By Dalton Conley Ph.D., published on March 1, 2010 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Every so often a bolt of panic strikes me when I consider what my wife and I named our children. Our daughter has the shortest name on record: E. Our son, meanwhile, reportedly has the longest in New York City: Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Knuckles (sung to the tune of "John Jacob Jingle Heimer Schmitt"). The original intent of "E" was that she could decide what it stood for. She was born about two months early, and we almost called her Early. We also liked a number of other "E" names. So we decided to punt on the whole issue and give her control. (Little did we know the world was about to enter the electronic era: E-Trade, e-commerce, e-everything.) We figured when it came time to rebel against her parents, she'd choose something very traditional like Elizabeth, or perhaps my mother's name, Ellen. So far, at age 12, she is still E.
Once you name your first kid E, the pressure is on. You can't just name the second one "John" unless you are conducting a controlled experiment on sibling differences. I had wanted to give our boy an ethnically ambiguous name to challenge assumptions about race and assimilation. For all the Asian-American Howards out there, shouldn't there be a light-haired, blue-eyed white kid named Yo Xing (which means shooting star if said in the second tone in Mandarin)? Initially, I had my heart set on Xing-Yo. I liked the initials XY for a boy, mimicking the male chromosomes. And I liked that X-ing also meant "Crossing." But my wife is superstitious and refuses any name that has been suggested before the baby's birth. I opened my big mouth during the pregnancy and blew it. Still, she accepted Yo, appealing for its meaning "I" in Spanish (and confusing in a "who's on first?" sort of way now that Yo is actually studying the language at school). It also means "Hey" or "You" in street parlance.
As for all the other names: We suspected that this was the last kid we would produce, so we wanted to squeeze everything in there without having to make tough choices. We threw in family names, the name of a recently deceased mentor of my wife, and the emperor Augustus (I was into Robert Graves's I, Claudius that hot summer). But Xing was left out until three years later, when my wife finally agreed that my original thought was pretty cool and signed the paperwork to add it. (Her elder daughter, my stepdaughter, is named "Mister Jamba Djang Ulysess Hope." So my ideas were not a difficult sell.)
And yet in light of all of our fun adventures in naming, I often wonder whether we unduly saddled our children with disadvantageous monikers that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
"Do you think I am the only person in the world with the name E?" my daughter asked me on a recent trip back from Mexico. I wondered what the probability was that someone else might have that name somewhere on the globe. Of course, there were plenty of dialects and whole language groups about which I knew nothing. But I decided to take a chance.
"I bet you are the only E in the world."
"Good," she said, swinging her carry-on luggage. "I like having a unique name."
"Why?" I pushed.
"I don't know," she fired back, annoyed this time. "Why did you and Mom think I would choose it to stand for something?"
"I want to be called Sean," 11-year-old Yo piped in from behind. He's a slow walker, especially when carrying anything mildly heavy like his bag. "How do you spell 'Sean,' by the way?" he asked.
"There's lots of ways to spell it," I explained. "Why do you want to change your name? Don't you like being unique? Don't you like that your name made you famous?" A few years ago, Yo had been written up in The New York Times for having legally added two names to his list—Heyno and Knuckles—at the same time I added in Xing. (As a rambunctious three-year-old, I think he had gotten so used to "Hey, no!" being yelled at him that he figured Heyno was his actual name. Or perhaps he just was co-opting the scold and flipping off his parents in the process. Knuckles was the name of my beloved childhood dog about whom Yo and E had heard funny stories. Why my son identified with a dog is something I will let his future therapists figure out....)
An interview with the four-year-old Yo on Anderson Cooper's 360 followed the name change, as did a write-up in Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's book Freakonomics. He had been, at the time, very proud that his name was mentioned in one of the best-selling books of our time, even if it was as an example of freakiness (on the part of his parents, of course). But now he was 10 and hitting the self-conscious sensitivity of pre-pubescent boyhood.
"I want to spell it S-h-a-n," he said. "It can be my nickname."
While we can't really do much about the race or genes or social class we bequeath to our beloved offspring, we do have a choice when it comes to names. We all want our children to be well-adjusted and successful in life, and we certainly don't want to screw it up from the start. Besides, is there a word in any language that sounds as sweet to us as our own first name? Infants less than a year old—possibly even just five months—display the "cocktail party" effect. That is, they perk up and can pick out the sound of their own name even in a room of competing conversations. Some researchers have suggested that we are attracted to others with our names or ones similar to ours. We may even be more likely to move to a city that shares a syllable or two with our given name.
Such egoism may be healthy. When researchers divided subjects into high and low self-esteem groups, those who were feeling good about themselves tended to sit closer to someone with the same initials, while those who felt down on themselves sat further away from someone with their own monogram.
When I Google Yo's full name, I come across posts calling me a child abuser for saddling him (and his sister) with such unusual monikers. If Yo had been born in France, he (and I) would not have had such problems. There—and in many other countries—parents have to pick names from an approved list.
But American culture, with its focus on individual expression, would never brook such a top-down, government-controlled approach to what many consider one of the most personal and intimate decisions parents make. American parents are able to choose any combination of letters (or even numbers and alphanumeric characters) for their children (or themselves). There are no formal institutions that advertise or otherwise lobby for name selections, so naming processes, the sociologist Stanley Lieberson persuasively argues in his book A Matter of Taste, are as close to unmediated, informal cultural transmission as we are likely to observe.
