Whats In A Name?*

* “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.”

– Juliet arguing that she is not being allowed to be with Romeo just because of his name, as he is from the rival Montague family ; in the tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare (Act II, Scene II), late 16th century AD (original text)

In all cultures around the world, our most common introduction is “I’m (insert name)”. And yet, while my name is indisputably mine, it is one of the two things that I was given by my parents at birth (the other being my genes). My name is the thing I can change, and yet I’m not inclined to do so. There is a deep connection between my name and my identity.

Nowadays, every child is taught that she is unique, that she is different. This conditioning begins early, with the best intentions of parents and care-givers, to make the child feel special, to make her feel good about herself. And this is true – every individual is unique, made up of a unique combination of character, mindset and behaviours. This combination makes up our unique individuality.

Individualism, on the other hand, is different – it is all about taking care of yourself. The  philosophy of individualism argues that the interests of the individual should take precedence over the state or a community, and opposes external interference upon one’s own interests by society or the government. On the positive side, individualism means being independent, self-reliant and having the freedom to act as one pleases. Taken to an extreme, however, individualism can lead to selfishness, a lack of empathy for others and behaviors that disregard the norms of society and community.

We  live in an age of ultra-individualism. There has never been a time in the history of civilization when we humans have more fervently exhibited individualism than we do today, degrees varying from one person to another.

And yet it’s surprising that an ancient tradition, that of the “given name“, continues.

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For the longest period of time, names tended to be…..rational. But sometime around the middle of the twentieth century, parents started becoming…….errr, innovative. In the quest to be different from the crowd, to stand out, they began giving their children names like:

  • The Edge (lead guitarist of U2): Blue Angel (daughter)
  • Jamie Oliver (celebrity chef): Poppy Honey, Daisy Boo, Blossom Rainbow (daughters) and Buddy Bear (son)
  • Rob Morrow (actor): Tu Morrow (daughter) (I get this one, its kinda cute!)
  • Gwyneth Paltrow (actor): Apple (daughter) (her younger son is Moses; perhaps she should’ve picked “Orange”?)
  • Nicolas Cage (actor): Kal-El (son) (yup, Superman’s Krypton name)
  • David Duchovny and Tea Leoni (actors): Kyd (son) (this is just plain laziness!)
  • Dalton Conley (sociologist at NYU): E (daughter) and Yo (son; it gets better – full name Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Knuckles Jeremijenko-Conley)

Odd as these are, the next two have gotta take the (shared) first prize for weirdness…

  • Shannyn Sossamon (American actress): Audio Science (son)
  • Penn Jillette (American magician): Moxie CrimeFighter (son)

Come on!!! I wouldn’t want to go to school with a name as weird as any of these. And yet, even when they grow up, no one changes their given name.

Given name“. That pretty much describes it…..the name that is given to a child at birth by her parents. For the parents choosing a name for a child is seldom a simple matter (‘Kyd’ above being an exception). It is usually a long and elaborate process in which lists are created. Names are researched and compared and evaluated. Sometimes opinions are sought from families and friends. The parents’ emotional, aesthetic, ideological and social perspectives, their personal experiences and their hopes for the child all come into play. The act of choosing the first name for a child is as much about the parents expressing their own identity as it is about making a hoped-for identity for their child.

Parents want their children to stand out, rather than fit in – hence the ‘innovative’ names above, a sign of the increasing individualism in our societies today. In European countries like France and Belgium, the move away from saints’ names indicates a more secular society than before. People used to often name their babies after respected and loved relatives – not so much anymore.

And so, after much thought, research and debate, the child is given a name.

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A baby will usually start responding to her name by the time she is 6 or 7 months. It is an early and important part of the process of her developing her own identity. This process continues when she begins to recognize herself in photographs or in a mirror which most children do by the age of 2. By age 3 she will start demonstrating self-conscious emotions like pride, guilt and embarrassment, and will also start using self-aware terms like I, me, you and my. By 8 years she will have a relatively stable sense of her own personality and self-worth, her own identity.

Psychologists believe that its in these early years that a person’s identity and name become inextricably tied up together, and it becomes practically impossible to separate the two. A life-long match-up. Unless you were a woman in India who would have a new name bestowed upon her by her in-laws at marriage to indicate a new beginning, perhaps even a new identity. Fortunately this old Indian practice is almost dead, and women can now legally retain even their maiden surname. Thank goodness for progress!

Our names are an integral part of our identity. We’re also touchy about our names, like when our name is mispronounced. Accidental distortions are annoying but we react especially badly to intentional mispronunciations, especially if they result in unflattering puns or innuendoes. Children seem to be born with this knowledge and use it so effectively against other kids with odd names, who almost certainly will get teased with an unflattering version. We resent such mispronunciations of our names because at some level we feel its a distortion of our identity.

