Social Sciences

Start Free Trial
What's in a name?

Does the name a person receives at birth influence his or her character and personality throughout life? Here are some pertinent quotes to illustrate what I mean:

The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.                 -Marshall McLuhan

"How weird it is, the way people's names seem to suit them--how they get a name and grow up to be like it."  -Sir Ralph Richardson, quoted in The New Yorker, 2/21/77

And that was the first time Byron remembered that he had ever thought how a man's name, which is supposed to be just the sound for who he is, can be somehow an augur of what he will do, if other men can only read the meaning in time.  -William Faulkner, Light in August

I once read a statistical study which found that there was a significant correlation between children's first names and the grade point averages they received in school. The best name for a boy, according to the findings, was David. The second-best name for a girl was Linda. (I can't remember the best name for a girl.) Evidently first names influence children's self-perceptions, and the names plus the self-perceptions influence the graders' perceptions of the children. 

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Do you have your alias prepared?

If I ever need an alias, I have mine ready-made. All my life people have been calling me Bob, although my name is Bill. I have gotten so used to being called Bob that I never correct anybody. I figure I must look like...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Do you have your alias prepared?

If I ever need an alias, I have mine ready-made. All my life people have been calling me Bob, although my name is Bill. I have gotten so used to being called Bob that I never correct anybody. I figure I must look like a Bob. As far as a last name is concerned, I think a good one is a name with "Saint" in it, because it makes people trust you. So my alias is Bob St. Clair. Unfortunately, people have suddenly started calling me Jim by mistake. This is kind of eerie, since both my father and brother, now deceased, were named Jim.

In response to jovip18, who wrote about a boy with an effeminate name in #9, what about all the girls who are getting masculine-sounding names these days? I am thinking of first names like Kelly and Murphy.

I once knew a woman who had identical twin girls who were then eight years old. I learned to tell them apart, even though their freckles were identical. One twin looked rather sweet and serene. The other looked just a wee bit tough; she had just the slightest hint of a frown. One's name was Lisa. The other's name was Stacey. Guess which one looked a wee bit tough.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Briefly, Kabbalah and numerology are adamant in stating that names have a profound effect. One Kabbalic site offers naame changing. The scientific explanation based on quantum physics for such a phenomena would be the same one that applies to the phenomena of words affecting water crystal formation shapes as demonstrated by Hado water science and philosophy.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Thanks, much thanks, to answerer #10, I googled "nominative determinism" and found that there are many, many listings for that subject. Also many examples. The most interesting I noted was that Patty Turner is the wife of the CEO of the McDonald's fast food corporation. Most of the examples deal with people's last names--but I suppose the principle is the same. I believe that people's names influence others and also influence the bearers themselves. When parents give a boy or girl a particular first name, many of them may be deliberately intending to influence the child's self-perception and behavior. I wonder if Tiger Woods would have become a champion golfer if his father had named him, say, Wilmer Woods. (I hope there is no Wilmer Woods reading this post!) Parents' choices of names for their kids may even be the result of unconscious motives. I think that children do interpret their given names as messages from their parents.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I have heard of such a thing as "nominal or nominative determinism" in which your name can play a role in determining your personality or occupation. On the sitcom Seinfeld, Jerry jokes that naming a child Jeeves is bound to turn him into a butler. Kidding aside, I have never read a study about the correlation between names and self-perception. But I do think that how others react/treat a person might have something to do with that person's name. For example, if you have a demure name (as someone suggested above), others might treat you like an effeminate, passive person. If you had a strong name (Hercules, to use a hyperbolic example), people might expect you to be and treat you like a strong, athletic person. Even if you're not born with natural ability, you might (especially as an impressionable child) do all you can to live up to those expectations. It seems like, if nominative determinism does have some effect, that it has more to do with how a person does or does not live up to others' expectations which they base on a name. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Am I the only one who thought of the song “A Boy Named Sue” by Johnny Cash?  If you are unfamiliar with the song, it is the story of one man’s journey to find the deadbeat father who named him Sue.  When he finally discovers his father, it is revealed that the father, realizing he was not going to be present for his son’s upbringing, named him Sue in an effort to make him tough enough to survive in an unforgiving world. 

 

Now obviously a boy growing up in the late 1960' s with a clearly feminine name is going to face a unique set of life challenges.  The question then becomes how much of a challenge do children in a modern society face as a result of their unusual names?

