Do our names define us? – Dennis the dentist and other mysteries of naming

In previous posts I have looked at brand names and political labels. Today I am going to examine our given names, those which our parents bestow upon us at or near birth. They used to be called Christian names when I was growing up, but in a secular country this has become anachronistic. Although it is not the norm in many parts of the world, in western societies the given name is almost always the first name and that is the term I will use from now on.

First names were traditionally used in a familiar and friendly manner in informal situations. In more formal situations the surname was generally used. The idiom on first-name terms alludes to the familiarity of addressing another by a given name. However, in recent years there has been a tendency to use first names more and more. I think this familiarity has become overused, but this is the subject for another post.

Names are subject to a boom and bust cycle. And there is no doubt that the churn rate shot up in the twentieth century and has continued this century. Almost every name that becomes popular seems to begin as a high class name, at the top of the income distribution, and over the course of time they gradually work their way down the class ladder, becoming more and more popular among the plebs. And as names become popular among the lower status parents, the higher-educated ones flee in horror at what have now become vulgar names. And the cycle begins again.

Where influences people’s choice of name? Sometimes there can be the influence of famous personalities. According to linguist Steven Pinker the name Darren was unknown in England until the comedy Bewitched. For obvious reasons Adolf has not been popular since the 1930s. However, sociologist Stanley Lieberson has argued that in most cases that the increase in popularity generally happens before the influence of a celebrity kicks in. The name of the celebrity may help boost the name to even greater heights, but it didn’t create the trend.

When celebrities begin naming their own children you get some bizarre results. I know many people bemoan the influence of celebrities on society. but I don’t think we have seen anyone rushing out to copy these gems:

Apple Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin

Brooklyn, Romeo, Cruz and Harper 7 David and Victoria Beckham

Diva Thin Muffin and Moon Unit – Frank Zappa

Jermajesty – Jermaine Jackson

Moxie Crimefighter – Penn Jillette

Rocket Man – Pharrell Williams

Tu Morrow – Rob Morrow

One fascinating topic is the evolution of African-American names. This featured in the first Freakonomics book, written Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. The data show the black-white gap to be a recent phenomenon. Until the early 1970s there was a great overlap between black and white names. The typical baby girl born in a black neighbourhood in 1970 was given a name that was twice as common among blacks as it was among whites. By 1980 she received a name that was twenty times more common among blacks. The trend is less marked among boys’ names because parents of all races are less adventurous with boys’ names than with girls’. One possible cause is the impact of the Black Power movement and its campaign for a distinctive identity.

Levitt and Dubner studied California birth records from the 1990s.More than 40% of the black girls born in the Golden state in a given year receive a name that not one of the roughly 100,000 baby white girls received that year. Even more remarkably, nearly 30% of the black girls are given a name that is unique among the names of every baby, white and black, born that year in California. Unique was one of the most interesting examples. Just in the 1990s there were 228 babies named Unique. There were also such unconventional spellings Uneek, Uneque, and Uneqqee. It is a black parent’s signal of solidarity with the community.

What are the effects of this? One study called “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?”, by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, found that if you send out a  CV with a white-sounding name, you are 50% more likely to be called back than an identical CV with a black-sounding name.

Some social critics want to argue that the name is destiny. In Freakonomics they cite the case of Temptress, a fifteen-year-old girl appearing before Albany County Family Court in New York. Judge W. Dennis Duggan had long been aware of the strange names of many of offenders who appeared in his courtroom. But Duggan considered Temptress the most outrageous name he had come across. He was so intrigued that he wanted to interrogate the mother. She had liked a young actress who played Vanessa Huxtable on the Cosby show – Tempestt Bledsoe. She only found out later that she had misspelled the name. Was Temptress really living up to her name or would she have wound up in trouble even if her mother had called her Faith Hope or Chastity?

We need to consider the kind of parent that is most likely to give a child such a distinctively black name? The data offer a clear answer: an unmarried, low-income, undereducated teenage mother from a black neighbourhood who has a distinctively black name herself. It is surely this reality that is the cause of under-achievement. Her name is a symptom—not a cause—of many negative outcomes.

This also shows that correlation is not causation. A similar case is that of the supposed connection between being called Dennis and becoming a dentist. It is called nominative determinism. The idea behind it is that people should prefer people, places, and things that they associate (unconsciously) with the self…people’s positive automatic associations about themselves may influence their feelings about almost anything that people associate with the self. I am sceptical. Uri Simonsohn studied the same data and came to a very different conclusion. Instead of comparing the number of dentists named Dennis to those named Jerry or Walter he compared the number of dentists named Dennis to the number of lawyers named Dennis. Making this comparison, Simonsohn finds that Dennis is just as overrepresented among lawyers as among dentists.

So perhaps we shouldn’t get so hung up on names. They are not destiny. We like to emphasise the importance of our first official act as parents. This has spawned myriad books, websites, and even baby-name consultants. I will conclude with this amusing anecdote from Freakonomics:

… in 1958, a New York City man named Robert Lane decided to call his baby son Winner. The Lanes, who lived in a housing project in Harlem, already had several children, each with a fairly typical name. But this boy—well, Robert Lane apparently had a special feeling about this one. Winner Lane: how could he fail with a name like that?

Three years later, the Lanes had another baby boy, their seventh and last child. For reasons that no one can quite pin down today, Robert decided to name this boy Loser. It doesn’t appear that Robert was unhappy about the new baby; he just seemed to get a kick out of the name’s bookend effect. First a Winner, now a Loser. But if Winner Lane could hardly be expected to fail, could Loser Lane possibly succeed?

Loser Lane did in fact succeed. He went to prep school on a scholarship, graduated from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, and joined the New York Police Department (this was his mother’s longtime wish), where he made detective and, eventually, sergeant. Although he never hid his name, many people were uncomfortable using it. “So I have a bunch of names,” he says today, “from Jimmy to James to whatever they want to call you. Timmy. But they rarely call you Loser.” Once in a while, he said, “they throw a French twist on it: ‘Losier.’” To his police colleagues, he is known as Lou.

And what of his brother with the can’t-miss name? The most noteworthy achievement of Winner Lane, now in his midforties, is the sheer length of his criminal record: nearly three dozen arrests for burglary, domestic violence, trespassing, resisting arrest, and other mayhem.

These days, Loser and Winner barely speak. The father who named them is no longer alive. Clearly he had the right idea—that naming is destiny—but he must have gotten the boys mixed up.



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