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Julia Cresswell on first names

Julia Cresswell - photo writer author

How important is your name?

One of the ‘facts’ that are regularly quotes about first names is that experiments have show that unusual names have negative effects on people, and should not be given to children.  And yet, all the evidence shows that parents have not been following this advice.  From the 12th century through to the beginning of the 19th century some 20% of children born in any year were likely to be given the most popular name for either sex, 50% of them would have one of the three most popular names and 80% would have one of the top 10. From 1800 onwards these percentages rapidly declined.

Percentage of children given popular names in the UK

                        Masculine         Feminine
1900    top name          9%       7%
             top 3 names     23%     16%
             top 10 names   51%     39%

1950s   top name          6%       6%
             top 3 names     17%     13%
             top 10 names   38%     32%

1990s   top name          4%       3%
            top 3 names      11%     9%
             top 10 names   28%     24%

In the USA, and most figures for name statistics are quoted for the USA as the government there makes full information available which is not available in the UK, the figures show a similar pattern, although the mixed cultural heritage means that names have always been more diverse in the USA, and the stats reflect the conservatism of the USA in the 1950s

Percentage of children given popular names in the USA

1900    top name          6%       5%
            top 3 names      15%     9%
             top 10 names   31%     18%

1950    top name          5%       5%
             top 3 names     14%     11%
             top 10 names   33%     23%

2007      top name        1%       0.90%
              top 3 names    3%       2.50%
           top 10 names     9%       8%


These statistics raise two main questions.  What has been going on socially that people’s naming habits should have changed so radically in the last 200 years, and why do parents ignore the advice about unusual names?  The first question cannot be answered by science, as the parents cannot be asked, but there are some obvious things going on in society that can explain the changes.  The first is these is the Industrial Revolution and the resulting urbanisation of society.  These meant that as people left their small communities to gather in large cities the old naming traditions could be disrupted and, simply because they were exposed to more people, they were also likely to be exposed to a greater pool of names to choose from. City living would also mean that there was a need for a greater pool of names.  In a village it would not matter if there were 10 Johns, you would know them all, and would be able to distinguish them by some handy term, much as can still be found in parts of Wales where the milkman might be referred to as ‘Dai the Milk’ and the local shopkeeper as ‘Dai the Shop’.  In cities you need to be able to distinguish between people you do not know intimately, and different names serve this function. The introduction of mass education was another influence.  The Romantic movement had introduced a taste for exotic names in literature. The cult of the medieval that it brought with it lies behind the revival of Anglo-Saxon names, and these and other exotic names worked their way into popular literature, and from the mid 19th century we see an increasing use of names from popular novelists and similar sources.

The rapid increase in the pool of names that has occurred during the 20th century, and particularly since the 1950s can be explained by another major social shift, this time in how people address each other.  If you read Victorian novels you will be familiar with the fact that once you became an adult, only your nearest and dearest used your first name.  Sometimes even husband and wife address each other as Mr and Mrs rather than by their first name.  Trollop, in an admittedly extreme case, shows us in The Warden  (1855) Mrs Grantly going no further than to call her husband ‘Archdeacon’ even when in bed with him.  A child in the 1950s might be given the right to address close friends of their parents as ‘Auntie This’ of Uncle That’, but otherwise would never think to address an adult by their first name. Nowadays it is quite normal for complete strangers to write you letters addressing you by your first name.  This means that a first name has moved from being a way of distinguishing between say Mr John Smith and Mr George Smith. By dropping the use of a surname we have halved the distinguishing names for people, so it is no surprise if in response we have vastly increased the pool of first names.

