By Carlin Flora, published on March 1, 2004 - last reviewed on November 20, 2015
Proper names are poetry in the raw, said the bard W.H. Auden. "Like all poetry, they are untranslatable." Mapping your name onto yourself is a tricky procedure indeed. We exist wholly independently of our names, yet they alone represent us on our birth certificates and gravestones.
Would a Rose by any other name be just as sweet-tempered? Does Orion feel cosmically special? Psychologists, parents and the world's Oceans, Zanes and Timothys are divided on the extent to which first names actually matter.
You named him what? Today's parents seem to believe they can alter their child's destiny by picking the perfect—preferably idiosyncratic—name. (Destiny, incidentally, was the ninth most popular name for girls in New York City last year.) The current crop of preschoolers includes a few Uniques, with uncommonly named playmates like Kyston, Payton and Sawyer. From Dakota to Heaven, Integrity to Serenity, more babies are being named after places and states of mind. Names with alternative spellings are on the upswing, like Jaxon, Kassidy, Mikayla, Jazmine and Nevaeh (Heaven spelled backward), as are mix-and-match names such as Ashlynn and Rylan. "For the first time in history, the top 50 names account for less than 50 percent of boys born each year, and for less than 40 percent of girls," says Cleveland Kent Evans, professor of psychology at Bellevue University in Nebraska and author of Unusual & Most Popular Baby Names. Evans believes that our homogeneous strip-mall culture fosters the desire to nominally distinguish our children. He cites a boom in unique names dating to the late 1980s but says the taste for obscure monikers developed in the 1960s, when parents felt less obligated to keep certain names in the family.
"It's really hard to name a kid," says Jill Bass who is expecting her second child this winter. "It reflects what kind of person you are." She and her husband, Carl Vogel are struggling to find a name that is unique but not too trendy. "We don't want to go the Jake, Zak and Tyler route," says Bass. "It will sound like one of those year-2000 names. We don't want to sound as though we were trying so hard."
Distinguishing a child in just the right way is the first task parents feel charged with. Accordingly, parents-to-be increasingly track the popularity of names on the Social Security Administration's Web site and canvas the cottage industry of baby-name books. About 50 such books were published between 1990 and 1996. Since 1997, more than 100 new books have been published.
New parents rattle off diminutives and acronyms as if reciting scales. "I wanted a truly awesome, convertible name that could collapse into a normal name. Something like Charles Henry Underhill Grisham Sernovitz, because CHUGS would be a great college nickname," says Andy Sernovitz, father of Charles Darwin Grisham Sernovitz. Darwin was a nod to mom Julie Grisham's science-writing vocation.
Today, children are christened in honor of sports teams, political parties, vacation spots and food cravings. Adam Orr, a die-hard Cubs fan, wanted to name his first child Clark Addison or Addison Clark, the names of the streets that form the intersection at Chicago's Wrigley Field. Alas, he and his wife, Annisa, are expecting a daughter this spring. Records of kids named Espn tell of parents with a more general love of sports. Christie Brinkley reportedly named her youngest child Sailor as a tribute to a favorite pastime. Jamie Oliver, the British culinary star, christened his child Poppy Honey, not nearly so unfortunate a name as that of a poor soul dubbed Gouda.
Increasingly, children are also named for prized possessions. In 2000, birth certificates revealed that there were 298 Armanis, 269 Chanels, 49 Canons, 6 Timberlands, 5 Jaguars and 353 girls named Lexus in the U.S. The trend is not surprising: In an era in which children are viewed as accessories, such names telegraph our desire for creative, social or material success. It would be ironic if young Jaguar or Lexus grew up to drive a Honda Accord.
While a name may be a palimpsest for parental aspirations (hence the concerns of savvy parents that they not appear to be striving too hard), a name also reflects high hopes for the child himself. Choosing an uncommon name is perceived as an opportunity to give your child a leg up in life, signaling to the world that he or she is different. In Snobbery, cultural critic Joseph Epstein argues that a child named Luc or Catesby seems poised for greater achievements than selling car insurance.
The announcements are in the mail; a religious ceremony may seal the decision. The name is chosen, and it is a word that will become so familiar that the child's brain will pull it out of white noise. It is the first word she will learn to write. But what are the consequences of a particular name for self-image?
They're not earth-shattering, according to a study by psychologist Martin Ford, an assistant dean at George Mason University in Virginia. Ford found no correlation between the popularity or social desirability of a given name and academic or social achievement. "This doesn't mean that a name would never have any effect on a child's development," he explains. "But it does suggest that the probability of a positive effect is as large as that of a negative effect. It also suggests that a name is unlikely to be a significant factor in most children's development."
Children and teens either struggle to stand apart or try desperately to fit in. A singular name eases the former pursuit but thwarts the latter. If parents give a child an offbeat name, speculates Lewis Lipsitt, professor emeritus of psychology at Brown University, "they are probably outliers willing to buck convention, and that [parental trait] will have a greater effect on their child than does the name."
A name may occasionally trigger expectations that are difficult to meet because a child lacks the appropriate talent or temperament. "If your parents are great musicians, and they name you Yehudi, there could be a sense that you cannot live up to your name," Lipsitt says. Likewise, a naturally shy child may cringe when he is introduced as Attila.
No one can predict whether a name will be consistent with a child's or a teen's view of herself. The name could be ethnic, unique or white-bread, but if it doesn't reinforce her sense of self, she will probably be unhappy with it and may even feel alienated from parents or peers because of it. An Annika with iconoclastic taste will be happy with her name, but a Tallullah who longs for a seat at the cheerleader's table may feel that her name is too weird.
