What Makes for a Successful Name?

Name choices can have surprising influence on people's perceptions.

Posted Sep 02, 2020

Daniel Reche / Pexels
What's in a name?
Source: Daniel Reche / Pexels

Choosing a baby’s name is one of the first challenges for new parents. Factors to consider often include the name’s sound and meaning, its historical and religious background, as well as any personal or family connections. Often the choice involves a trade-off or compromise—especially if parents disagree. Wouldn’t it be nice to honour mum’s favourite grandpa? If only his name wasn’t Egbert.

Another aspect that often plays a role is a name’s frequency and popularity. Some celebrities have made the news for their unusual name picks. Bob Geldof and Paula Yates, for example, named their daughter “Fifi Trixibelle”, and people are still struggling to make sense of the eccentric name “X Æ A-Xii”, which Elon Musk and his partner chose for their baby boy.

Most parents, however, opt for a happy medium between the well-known and the obscure. Research shows that familiarity with a name makes it more attractive, but overpopularity can be a deterring factor.

Do Names Matter?

It is fair to say that selecting a baby name can be a big task. But just how important is the choice? Previous psychology research sheds light on this question, with studies showing that names can carry strong connotations. Indeed, aspects such as the name’s length, spelling, meaning or gender connotation may affect the characteristics that people associate with it. For example, names with unconventional spelling (e.g. Kortney vs. Courtney), are typically rated less attractive than those with the more common spelling. Also, androgynous names (e.g. Chris, Dana and Jamie) are usually associated with more popular and fun character traits, as compared to gender-specific names.

It is clear that name choices matter. Interestingly, this importance isn’t limited to baby names: In a new scientific review article, I argue that name choices are just as significant when it comes to other subjects. A notable example is the naming of diseases.

The Naming of Diseases

Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation chose an official name for the disease previously referred to as “Wuhan novel coronavirus”. The name choice, “COVID-19”, not only provided a more accurate label for the virus disease. It also helped to fight the damaging stigma of the geographical location associated with its outbreak. The re-naming of illnesses can be necessary when initial names have negative socio-political consequences. Other examples include the disease formerly known as “Gay-related immune deficiency” (GRID) and sometimes offhandedly referred to as “Gay cancer”, whose name was changed to “HIV/Aids” in order to reduce the stigmatisation of homosexual men.

What Makes for a Successful Name?

Identifying suitable names for public health threats appears to be a key prerequisite for successful science communication. Research on the psychology of language suggests that several factors can increase the suitability of disease names and make them more successful for sharing information such as the risks associated with the illness. Accurate health communication is important for improving public knowledge and promoting better health behaviours (e.g. the wearing of face masks during a pandemic).

In addition to avoiding stigmatising name choices, the following criteria are likely to play a role:

  1. Pronounceability and readability. Names that are easy to read, process and pronounce are more successful in drawing people’s attention. This, in turn, makes them better suited for communication about the disease in question. Often, pronounceability is helped by shorter name lengths, the use of common letter combinations and a higher proportion of vowels compared to consonants.
  2. Meaningfulness and concreteness. Names that are easy to make sense of and evoke intuitive context are more suitable for communicating information, because people find them easier to remember. So-called “semantic imbeds” can help in this regard. The term refers to meaningful word components that are recognisable and may convey inherent messages.
  3. Specificity and uniqueness. Finally, to avoid confusion with related diseases or concepts, communication is most successful if only a single unambiguous disease name exists. Through the consistent use of one disease-specific term, lay audiences can combine different pieces of information more easily and develop a holistic understanding about the disease in question. In the context of COVID-19, for example, consistent use of the term chosen by the World Health Organization is preferable to switching between alternative names such as “coronavirus disease” or simply “corona”.

The Example of Antimicrobial Resistance

While the importance of suitable names has been recognised in the context of HIV/Aids and COVID-19, many health threats exist whose names fall short when measured against the above criteria. One such example is antimicrobial resistance. The term refers to mutations in microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses, which render them unresponsive to existing medical treatment. As a consequence, common infections (e.g. pneumonia) become more difficult or even impossible to treat. By 2050, more people will die from antimicrobial resistance than currently die from cancer, and antimicrobial resistance has been described as one of the gravest challenges of 21st-century medicine. Yet the problem continues to receive astonishingly little media coverage. One explanation for this is its complex scientific name, which is unsuitable for capturing people’s attention.

"Antimicrobial resistance” is characterised by a high word length of nine syllables, which is difficult to pronounce and contains infrequent word components. Due to its abstract, scientific nature, the term also lacks intuitive meaning for lay populations and can therefore be difficult to remember. Finally, given the inaccurate use of the umbrella term “antimicrobial resistance” to describe more specific phenomena such as “antibiotic resistance”, the term also has limited specificity. Clearly it is high time we reviewed the terminology used to communicate the risks of such an important health threat.

Just as we spend time and care identifying the perfect name for our babies, we need to pay more attention to the names and terminology used for diseases. Efforts need to go further in reviewing and revising names of health threats, with an important example being that of antimicrobial resistance. To improve risk and science communication, names need to be short and easy to pronounce; intuitively meaningful to lay audiences; and specific to the disease in question.