim, and I think a lot of people do. I think people do generally associate names and the sounds of names with types of people, traits, etc.

Whenever I read or hear about Increase Mather, I always think about and picture a Puritan guy with a huge dick, even though there's no record of that anywhere.

toronto real estate said...

Are you suggesting that the Big Plan is perceived as bad because of Geithner's first name or did I miss something in your article?

It'd be interesting to compare first names and last names of candidates for the US president in the past and see whether this theory reflects the reality in brother terms..

Take care,

Pete said...


(c'mon, no south park fans?)

Dennis Mangan said...

There's a phenomenon in which people with various names become overrepresented in areas that sound like their names. I wrote about it here.

"The authors found, for example, that women named Mildred were statistically more likely to live in Milwaukee than one would expect, likewise for women named Virginia living in Virginia Beach, men named Jack in Jacksonville, and Philip in Philadelphia. People whose surnames began "Cali" were much more likely to reside in California, with similar results for other names and other states.

Men and women whose first names begin with "Den", such as Dennis and Denise, are much more likely to be dentists than the general frequency of those names would indicate.

The authors found that men named George were much more likely to be geoscientists than one would expect."

My favorite aptronyms are Ruth Sanger and Robert Race, who wote "Blood Groups in Man".

So maybe Tims grow up to be abnormally timid (yes, same root) because they sense that they're supposed to.

Robert said...

Tim was also a joke in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The guy guarding the gorge that they had to cross was Tim the Enchanter, with the joke being that "Tim" was such a weird name for such a fearsome character.

ARTHUR: Knights! Forward!
[boom boom boom boom BOOM boom boom boom boom]
What manner of man are you that can summon up fire without flint
or tinder?
TIM: I... am an enchanter.
ARTHUR: By what name are you known?
TIM: There are some who call me... Tim?

ben tillman said...

It's the similarity between Tim/Timothy and timid.

Also, the most famous "Tim" in our culture is a very frail child nicknamed "Tiny Tim".

Anyway, your observation explains why it's funny when Monty Python's enchanter, after shooting fireballs across the terrain, says, "There are some who call me ... Tim".

jimbo said...

Hmmm - I agree on "Tim", but what's interesting is that my name (well, my nickname that I go by - my real name is James) is "Jim". It's Almost the same, has the same vowel sound, etc., but seems much more masculine. As Jim Croce said, You don't mess around with Jim!

Svigor said...

Funny, I thought I read somewhere (with the lead coming from here, if memory serves) that o sounds are girly and i sounds are more masculine.

Stopped Clock said...

I would say that the fictional characters Tiny Tim and Tom Thumb have helped associate both of the names with smallness in my mind, along with my experiences having met some rather small and thin people by those names. Even so, synesthesia definitely plays a role.

dearieme said...

I think that your theory of Tims might divide the population in Ulster, which, to be fair, is easily done.

tremendous T said...

Since I have the reverse associations, having known a bulky "Tim" who was a high school wrestler and a rather slight "Tom(my)" who was a talented artist, I can only think that the current association between name and image was intentionally built by some Republican attack machine.

How convenient that a sickly character from literature was named tiny Tim. Along comes the sallow, diminutive Tim Geithner whose manners likely suit the Asians he's lived among and the synergy draws other negative associations like a magnet. Geithner is small, soft spoken, cooperative rather than commanding. He probably also qualifies as a high IQ nerd type but the public is both enabled to punish Geithner for being a geek while simultaneously discrediting his accomplishments.

I say it was a brilliant counter attack on Obama's Brain Trust but I can't help feeling a little dirty every time I suppress a giggle when getting a glimpse of tiny Timmy Geithner in all those photos that must be deliberately bad.

Wasn't there also a tiny Tim who played the ukulele and sang "Tiptoe through the Tulips"?

Unknown said...

For more on sounds & meaning, check out Roy Blount Jr's book, Alphabet Juice, a genuinely hilarious and enlightening read for anyone interested in language. For a serious look at naming practices, including fads and cycles, see Steven Pinker's, The Stuff of Thought, who has a whole section on "Steve-ness."

Anonymous said...

Nah, I think it's because Tim is the 1st syllable in Timid. Also Timmy was always falling in a well and getting pulled out by that damned dog. Maybe to inspire confidence, TG should start bringing a Collie to his press conferences.

Unknown said...


I had the same thought about the name Jim. Tim does sound very little-boyish to me. But Jim sounds adult and masculine. Is it because of the percussive "J" sound in Jim?

Dutch Boy said...

The name Tim calls to my mind an image of a little boy and a collie. No sir, no Tims allowed in my household!