Its worse if someone forgets your name soon after an introduction. You feel insulted! And when someone does remember your name you feel respected and valued, without realising it explicitly. That’s why most books on relationship building highlight this and include tips on how to remember the name of a person you’ve just met – to make them feel good, to quickly build a personal rapport. Perhaps the most famous of such books is Dale Carnegie’s ‘How To Win Friends Friends and Influence People’ (1936) which statesA person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language”.

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Another interesting aspect of “names” is the concept of Nominative Determinism, a term first used in the magazine New Scientist in 1994. This is a peculiar theory that a person’s name can have a significant role in (pre)determining key aspects of their lives, including choice of profession and their character. For instance:

  • Mark de Man – Belgian soccer player
  • Sue Yoo – Lawyer, USA
  • Ben Dover – Real-estate agent (USA) – as trustworthy as a used-car salesman?
  • Deja Viau – that name sounds familiar……
  • Mark Bitterman – owner of a shop that sells artisanal salts and bitters in New York and has published a lovely book, Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters & Amari (I know coz I’ve bought it)
  • Storm Field – American TV meteorologist; his father was also a weatherman
  • James Counsell, QC – lawyers are called counsellors in the UK; his father and sibling are from the same profession
  • American politician Anthony Weiner (b.1964) now seems predestined to self-destruct his career in sexting scandals where he shared sexually explicit photographs of (what else?) his weiner on his public Twitter account – an example of a last name, but I couldn’t resist!

Given their names, the above folks may have had little choice in their careers and areas of achievements. But consider two even more pronounced examples, from where else but England:

  • Walter Russell Brain (1895 – 1966), 1st Baron Brain – knighted in 1952, he was a well-known and respected neurologist, and longtime editor of the UK medical journal of neurology Brain
  • R W Cockshut – wrote a letter to the British Medical Journal in 1935 strongly recommending that all male children should be circumcised to reduce masturbation in boys (BMJ Correspondence, October 19, 1935, p.764). Ouch!

It’s not just the English. The people of the Ashanti tribe of Africa include the day of the week in every child’s name, and believe this influences the character and behavior of the person throughout life. For example, they believe that boys (but for some reason not girls) who are born on Monday will be mild mannered and peace loving, but those born on Wednesday will be violent and aggressive. I do kinda agree with them – I was born on Sunday and isn’t that a day of rest and sleep? I’m a believer.

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The above examples are funny. But there can be real negative effects of our parents’ choices for our names. Unconscious biases come into play in the form of implicit discrimination, defined as discrimination that is unintentional and of which the discriminator is actually unaware. In a seminal 2003 research in the US by two economists, they describe how they sent out nearly 5000 CVs in response to about 1300 employment ads in Chicago and Boston. Their tweak – keeping the CV contents the same, they just switched the names between African-American and white sounding names. The result? The call-back rate from employers was 50% higher on the “white” names than the “black” names. The name of this study was “Are Emily And Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?”

In a similar vein, studies have shown that unusual first names do have unintended and sometimes unfortunate correlations:

  • A 2005 research paper, “Boys Named Sue“, studied over 76,000 school students in Florida, and found that boys with female-sounding names tended to misbehave more compared to other boys upon entry to middle school
  • Another study in 2009 titled “First Names and Crime“, again in the US, showed that kids with unpopular or unusual names are significantly more likely to be juvenile delinquents (although it also commented that their unpopular names are not the likely cause but more an indicator of poor home environments or economic status)

The above studies tell us at least 3 things: that the US collects the extent of data making such research possible, that there are social researchers in the US with the time and inclination to do such peculiar studies and that parents’ choice of their kids’ first names does have an impact!

A smart parenting educator says that parents should ponder on the long-term implications of the first names for their children. He suggests parents use the ‘boardroom test‘: Imagine your kid walking into an important meeting and introducing themselves, then picture the reaction of others.

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“I am Geet” or “My name is Geet”. Never “I am called Geet” or “I go by the name Geet”. Our names are an intrinsic part of our identities, so deeply connected that the vast majority of us never even think about changing them. Even if our names are sometimes a dubious gift from our parents, subjecting us to ridicule or predisposing us to behaviours and career choices, its extremely rare for someone to voluntarily change their name.

So why wouldn’t I ever change my name? After going through the pleasant but painstaking project of selecting names when our children were born, I cannot even consider going through the same process for myself. And imagine all the paperwork that would follow to get my name changed in every place that has it recorded? Just way, way too much trouble.

I just wish my parents had named me Jed I. Knight.

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One thought on “Whats In A Name?*

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