When parents spend hours poring over baby name books they may imagine that their choice will have a major impact on their child’s life. But do names make a difference? Two recent books put this idea under the microscope.
Choosing a name for a child is complicated. Not only should it sound right with the family name but future nicknames – good and bad – need to be taken into consideration. A name might honour a favourite grandparent, but it will also have a forgotten meaning to be unearthed in books, and dubious modern associations to be checked on Google.
Dalton Conley and his wife Ellen were halfway through this pleasant but painstaking process when their baby girl was born, two months premature.
“We had narrowed down the selections to a bunch of E- names, but we couldn’t ultimately decide,” says Conley, who lives in New York. “Then we came up with the idea of, ‘Let’s just constrain the first degree of freedom. Let’s just give her the first letter and then she can decide when she’s old enough what it stands for.’”
And so, E was born. Now 16, she hasn’t yet felt the need to extend her first name. “I think once you’re given a name, you get used to it – it’s part of you,” she says. E’s little brother, meanwhile, Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Knuckles, did take up his parents’ offer to change his name. He added the Heyno and Knuckles when he was four, and his parents made the changes official.
“I have been called a child abuser online,” says Dalton Conley, the author of Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Science of Raising Children but Were Too Exhausted to Ask. “I don’t think I’ve saddled them with some horrible burden. They like the fact that they have unique names now.”
Over the last 70 years, researchers have tried to gauge the effect on an individual of having an unusual name. It is thought that our identity is partly shaped by the way we are treated by other people – a concept psychologists call the “looking-glass self” – and our name has the potential to colour our interactions with society. Early studies found that men with uncommon first names were more likely to drop out of school and be lonely later in life. One study found that psychiatric patients with more unusual names tended to be more disturbed.
But more recent work has presented a mixed picture. Richard Zweigenhaft, a psychologist at Guilford College in the US, pointed out that wealthy, oddly-named Americans are more likely to find themselves in Who’s Who. He found no consistent bad effects of having a strange name, but noted that both common and unusual names are sometimes deemed desirable.
Conley, who is a sociologist at New York University, says that children with unusual names may learn impulse control because they may be teased or get used to people asking about their names. “They actually benefit from that experience by learning to control their emotions or their impulses, which is of course a great skill for success.”
But for the main part, he says, the effect of a name on its bearer rarely amounts to more than the effect of being raised by parents who would choose such a name.
A similar conclusion is reached by Gregory Clark, the economist behind the book The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility. Although the main focus of his research is family names, Clark has looked at first names too – specifically, the names of 14,449 freshmen students attending the elite University of Oxford between 2008-2013. By contrasting the incidence of first names in the Oxford sample with their incidence among the general population (of the same age), he calculated the probability, relative to average, that a person given a particular name would go to Oxford. (For the purposes of his research he excluded students with non-English or Welsh surnames.)