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.