The irony lies in the fact that even something as personal as the naming of our newborns appears to follow strong social laws. For instance, names tend to trickle down over time from the more educated to the less educated. I'm willing to wager that if you know a man named "Kim," he was born before 1958. That's when the film Vertigo came out, making the actress Kim Novak famous and, in turn, causing the number of boys named Kim to plummet to practically zero. Lieberson demonstrates this one-way gender door: Once a name hits a critical mass among females, its use for the male population declines precipitously. And feminine names never become masculinized.
Likewise, with respect to race, Lieberson finds a pattern in which African-American names echoed previously popular white names for most of the century (whereas whites tend to shy away from African-American names). In the period since agitation for civil rights legislation, however, he shows an explosion of unique names among the black population (perhaps there is another Yo out there somewhere?). Black power can be read through the Sharals and Kynniths of the baby registries. The rise of unique names more generally since the 1960s parallels a period in which society is said to have thrown off the chains of convention in many ways. Names, it seems, provide a window into our cultural souls.
Despite the rise in unique names, there has almost always been a suspicion that they are harmful to children. Many parents think that giving children offbeat monikers is akin to scarring their faces—standing out from the crowd is something you want your young ones to do by choice, not by necessity. What's more, unusual names, goes this reasoning, demonstrate the narcissism of parents who deploy their children like tattoos—mere vehicles for self-expression. Perhaps it was indeed our self-centered, artistic aspirations that led us to give our offspring these labels of sorts. But at the time we thought we were bequeathing to them our values of individuality, free choice, and the questioning of social norms. Perhaps it was also an unconscious social experiment: We forced our children's teachers and peers to see them as individuals by virtue of their names.
For many decades, the research literature seemed almost unanimous in reinforcing folk wisdom about the risks of nominal individuality. The result of not fitting in and being picked on thanks to a "weird" name, warned the experts, could be devastating. Particularly for boys, went the story, unusual names were likely to lead to maladjustment and troubles such as juvenile delinquency. Some of the earliest work in this vein, in the 1930s, surveyed convicts and mental hospital patients and found a disproportionately high number of folks with unusual names as compared to the general population. Studies that followed focused on everything from school popularity to self-esteem. But most of this research failed to take into consideration the associations between names on the one hand and race and social class on the other. The fact is that minorities, the poor, the less educated, and the recently immigrated are more likely to have unusual names.
It is into this breach that economists have stepped. In 2003, Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullhalithan conducted an audit study in the Chicago area in which they sent out resumes that varied only in the name of the applicant, alternating the top ten most popular white names and the top ten most popular black names. These fictitious job applicants were made to be equivalent in other respects—prior work experience, education, and so on. They found that white names elicited four times as many callbacks for job interviews from prospective employers. Such blatant discrimination confirms other recent audit studies, offering powerful evidence that race continues to be salient to employers and that names act as signaling devices.
Roland Fryer and Steven Levitt also considered the impact of "black names" when they analyzed California birth certificates. At first, they found an apparent relationship between how typically black a given first name was and a number of health and economic outcomes. However, when they carefully compared black- and white-named babies who were similar on other factors—like the economic conditions of their hometown or their mother's education level—the effect disappeared. In other words, it wasn't the black names themselves that were causing negative outcomes for African-Americans, it was the fact that minorities with "blacker" names also tended to be among the most socioeconomically disadvantaged.
Meanwhile, economist David Figlio analyzed names from school records in Florida and concluded that teachers and/or school administrators discriminated against students with typically black names. Kids with black names are less often recommended for gifted/honors programs but are more likely to be socially promoted. Figlio's work is powerful, since he compares siblings who have the same home environment and kids who are being taught by the same teacher.
In a related study, Figlio looked at "boys named Sue" as the old Johnny Cash song goes—that is, boys with feminine names. He found that until sixth grade, boys with such names don't behave differently than their peers or do worse on tests. However, at sixth grade (right around the time puberty strikes), boys with feminine names tend to get into disciplinary trouble more often than boys with typically male names.
Much to my relief, more recent work by psychologists has questioned the supposed deleterious effects of unusual names. My own observations bear this out. While my children seem a bit more self-conscious than the average pre-adolescent when introducing themselves or correcting others who mistake them for "Eve" or "Joe," they have led remarkably taunt-free lives thus far. (Perhaps that's because an atmosphere of stuffy civility comes with today's overstructured childhood, as compared to the wild mores of my free-form boyhood.)
In fact, some recent studies have even reversed course, suggesting that the restraint that kids with unusual names learn when they are teased leads to better impulse control in all areas of life. While the story on names is far from over, it is indisputable that a first name may convey a first impression, but its power is fleeting. Once a face is put to a name, and certainly once we get to know folks, the name effect disappears.
When I was a kid, my classmates often called me "Dolphin" to make fun of me. Like my children, I often appeared uncomfortable, looked down at my shoes and mumbled when introducing myself. To this day, I have never met another Dalton in person. So imagine my surprise when, a few years ago, I noticed that Dalton had made it onto the list of the top 25 most popular names for boys. There must be a whole generation of my doppelgaengers in kindergartens across America right now. So next time Yo asks me to change his name to Shan, I will tell him to be patient. In about 35 years, he will be a dime a dozen. And in the meantime, he should tough it out. After all, I could have named him Sue.