Monday, February 04, 2008

What's in a name?

I wrote last week about our decision to change to a new last name, and that, coupled with a thread on a message board I read about how people judge others by their names, got me thinking about names in general and judgment in particular. The thread on the message board specifically dealt with "made-up" names, and several people mentioned how if they were hiring for a McJob, and resumes were equally qualified, they'd be more likely to interview a person with a standard name rather than one that was probably a "made-up" name (specifically referring to a subset of the African-American community).

I read the book Freakonomics last year, and in that book is a chapter on names, naming trends, and how naming your child something completely off-the-wall might contribute to his or her success (or lack thereof). Though blatantly racist discrimination is illegal in this country, there's no way to prove someone didn't interview you or hire you because of your name (though they might judge your name and choose not to interview/hire you because your name sounds ethnic in some way). Names are not a protected class. While I don't think it's my place to be the arbiter of naming, I am not in favor of many recent baby-naming trends (the -aiden proliferation for boys, the McMadyssynalynn-type names for girls, and who can forget Nevaeh?), as a parent it's your right to name your kid anything you please. I would never name my kid something I made up or use kreeyativ spelling to make my kid seem youneeq, but if it's something you want to do, I say go for it. I just wonder sometimes whether parents realize what they're saddling little McKaighleigh or Graysen (or Shaniquiah) with and how it might result in an older child or an adult not being taken seriously, treated differently by teachers and potential employers than if the name were more culturally commonplace.

I was also thinking about how names can sometimes specifically refer to a person's nationality or ethnic background, and how you might expect a person to look based on his or her name. Last night I remembered a high school classmate who, based on her name, should be German, French, and/or Latina-looking, but instead looks quite a bit like her ethnically Chinese mother. If I didn't know her, and was asked to pick out 'Gabrielle Werner' (not her real name) I wouldn't pick her photo out of a lineup. The woman making our wedding rings looks every bit as Irish as her name, though I would have pinned her a bit older based on her first name. I wonder how many people make judgments every day about people's names, guessing age, class, and ethnicity from just a first and last name. My name, for example, was not super uncommon but was also not especially popular back in 1979 (I've only known a few other Emilys my age) but ten years later it hit the charts and was the most popular girl's name for several years. I can't go anywhere in public where there are young children without hearing my first (and sometimes middle) name being called. I wonder if, fifteen years from now when the slew of Emilys are entering the workforce, people will guess I'm significantly younger than I am because of my name.

I find naming trends to be endlessly fascinating, and am specifically interested in names and identity. (If you'd like to waste some time, go here and check out the widget that tells you the popularity of any name over the past 100+ years). I don't know what an Emily is supposed to be or feel like, but I'm pretty glad that my mom didn't name me Elizabeth, Jessica, or Heather (no offense to any Elizabeths, Jessicas, or Heathers out there, but these names were super popular among people my age). I like that my name, while trendy now, isn't the kind of name that ages badly (imagine what it will be like when all the Jennas and Jennifers and Krystals are 80 years old!). It passes the "stripper or Supreme Court Justice" test. What's really interesting to me is when I meet people who have decided at some point to change their (first) names, deciding that they don't really feel like a Paul but would rather be called by their middle name, Evan. How do people decide they don't feel like a Paul? I've met people whose names I thought were beautiful but that they didn't like so much because in their culture, that name is an "old-person" name. I find the process of how nicknames come into being to be fascinating as well. How do people come up with nicknames for their children/friends/family? What makes a nickname stick? My dad has four sisters, and none of the five of them was called by their given names as children (or even now, as adults, by family).

I don't really have any answers, only questions. Names and naming are cool. Naming your kid Azpen is a bad idea, IMHO. It's a sad fact that people are judged by their names, oftentimes unfairly as they didn't choose their own name (though some people do!) And I don't know if I'll ever fully grok nicknames and how they work.

One of my favorite bloggers had a baby today. I wholeheartedly love his name. Welcome to the world, Dylan Emmett.


Monkey McWearingChaps said...

Actually, there are two (non-desi) names I LOVE LOVE LOVE, and they're perfectly legit names in their cultures, but would sound out of place in the US.

1) Tarquin: Latin but a known (though old fashioned) name in England.

2) Nefret: Egyptian. It's short for Nefertiti. Copts still name their girls these names.

There is another dimension you didn't discuss-people who name their children names from other cultures with absolutely NO connection to said culture ethnically. Now, I am cool with this (because I want to name a kid Tarquin) but I know other people get a fire in their pants about this. Ferinstance, Uma Thurman. Uma is like being named "Beth" in India, but she's completely caucasian (though my sis and I both agree that if you tanned her and dyed her hair black she is a DEAD ringer for a desi girl). My honest opinion is that if you want to give your kid an out-of-the-ordinary name, go for a legit "Bob"-like name from another culture than making up something like Neveah or whatever.

Incidentally, I have one of those old-fashioned names! Living here I'd probably go with something a little easier for my own kids, though. But sometimes I'm seized with a desire to "pay it forward" and saddle my brat with something like Dattatreya or Dhananjay.

Cilicious said...

About the giving children names from other cultures with absolutely NO connection to said culture ethnically: I did kinda crack up at some of the choices my Jewish mother in law came up with for her children; the selections ranged from Southern-fried to Celtic.
But their surname is so weird, it would have received most of the attention even if she had chosen traditional Judaic monikers. She went with what *sounded* the best.
Names have such power, yet at the same time, are only names--what Shakespeare said about the rose was true. Some parents are a bit pretentious with their kids' names.
The maiden name added to the father's surname is a bit of a mouthful.
Also, I understand that nicknames can be overdone, but to insist that nobody *ever* shorten Matthew to Matt is a bit controlling.
I've known so many kids with unusual names. There were Zenith and Passion--both boys, and 20-24 years old now. My own name was unusual and I hated it, but later came to terms with it by 13-14.
We thought our older kid's name had a nice ring to it and was just uncommon enough; 24 years later it is in the top 5 most popular baby names. The kid even joined a Facebook group for young guys with this name who once felt unique and distinctive, but now number in the thousands.
We can't agonize too much over naming. Parents just have to go with what feels right and sounds good, and enjoy your choice and hope the kid does too.

Average Jane said...

My parents went out of their way to come up with names that weren't particularly common (although if either of us had been a boy, the name they had picked out was Darren).

My name is French, my sister's is Hebrew - neither one makes any sense with our largely British and Scandinavian heritage. My sister took it one step further and gave both of her kids Irish names. Go figure!

It's probably just as well that I don't have any kids of my own because I'd probably pick something at least as unusual as my own name, thus dooming the child to a lifetime of misspellings.

Cagey said...

As you know, we went with ethnic names for our kids that reflect their Indian dad's background. It was a weird thing because I picked the names myself - I had to lobby for Arun's name, Anjali's name was agreed upon immediately when I suggested it. They were names that were already quite familiar to me so I do not really have a perspective on how "odd" they may or may not seem. Fortunately, our last name is one syllable and so utterly plain and boring, I hope that offsets the ethnicity of their first names.