What's in a name? More than you think, experts say

Jul 11, 2013

As Prince William and wife Catherine mull over names for their royal offspring, they would do well to heed mounting evidence that a name can influence everything from your school grades and career choice to who you marry and where you live.

Someone named Jacqueline or Steven will generally fare better in life than Latrina or Butch, say researchers, who also point to a phenomenon whereby the world's fastest man is called Bolt, a TV weather forecaster Sarah Blizzard, and the local librarian Mrs Storey.

"Your name can influence the assumptions that other people make about your character and background, and thus the chances you are given in life," says Richard Wiseman—a case in point, he's a professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire.

"It can also be a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. If your name sounds intelligent, successful and attractive, you are more likely to act those things."

A flurry of studies in recent years have examined names as predictors of success.

They found that girls with perceived "feminine" names like Isabella or Kayla are less likely to pursue maths or science than those named Taylor or Madison, and that pupils with perceived "lower status" names get worse grades than others from the same background but with posher names.

"Names can really make a difference in children's lives," Northwestern University researcher David Figlio, who has written several papers on the topic, told AFP.

Research has pointed to a clear, though probably subconscious, tendency for people to prefer things that resemble themselves—including the letters of their names.

Denises are more likely to become dentists than dermatologists, while Lawrences are overrepresented among lawyers and Raymonds among radiologists.

The term "nominative determinism" was coined by the journal New Scientist in 1994, which cited a paper on urinary incontinence by authors Splatt and Weedon.

There is even a Latin proverb for the phenomenon: Nomen est omen—and the examples are bountiful:

- Racing driver Scott Speed,

- TV gardening presenter Bob Flowerdew,

- Singer Bill Medley,

- Golfer Tiger Woods,

- Poet William Wordsworth,

- Former White House spokesman Larry Speakes, and

- Sue Yoo, a lawyer.

There are many ironic examples as well: former Archbishop of Manila Cardinal (Jaime) Sin, pain relief expert Dr Richard Payne and the British urologist Nicolas Burns-Cox.

Sometimes a name can denote disappointment.

Psychologist Ernest L Able (who says, yes, he is an earnest person) cites research showing that professional baseball players whose first or last names begin with a "K", the letter that denotes a strikeout, are more likely to strike out than others.

Students pursuing MBA degrees whose names begin with a C or D have lower averages than those whose names begin with A or B, and one study even suggested that people whose names spell out negative words like P.I.G. were more likely to die prematurely, while those with positive initials like V.I.P live longer.

In a further twist, people named Louis are disproportionally represented in the city of St Louis, and statistics show that people even tend to marry partners whose first or last names resemble their own.

Much of the evidence is anecdotal, and there are many people who succeed despite potentially problematic names—take Barack Hussein Obama who joked in 2008: "I got my middle name from somebody who obviously didn't think I'd ever run for president."

Others dealt a wildcard include celebrity children Apple, Jermajesty, Moon Unit and Dweezil. And spare a thought for Stan Still, Justin Case and Barb Dwyer. No kidding.

"Names make impressions, just as the way you clothe your (child) or, the you way you groom them makes an impression," insisted University of California emeritus psychology professor Albert Mehrabian, who authored a book on "Beneficial and Harmful Baby Names".

"People with 'undesirable' names do get treated differently," he said—people give the same photograph a different score for attractiveness based only on the name, and the same exam paper with different signatures will be given two different marks.

"I attribute this to low teacher and societal expectations for the children," said Figlio.

Mehrabian, who conducted a more than 10-year survey in the United States on the "attractiveness" of names, lists Elizabeth, Jacqueline, Holly, Ann and Mary as the top five names for girls and James, Steven, Christopher, Kenneth and Thomas for boys.

At the bottom of the list were Elvira, Eula, Shar, Zoila and Latrina for girls and Butch, Rufus, Ozzie, Jock and Rip for boys.

Mehrabian has advice for all new parents: "Never spell a name in an unconventional way... the desirability profile drops drastically."

"Don't try to be clever or artistic," he added. "Overall I would say avoid unusual names."

Whatever the chosen name, we already know the new royal baby will be called "His/Her Royal Highness Prince/Princess (name) of Cambridge".

"A royal prince or princess is immediately going to have a social identity that is quite distinct from his or her name," said Figlio.

"I would be stunned if names matter all that much for the children of the extremely famous."

Explore further: Less privileged kids shine at university, according to study

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geokstr
1.2 / 5 (12) Jul 11, 2013
And next, in today's horoscope, those born on this date are more apt to be brave, clean and reverent. This is considered "science"?