This brings us back to the problem of why everyone ‘knows’ we should not do exactly what people are actually doing.  I do a lot of radio broadcasts on the subject of first names.  When some celebrity chooses an outlandish name for their child I get phoned up by radio stations and am regularly asked if it is not bad for the child; and surely they will be bullied at school? I usually answer that alas, if a child is going to attract the attention of bullies, then the bullies will always find something to pick on -  if it is not their name it will be something else.  As for the outlandish names of celebrity children, it has been suggested that it might be good for them, rather than bad, as it at least gives them something to be famous for in their own right, rather than being totally overshadowed by their parent’s fame.  Where then does the idea that unusual names are bad for you come from?  Sadly, from some rather poor science.  The concept entered the public domain from some experiments done in the USA in the 1950s.  College students were asked to rate a list of names for various qualities, and the results showed that the students assessed people with names from a core group much more positively than names they felt to be more unusual.  These results rapidly passed into the public domain.  It was only later that people re-examined these experiments and spotted some of the faults in them.  First of all, this was the button-downed 50s, and attitudes have changed since them.  More importantly, there were inherent flaws in the experiments.  The group of students used for the testing were all from the same narrow socio-economic group – their positive responses were to names that they identified as fitting in with their group.  As important was that some of the names used were ethnically marked, and the names which were identifiably associated with African Americans were responded to particularly negatively.  What in fact the students were doing was showing their class and race biases, and in this were showing themselves more socially aware than their professors.  This lack of ability to take into account the complexity of first names by psychologists is very striking.  Indeed, as an outsider interested in the history and origin or first names, it always surprises me how cloth-eared psychologists seem to be when it comes to what is an unusual name, and how people might respond to them.  Take, for example an American study published in 1977 (Richard L. Zweingenhaft ‘The Other Side of Unusual First Names’ in The Journal of Social Psychology).  Most of what he has to say makes excellent sense.  His experiments led him to conclude that an unusual name is not necessarily a disadvantage.  He shows that ‘unusual named members of the upper class were more, not less, likely to be found in Who’s Who’, that it was important to consider ‘the importance of considering the socioeconomic class, race, and sex of the individual before generalizing about the impact of an unusual first name.’  He made allowances for differences of race and gender in his experiments, giving his students a set of variable names and variable descriptions of the family background of parents choosing a name for a child and concluded ‘The socioeconomic status of the parent was an important variable in their evaluations.  In addition, the various unusual first names were given widely different evaluation from one another, one unusual name was given very positive ratings’. And yet…  He explains very carefully how he chose what was a common and what was an uncommon name by looking at a pool of over 11,000 school students.  However, he was so wrapped up in his procedure that he failed to consider the wider social implications of the names he chose as unusual.  One of the masculine names he chose as unusual was McKinley.  He has already discussed the use of surnames as first names among the upper classes, but failed to mention this when he discusses its high ranking among students, and totally ignored the fact that as the surname of a President of the United States it was bound to have positive associations.  Moreover, it was really not that unusual a name.  Although it had dropped out of the USA top 1000 names for boys after 1966, it had been in regular use from the late 19th century until then.  The other unusual boy’s name he used was Talmadge, which was poorly ranked.  Hardly surprising when you take into account that not only are the sounds in it associated with female names (Madge in particular), but it was well known as a feminine name in the form of the film star Norma Talmadge.  Courtney was the unusual female name that was well received by the students.  This is hardly surprising as it was actually the 76th most popular name for girls in 1977, had been rising steadily in popularity since the early 60s and was to reach 17th in rank in 1990.  These sorts of objections can be found in many such studies.

There is still conflicting evidence from these studies on the effects of unusual names.  I very much doubt that it will ever be possible to prove anything conclusively, as assessment of even what is an unusual name is so subjective.  It is often said that no one can speak in the UK without being condemned by someone else on class grounds. Much the same applies to names – so much so that it sometimes seems that a parent can’t win.  There is enormous variation in attitudes to and fashions for names even within the UK, let alone among English speakers in other countries.  The government publishes separate statistics for England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, and you can easily see the variation between these countries.  On can focus even more closely and find variation within regions and down even to cities and streets. The divisions are even greater across the socio-economic and cultural divides.  For every person who thinks it is cute or clever to name a child Princess Tiáamii, there will be another group who will tut-tut about good taste.  This is not all in one direction – you have only to listen to comedians (often a good source of social observation) mocking supposedly ‘posh’ names like Tarquin to realise how much we judge people by their choice of names.  These judgements are often based on ignorance.  The British, for example, may feel that President Obama’s daughter Malia has a strange name, although an American probably would not.  The name is popular in Hawaii where he grew up, being the local form of Maria, and is rising in popularity in the rest of the USA. 

