SO­CIAL STUD­IES

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, it turns out.

North & South - - Columns -

Margo White asks what’s in a name.

Ican’t re­mem­ber ex­actly when I be­came aware that my first name was un­usual, but I do re­mem­ber think­ing that girls called Karen, Lisa, Katie and Michelle were gen­er­ally the pret­ti­est in the class and the most pop­u­lar – they were yet to be dis­placed by Olivia, Emily, Emma and Char­lotte.

I also had a dou­ble-bar­relled sur­name – be­fore dou­ble-bar­relled sur­names were a dime-a-dozen, and when they were still of­ten per­ceived as an in­di­ca­tor of so­cial as­pi­ra­tion. We weren’t a so­cially as­pir­ing fam­ily, and cer­tainly not posh, but I did won­der if some of the nuns who taught me thought that some­one with a name like mine needed to be cut down to size.

Well, one or two of them cer­tainly seemed to make a habit of bel­low­ing out my name over the loud­speaker or at assem­bly in re­buke, usu­ally for talk­ing when I wasn’t sup­posed to be talk­ing. Some­times when I wasn’t even talk­ing. Of course, it might have been the sharp-sound­ing con­so­nants of my name that in­vited re­buke. Or maybe I re­ally did talk too much...

I dropped the mid­dle bar­rel when I be­came a jour­nal­ist, be­cause a dou­ble-bar­relled sur­name can make things com­pli­cated when your job in­volves in­tro­duc­ing your­self to strangers all the time. (Me: “It’s Margo Beamish-white from...” Them: “What?”)

There were only two of us with the same first name in my high school, both of us in the same year. The other one was pretty and pop­u­lar and it was nice to have her around; I’m sure she helped nor­malise our un­usual first name. But ap­par­ently I was al­most called Elizabeth, and I used to think (and some­times still do) that if I’d grown up as Beth or Becky or Liz, things would have been dif­fer­ent. If I’d been Liz, I might have been a cooler kid! My own name could never be short­ened to some­thing cute like Liz – some called me “Marj” for a time, which sounds like an un­sat­u­rated fat.

“I can­not re­call a time when I haven’t reg­is­tered a susurrus of amuse­ment on an­nounc­ing my name,” notes the writer, Will Self, in a BBC pod­cast in which he con­sid­ers whether his name shaped him as an ego­tist – think of his name in re­verse or­der and you can see the prob­lem. At pri­mary school, he re­mem­bers kids gath­er­ing around him in a ring and chant­ing “Self-ish! Self-ish!”, but as an adult he’s in­ured to the mirth his name pro­vokes. And if his name has shaped him in any way, it’s only in mak­ing him alert to the funny side of other peo­ple’s names. “In our house­hold, the ut­terly blame­less and per­fectly con­ti­nent philoso­pher Alain de Bot­ton is al­ways re­ferred to as Alain de Bum-bum.”

“What’s in a name?” wrote Shake­speare. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In an ideal world, yes, but a lot of re­search has shown that our names sig­nal in­for­ma­tion about who we are, which can in turn shape who we be­come. In an in­flu­en­tial 1948 study, re­searchers looked at 3300 men who had re­cently grad­u­ated and found those with un­usual names were more likely to have dropped out and show signs of psy­cho­log­i­cal neu­ro­sis than those with more common ones. A rare name, the re­searchers con­cluded, had a detri­men­tal psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fect on its bearer.

Poet Philip Larkin might be more ap­pro­pri­ate than Shake­speare: “They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad/ They may not mean to, but they do.”

Since then, nu­mer­ous stud­ies have shown that our name can in­flu­ence where we live, who we marry, our choice of pro­fes­sion, how well we do at school or in our cho­sen pro­fes­sion – there’s even a study show­ing that if the first let­ter of our name matches that of a hur­ri­cane’s name, we’re more likely to do­nate to dis­as­ter re­lief af­ter it hits. This is of­ten put down to what psy­chol­o­gists call the “im­plicit ego­tism” ef­fect – we like things and peo­ple we are fa­mil­iar with, in­clud­ing other peo­ple’s names, right down to the first let­ter.

Stud­ies that sup­port the con­nec­tion be­tween name and life out­come have more re­cently

Ap­par­ently I was al­most called Elizabeth, and I used to think (and some­times still do) that if I’d grown up as Beth or Becky or Liz, things would have been dif­fer­ent.

been crit­i­cised for over­stat­ing things, and for not ac­count­ing well enough for con­found­ing fac­tors. Stud­ies might show you’re more likely to be­come a doc­tor if you’re called John, for in­stance, but that’s partly be­cause there are al­ready lots of Johns around who fetch up in all sorts of pro­fes­sions.

But there is good ev­i­dence names can trig­ger cer­tain bi­ases that af­fect peo­ple’s lives. In 2004, US re­searchers cre­ated and sent in 5000 re­sumes in re­sponse to job ads posted in the clas­si­fieds of two American news­pa­pers. Some of the CVS had “white-sound­ing names” ( like Emily and Greg) and oth­ers had “black-sound­ing names” ( like Lak­isha and Ja­mal). One out of ev­ery 10 “white” re­sumes re­ceived a call­back, while only one of ev­ery 15 “black” re­sumes did.

A study by Swedish econ­o­mists com­pared the earn­ings of a group of im­mi­grants who changed their names to Swedish-sound­ing or neu­tral names with a group of im­mi­grants who came from the same re­gions but didn’t. They found a 26 per cent dif­fer­ence in earn­ings be­tween the name-chang­ers and the name-keep­ers. In other words, at least in 1990s Swe­den, keep­ing your for­eign-sound­ing name came with a hefty cost.

Of course, there’s a well- estab­lished tra­di­tion among im­mi­grants of chang­ing their name to fit in with what­ever en­vi­ron­ment they have ended up in, if only so their name can be more eas­ily pro­nounced.

“Peo­ple gen­er­ally pre­fer not to think more than nec­es­sary, and they tend to pre­fer ob­jects, peo­ple, prod­ucts and words that are sim­ple to pro­nounce and un­der­stand,” writes Adam Al­ter, au­thor of Drunk Tank Pink; and Other Un­ex­pected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel and Be­have. Al­ter co-au­thored a 2011 study in which he found peo­ple with easy-to-pro­nounce names did seem to have an eas­ier ride in life; peo­ple pre­ferred politi­cians with eas­ily pro­nounce­able names, for in­stance, and lawyers with eas­ily pro­nounce­able names were more likely to rise up the ranks in American law firms. This ap­par­ent bias was ev­i­dent among peo­ple with hard-to-pro­nounce An­gloAmer­i­can names, too, so it couldn’t be put down to xeno­pho­bia.

Al­ter has cau­tioned par­ents against wor­ry­ing too much about what to call their chil­dren, though, as the in­flu­ences of names are sub­tle, and sub­ject to the forces of change. Many might not have known how to pro­nounce “Barack” a decade ago, but that didn’t stop Obama, whose name would now roll off the col­lec­tive tongue as eas­ily as Ron­ald, Ge­orge and Bill.

Con­text is every­thing, and we do tend to ad­just and adapt, to our own names and to other peo­ple’s names. I men­tioned Al­ter’s study to the edi­tor of this mag­a­zine, whose son lives in Bei­jing. “Pos­si­bly, had we known he was go­ing to end up in China, we wouldn’t have named him Lau­rence Lewis Lar­son,” she says. But he has a Chi­nese name now, eas­ily pro­nounced where he lives, and is ap­par­ently do­ing just fine.

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