Take Two for June 24, 2013

#MyName: The importance of names and what they say about you

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What factors influence the names parents give their babies?

Chances are if you were born in the last year, your name would be Jacob or Sophia, the most popular baby names in the country right now. Or maybe your name is something more unique, like North West, reportedly what Kanye West and Kim Kardashian named their newborn. 

Or perhaps your name isn't as special as you thought it was:

"My name's Grant Alexander Murray, and I thought I was named after Ulysses S. Grant. One day I was talking to my mom about it and it turns she was watching 'General Hospital' when she was pregnant and there was a Dr. Grant on the show. One day she decided to name me Grant. It kind of feels like a cheap shot, like, yeah, I just grabbed the first thing I saw on TV."

That's a listener from our Public Insight Network, and we heard from many of you when we asked, "What's the story behind your name?"

So we want to look at how important names can be and what they say about you. Joining us is Dalton Conley, a sociology professor at New York University, whose own kids have their own unusual names: his daughter E, and his son Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Knuckles.

Interview Highlights:

How he settled on his kids' unusual names:
"E was born two months premature and we were caught a little off-guard. We had a number of 'E' names that we liked, including Early as a play on the fact that she came early. We ended up deciding, 'Hey, let's just give here the letter 'E' and she can decide what it stands for.' So far, she's been E the whole time. She's 15 now, and should be rebelling against her parents, but she seems to like the name.

"As for my son, it would have been funny if we had just named him John or Mike after E, but I think we wanted to give an equally unique name to him. I thought, 'Let's pick a name where we really confound the expectations of his ethnicity.' He's a blond-ish, blue-eyed white kid. We settled on Yo Xing. It's 'I' in Spanish but also 'hey' or 'you' in New Yorkese. When he was three, he wanted to be able to control his name like his sister could, so he added a couple of names himself. 'Heyno' and 'Knuckles,' which was my dog's name when I was a kid. Even though he did, like his sister, go through some phases where I think he wanted a 'normal name.' He called himself Sean for a while. He's now reverted to his own name, and he's pretty happy about it."

Listener Story: "My name is Revvell Revati. I guess when I was in my 30s I decided to change it. Revel, to me, has meaning because, at the time, I was going through a lot of mental, emotional and physical changes. Having a new name, especially something like 'Revel,' meaning 'to celebrate life,' and so I figured it was time to start doing that. I wanted a name I could live up to

On people deciding their own names:
"If someone wants to change their name and embrace something new and have a new start in life, that's great. You may argue that giving kids some control over their names undermines their sense of being taken care of or security or the structure of society. I don't think that's the case in our kids' instances, but who knows?"

On personalities attached to names:
"As a researcher, I have to say that we don't know what, if any, the effects of names are. However, as a parent, my intuition tells me that it's 100 percent true that it's not the dominant effect on the human you become, but it probably plays a certain role. The name probably puts some constraints on you and opens up some opportunities. In my kids' case, I know that, because they have the weirdest names in their schools, people have known who they are well before they've met them."

Listener Story: "My full name is Sharon Patricia Fiblecorn Chapman. I went through most of grade school as Patricia, and when I got older, I went by Sharon. Sharon was a little more refined, you hit junior high and think, 'Hey, I'm growing up, and I need to be more of a girl.' Pat was a little bit of a tomboy and would rough-up, but now that I look back, I think I was more of a Pat than I thought."

On how someone could think Pat is more of a tomboy:
Often, you can have a name that has a personal meaning, or no major meaning, but then popular culture comes in and rewrites the meaning of your name for you. For example, Kim, prior to the 1950s, was an androgynous name. You had an almost equal number of male Kims and female Kims. In fact, you may have had more male Kims. In 1957, Vertigo, the Hitchcock film, came out. That made Kim Novak an instant star. All of a sudden, the next year, there were no more male babies being named Kim. It had become a feminine name because of the aura she gave it. Sometimes, your name gets rewritten for you, whether you like it or not.

On what's at stake when you choose your name:
"There's a big debate in the academic literature as to whether or not names can affect your socioeconomic opportunity. There is some evidence, for example, that boys who end up with gender-ambiguous names tend to be more disruptive or get into more fights or get into more problems in school once they hit adolescence. There's evidence that kids with blacker sounding names get treated worse in schools than kids with whiter sounding names. We can't really know for sure, but I think there is enough evidence to say that there are some serious consequences for names. The biggest reflection of a name is what it says about the parents' tastes."

On how common name changing is when entering a new culture:
"I think people are more likely to take on a different abbreviation of their name. Sometimes they're Robert, sometimes they're Bobby in different contexts. The wholesale swapping out of a new name or using your middle name as opposed to your first name is more rare."

See more #MyName stories from KPCC listeners: 

 


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