Well, then, in order to prove that your intellect, creativity, productivity and talent have less to do with your success in a given field than your name, everyone should just name their sons and daughters Barack and Michelle and wait a few years. It worked for them.
Ferky
1.7 / 5 (12) Jul 11, 2013
May I suggest an alternative hypothesis? If your parents name you Latrina, then they probably don't know the definition of the word latrine. If they don't know what a latrine is, then they're probably morons. If they're morons, then for reasons of genetics and upbringing, Latrina is also likely to be a moron. And if Latrina is a moron, then she probably won't be too successful in life. In addition, the number of women named Latrina is probably too small to constitute a statistically-significant sample, anyway.

(No need to point to the possible Greek origin of the name or its meaning. I'd bet not one in a hundred people who name their daughter Latrina knows of that Greek origin).

Repeat this "experiment" while controlling for parents' education, IQ, income, etc., and then we'll see.

Commenter geokstr is right: this is marginally superior to astrology and numerology.
geokstr
1.3 / 5 (12) Jul 12, 2013
Unfortunately, this study does not take culture into consideration.

In the US, names such as Latrina and Shanequa and Shaquille and Ladanian are given to black children by their parents not because they have any intrinsic, familial, ethnic or traditional meaning, but because they just like the way it sounds. Unfortunately for the kids, whatever their abilities or interests of talents, they are associated with stereotypes of the underclass for the rest of their lives.

It's been said and proven for centuries, if you want to be successful, emulate the behaviors of those already successful. It might not be very cool, and maybe it's unfair, but not naming your child John or Jennifer or something reasonably traditional, especially in a majority white, Christian, ethnic European country could have profound negative impacts on their lives.

Let's see a study of how boys named Charles or girls named Pamela do in India, or Egypt. How do you think a kid named Barry would do in Indonesia?
cantdrive85
1.2 / 5 (11) Jul 12, 2013
It's only a matter of time before my son Trajan will be emperor of the world...
Mmmwahahahahaha
Ferky
1.4 / 5 (11) Jul 12, 2013
geokstr:

Your second comment is misguided. The article states that "People with 'undesirable' names do get treated differently" and "Names make impressions, just as the way you clothe your (child) or, the you way you groom them makes an impression", so culture is actually not ignored.

The problem is that these "studies" don't take into consideration selection effects. Education, intelligence, income, class--these factors influence the names people give their children. How many upper-middle class parents with masters degrees name their child Latrina or Butch? How many poor, uneducated single moms give their children these names? There's your selection bias.

Culture and prejudice play a role for sure, but to ignore selection effects and assume a non-existing ceteris paribus is stupid and/or dishonest.
PeterD
1 / 5 (9) Jul 12, 2013
The worst teacher I ever had was Miss Schoolcraft.
LarryD
1 / 5 (1) Jul 13, 2013
I'd be concerned about what a name means to the individual. How many times does one hear a name called which might be the same yours, say in supermarket or some other crowd...you (and others) turn your head. You react. What do you feel, I mean really FEEL, when you see your name 'up in lights' or connected to some other event? We seem to give our names a property all of their own, almost as if they were 'alive'. I think names go deeper than this and I have written books about synchronicities, some of the content being about names. But then names are rooted in Language, I was surprised to to find synchronicites there too, that is English and Thai languages.
Having said that I also found that certains things only applied to original full names and not shortened and changed names, it was all quite uncanny. Much of this involved a letter count, 'a' = 1, 'b' = 2 and so on. I would not have believed had I not done the work myself.
One has to be careful, names can be false, film stars etc.
TransmissionDump
not rated yet Jul 13, 2013
Always wondered why the gearbox in my car is always packing it in.
alfie_null
not rated yet Jul 14, 2013
"Names make impressions, just as the way you clothe your (child) or, the you way you groom them makes an impression," insisted University of California emeritus psychology professor Albert Mehrabian, who authored a book on "Beneficial and Harmful Baby Names".

"Albert" is a good name for a university professor.
alfie_null
not rated yet Jul 14, 2013
In the US, names such as Latrina and Shanequa and Shaquille and Ladanian are given to black children by their parents not because they have any intrinsic, familial, ethnic or traditional meaning, but because they just like the way it sounds.

That so? You black? I'm not, so I can't speak with any authority, but if I had to guess, it would be for reasons like: "people I know and respect name their kids such", and "this is a way to identify my ethnicity". Underclass doesn't mean stupid.

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