 

Research seems to indicate that certain names are more associated with success than others.  However, this makes me instantly wonder if the Davids of world are more successful by virtue of their name, or because they had better parents, all of which were somehow more attracted to that name than others.

 

 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Im not sure that the relationship between naming and self-perception is the real issue when it comes to academic performance. It seems to me that naming trends also tend to reflect social factors (income, etc.) that are also predictors of academic success. Either way, it is an interesting topic, and an awesome responsibility for parents, if you think about it. My wife and I had all the family names taken, but decided on fairly "traditional" names for our boys, as we didn't want to saddle them with a name that might be a source of embarassment for them later.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I read an article on this in The Week magazine a while ago.  It’s fascinating how certain names seem to influence people’s perceptions of us.  Some names are associated with negative attitudes of race or class, yet parents still name their children that way.  We do not get to choose our name, but it follows us.

"Names only have a significant influence when that is the only thing you know about the person," says psychologist Dr. Martin Ford of George Mason University. (theweek.com)

In other words, if we know more about a person than just the name, the impact of the name is lessened.  However, we do have a love-hate relationships with our own names.  I used to hate mine, because it was so unique.  At least I never confuse myself with anyone else!

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I know of a couple in my town who intentionally gave their son the given first name "Catfish." With my own ears, I heard the mother say that they gave him this name so that he would always have an opening topic of conversation available to him when meeting new people. I have no way of proving that this given name was a contributory factor in the child's learning difficulties and behavioral challenges as he began working his way through the elementary grades (when I knew him), but there were definitely some problems already making themselves apparent...

I would suggest that names with particular associations can have an impact upon the development of a person's character. It's not necessarily guaranteed that this will be the case, but I think it's quite possible.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I am overwhelmed with admiration for the researchers who determined that David is the best possible name for a boy as that is my name.  Wonderful conclusion indeed!

A previous post suggested Molly as a demure name.  This is not always the case.  I have a daughter named Molly who is anything but (at age 7, at least) demure.  People do reflexively call her "Miss Molly" which might be seen as something that would make her tend to be genteel, but it doesn't seem to be having much effect.

One affect I can see would be in giving a child an "ethnic" name.  There have been studies showing that people with "black" names tend to be discriminated against relative to those with "white" names.  Having such a name might also tend to make one more conscious of being different from "mainstream" society.  Outside of that, I can't imagine that it makes a difference.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This is a wonderful topic.  I have a feeling there is not nearly as much research on this as there could be, but my grantsmanship skills are so unpolished. 

I am going to speculate a little, to say that because it is generally parents who name us, their choices reflect attributes such as culture, family history, a modern or old-fashioned bent, a religious inclination, as well as others I have not thought of yet, and we must ask to what degree do those attributes become wrapped up in the child's identity because they are simply part of the child's environment to begin with?  Has anyone read The Namesake (Lahiri)? 

My own "tribe," Ashkenazic Jews, has the custom of naming after the dead, which is sometimes a way of trying to transmit various qualities, not simply a way of honoring an ancestor.  However, there are some names that are simply not attractive or that do not fit in with the society at large, so we have an "out," which is giving the child that name in Hebrew only, maintaining a "regular" name for secular life.  This suggests to me a acknowledgement of the power of the name.  (I will confess that I much prefer my regular name to my Hebrew one.)

Another facet of naming that interests me is the gender-neutral name, which seems to have become trendy in recent years.  Is our gender identity influenced by our names?  And certainly, these gender-neutral names have employment implications, at least up to the first interview.  (My younger son, Morgan, has not been particularly thrilled to surprise people who meet him for the first time.)  

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

My husband and I used to joke that since we were both teachers we were never going to be able to name our children, because all of the names had been tainted by students we have taught.  Having seen so many children through the revolving door that is the school system, the names of students often make the first impression on me, before I ever meet the actual student, especially if I have had a memorable student by that same name.  For example, Alice, Molly, Beth, those are all names that have a sweet and demure connotation to me, because the students I have had by those names have, for the most part, had that sort of behavior.  On the other hand, I have had a series of rambunctious boys named 'Bobby' or 'Cody' that have been holy terrors!  I think the human brain just naturally associates like objects, so we cannot help but judge people by their names because of the connotation. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I've honestly never thought much about it. The study sounds very interesting.

I can see how certain names that sounds comical might make a child feel shy or inferior to others while he/she was growing up. It's harder to see how a certain name might influence others to view a person more positively. But the brain definitely does surprising things, so perhaps it is possible.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team