DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Sep 25 2015

What’s In a Name?

by Camille B

Single RoseHow do you feel about your name? Do you walk around wearing it proudly like a badge of honor? Or do you dread when people ask for it, certain that there’d be an invisible bubble above their heads with the word Huh?

Is your name a strong one? Is it quirky? Plain? Are you annoyed when people get it wrong? According to Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, a person’s name is to him or her “the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” It’s therefore no wonder that we may get slightly bent out of shape when people misspell or mispronounce it.

Does your name suit you? Do you think you look like a Helen or a Joan? We hear people make comments all the time like, “Well, he just doesn’t look like a Bob to me.” Or, “I think she looks more like a Claire than a Jenny, don’t you?” And it might sound silly, because really, how can a person look like their name? But somehow we seem to get it.

Do people eventually grow into their names? Live up to them? Carry the weight and obligation with them for the rest of their lives as with royal families? Or are they haunted by the name forever if they happen to be children of infamous or notorious parents? 

When I first began delving into the topic of names and what they mean to us, I quickly discovered that the subject is way more complex and intriguing than I had imagined and that one blog post would never suffice to cover all that the topic entails. However, one question kept coming to mind–the question of whether or not a person’s name is directly linked to his or her destiny.

In today’s society it is felt by many that a person’s name can make or break them. As a matter of fact, there are many parents who shy away from giving their children certain names because of the stigmas attached to them. Is there some truth to this or is it just mind over matter? For instance, can the name on a job application (whether it sounds black, white or Hispanic) give favor or prejudice to a person’s chances of getting a job?

Interestingly, as I researched arguments for and against this theory, I came to see a lot of truth on both sides of the argument. While some researchers believe that our names can have a significant impact on who and what we become in life, others argue that it has no bearing one way or another and that many other factors come into play in determining where our road in life leads us.

Professors at the University of Melbourne and New York University, for instance, found that people with simple, easy-to-pronounce names were more likely to be favored for a promotion at work. (See this NYU press release.) An article from BBC Focus magazine quotes Ohio University Professor James Bruning: “The impact of names comes from how people expect to see you.” The article goes on to say, “while prejudging people based on their name might seem unfair, we sometimes do so subconsciously when making decisions.”

Maybe even though our names can play a role in our daily lives, it’s not enough to control our destinies in any major or significant way. An article in The Week quotes psychologist Martin Ford: “Names only have a significant influence when that is the only thing you know about the person. Add a picture, and the impact of the name recedes. Add information about personality, motivation, and ability, and the impact of the name shrinks to minimal significance.” That same Week article makes the comment: “Condoleezza Rice’s name might have held her back, but she was so smart, talented, and driven that she became Secretary of State.”

More research led me to Wes Moore’s book The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, the story of two fatherless boys with the exact same name. One became the first African-American graduate of Johns Hopkins to be named a Rhodes Scholar, the other went on trial for robbery and murder, eventually being convicted and sentenced to prison. They grew up mere blocks apart, amidst almost identical circumstances, but in spite of the similarity in their names, their life choices ultimately led to two entirely different outcomes. Gives you pause to wonder doesn’t it?

Below are some books on names, their history and their meanings, which you can find on the shelves of DCPL.

Baby Names Around the World by Bruce Lansky

The African Book of Names: 5,000 + Common and Uncommon Names from the African Continent by Askhari Hodari

The New Jewish Baby Book: Names, Ceremonies & Customs: A Guide for Today’s Families by Anita Diamant

The Perfect Baby Name: A Proven Plan for Choosing a Name You’ll Love by Jeanine Cox

The Art of Baby Nameology: Explore the Deeper Meaning of Names for Your Baby by Norma J Watts

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Veronica W September 28, 2015 at 7:46 PM

Great post. Unfortunately it is true that we often prejudge people before we meet them when we hear their names. I read somewhere that teachers are not kindly disposed to children whose names they have a hard time pronouncing. I am a little confused by the transgender naming of children. I love the names Madison and Courtney but no longer assume they’re boys.

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