However, the judgemental are influenced not just by class but also by time.  Take the two most mocked names of recent years, Sharon and Tracy.  Much mocked in the 1990s as ‘chav’ names, there was a time when they seemed as exotic and upper class as Tarquin.  It is their very success that has brought them disrepute.  Sad to say a lovely name like Chloe, once rare but enormously popular throughout the world in the late 1990s and early 21st century, may one day seem as déclassé and dated as Sharon.  A study of the way in which names can pass from the rare and elite to the over-popular can readily be found in one chapter of Levitt and Dubner’s popular book Freakonomics (2005). There they discuss a research that has been done on the socio-economic factors linked to first names.  Not only do they show the way in which names change class, they also look at the links between the years a mother has spent in school (often an indicator of socio-economic status) and the spelling of a name.  They list 10 different spellings of the popular name Jasmine, showing that the mothers whose children are given the more conventional spellings had, on average, noticeably more education that those who chose spellings such as Jazmyne – something prospective parents might like to keep in mind.  They also tackle the vexed question of distinctively African-American names.  Studies have shown that if you send in identical job applications but with either a typically white middle class name or typically African-American name, the person with a ‘white’ name will get more job interviews – evidence that in this case names can matter.  They discuss how much this is due to overt racism, and how much this is due to the judgements we make of the type of background a person with any given name is likely to have.  They conclude that trends such as typically African-American names emerge out of class solidarity and are the result of socio-economic conditions rather than a cause, and that:-
The data show that, on average, a person with a distinctively black name…does have a worse life outcome than a woman named Molly or a man named Jake.  But this isn’t the fault of their names.  If two black boys, Jake Williams and DeShawn Williams, are born in the same neighborhood and into the same familial and economic circumstances, they would likely have similar life outcomes.  But the kind of parents who name their son Jake don’t tend to live in the same neighborhoods or share economic circumstances with the kind of parents who name their son DeShawn.  And that’s why, on average, a boy named Jake will tend to earn more money and get more education than a boy named DeShawn.  A DeShawn is more likely to have been handicapped by a low-income, low-education, single-parent background.  His name is an indicator – not a cause – of his outcome.’

The most important overall conclusion that Levitt and Dubner make from the point of view of someone trying to choose names is that the Californian data show us ‘how parents see themselves – and more significantly, what kind of expectations they have for their children.’

So what should a parent today do?  My personal advice is to do your research and think hard about the long-term effects of a name on a child.  Listen hard to what people in your circle are calling their children, particularly the very young ones.  Research what other people are calling their children, and learn from that.  There is plenty of material around for this.  Governments publish statistics and there are good (as well as bad) websites on first names (see the introduction). These can tell you about names in steady use and those that are going out of fashion as well as the popular ones. Think carefully about the combination of first name and surname, considering rhythm, combinations of initials, overall effect.  Don’t try to be too clever – take warning from examples such as the American couple who wanted to call their child Destiny and mis-spelt it Density, or the poor child in Scotland whose parent followed the fashion there for names which combine variants of the name Anna and Lisa, but came up with the form Analyse.  Above all remember that your little baby will one day be an adult.  Names that are cute on a baby may be a hindrance when the child is grown.  Names that are too fashionable may date them.  Try to give them choice.  The current fashion is to give children a pet form of a name, but why restrict their choice?  Call a child Ellie and she is stuck with it.  Give the child the full form Eleanor and you can still call her Ellie, but if she wants she can choose all sorts of other pet forms or go by the full, formal form when it suits her in adult life.  Above all be resigned to the fact that your child will probably reproach you for your choice at some point in their life.

This is a version of text which will be appearing in the forthcoming Chambers Dictionary of FIrst Names, to be published in October 2009

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