A child's attitude toward his name is a gauge of self-esteem, says psychologist Ron Taffel, author of Nurturing Good Children Now. "If self-esteem is low, even a David or Jenny could hate their name—as a reflection of how they feel about themselves."
By the time most people reach adulthood, they have made peace with their name or changed it. And, as parents of Dax and Skyy will be gratified to learn, young adults today report that they feel buoyed by an unorthodox appellation.
"It's interesting knowing that very few people have your name," says Cabot Norton. "It's a point of pride to say, 'I've never met another Cabot.'"
Says Maren Connary, "I had a rebellious nature that I felt was justified by my name. If I'd been named Mary, I think I'd be more conformist."
"I hated my name when I was a kid," Wven (pronounced you-vin) Villegas, says. "I stood out for all the wrong reasons. But I decided that if my name wasn't the same as everyone else's, then I wouldn't be the same, either. Now I love my name so much that I had it tattooed on my right arm."
Parents may be further empowered to christen their children idiosyncratically given that names aren't the rich source for taunts they once were. "Kids today are used to a variety of names, so it is almost too simple for them to make fun of each other for that," says Taffel. "Cruelty is more sophisticated now."
The experiences of children of mixed ethnic and racial backgrounds shed light on the power of names to determine identity. If such children are insecure or confused about their origins, the role of their name becomes more important. Donna Jackson Nakazawa, author of Does Anybody Else Look Like Me?, advises parents of biracial or multi-ethnic children to choose a name that represents both branches of the family tree, or at least a nickname that does so. Nakazawa's nine-year-old son is Christian Jackson Nakazawa; his nickname is Chris-chan, which means "dear beloved child" in Japanese.
Nakazawa cites the cautionary tale of a young woman who was adopted from China by a white American couple who gave her a Chinese-sounding name. As a teenager, the girl began researching her heritage and discovered her name was not, in fact, Chinese. She was devastated.
Cleveland Evans believes the personal story behind a name can serve as an anchor. In most cases, Evans says, people are only at a disadvantage if there is no story attached to their name. "It doesn't matter what the story is, as long as it is more complex than, 'We just liked the name.'" A name connected to previous generations can feel like your ancestors' arms wrapped warmly around you.
Not everyone agrees that the rationale behind a name is crucial. Misia Landau, a narratologist and science writer at Harvard Medical School, argues that the "story" of a name doesn't necessarily drive personal narratives, because of the myriad factors at play. "Providing a child with a name is incredibly variable," says Landau. "And I don't think people today say, 'Your namesake would never have acted that way.'"
There are names you probably don't think about at all—the equivalent of a black suit. And there are busy purple scarves of names, names that cannot be ignored, that must be reckoned with. "People are always going to ask me why I am named Cabot," Norton says. "And they are probably going to assume I am an East Coast WASP, whereas I'm actually a North Florida atheist."
Names produce piquant impressions: Olaf sounds oafish to non-Scandinavians. Shirley is perky. A ballerina named Bertha doesn't sound as compelling as one named Anastasia. But are certain names better suited to some people than to others, and can a name change overhaul one's self-image?
Michael Mercer, an industrial psychologist and co-author of Spontaneous Optimism, recalls a former co-worker who had interpersonal and legal problems: "She changed her name to Honore, and it was her way of mutating from someone who goofed things up to someone who is honorable."
A name change may influence how we perceive ourselves and others because of racial, class or geographical stereotypes. Our "Anastasia" file may include adjectives like attractive, graceful and vaguely Slavic—descriptors that fit our conception of a ballerina but not a Bertha.
Author Bruce Lansky has capitalized on these implicit associations with The Baby Name Survey Book: What People Think About Your Baby's Name. Lansky compiled 100,000 impressions of 1,700 names, promising to help parents pick a name with positive connotations. Readers learn that Vanna is considered dumb, Jacqueline is elegant and Jacob, the number-one baby name for boys, is "a highly religious man who is old-fashioned and quiet."
Lansky's "namesakes" (Vanna White, Jackie O., Jacob in the Old Testament) are achingly transparent. And such associations hold only until we meet another Vanna, according to psychologist Kenneth Steele, who found that a name attached to a "real" person, or even a photograph, will transcend stereotypes. Steele exposed a group of subjects to a set of names previously judged to be socially desirable (Jon, Joshua, Gregory) or undesirable (Oswald, Myron, Reginald). A second group of subjects viewed these names accompanied by photographs. The addition of the photos erased the good or bad impression left by the name alone.
To what degree, then, does a name elicit racial or ethnic bias? Marianne Bertrand, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, created resumes with names that are considered conspicuously white (such as Brendan) or black (such as Jamal) and found that regardless of credentials, resumes with white-sounding names generated twice as many callbacks. But this doesn't mean that conspicuously "black" names, like Lashonda or Tremayne, are themselves liabilities: The employers in Bertrand's study might have discriminated against a black applicant regardless of his name. Roland Fryer, a professor of economics at Harvard University found that a black Molly and a black Lakeisha with similar socioeconomic backgrounds fared equally well.
Whether people swoon over—or even disdain—our name is beyond our control. Ultimately, self-esteem and the esteem of the world dictate the degree to which we hold our name dear. Like our vocation or hometown, we tout our name as a distinguishing mark if it "fits." If it doesn't, we might say that, like an inaccurate horoscope, we don't believe in that stuff anyway. We'll change our name, disregard it or consider it just a synonym for me.