“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare’s Juliet muses. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
While Shakespeare may have been a master of metrical lines, it can be argued that he was completely wrong on the importance of names. They affect people every moment of their lives; few days go by without hearing somebody’s name. Names organize society by recognizing and uniquely labeling every person’s identity.
Some people like their names; others don’t. Long, short, simple, hard to pronounce, hyphenated, common or multicultural, they all affect their owners in some way or another, whether it be good or bad.
Dr. Iman Nick, president of the American Name Society, said names and name-giving are the two most fundamental manifestations of human connection and cognition.
“Evidence of this fact can be seen in the linguistic and cognitive development of children. As soon as children begin to acquire a language, they begin to ask about for the names used to label their perceptual world,” Dr. Nick said. “From sign languages to spoken languages, the names we use to label our perceptual world form an intellectual framework to understand and communicate. The study of names can provide us with significant insights into the different ways people perceive the world.”
Those who have difficulties understanding their identities seem to reflect the importance of names most.
Freshman Samiel Clements discovered his transgender identity and spent hours coming up with a name to suit him for the rest of his life. Clements’s “dead” name, his name given at birth, wasn’t as gender neutral as he wanted it to be. After analyzing his options, he chose Samiel.
“It was midnight, and I wasn’t even out to my parents or any of my friends yet, so choosing a name on my own was slightly difficult,” Clements said. “I was under the covers with my phone and just started looking up some gender neutral names. Eventually I settled on Samiel. I don’t know why, but Samuel just didn’t sound as pleasing to me, but Samiel was a perfect fit.”
Since identifying as transgender last November, Clements feels free to express himself to welcoming people. As great as it is to receive acceptance, Clements also struggles with people who refuse to acknowledge his name.
“The only person that didn’t accept my name or me being transgender is my brother,” Clements said. “He still calls me his sister and calls me by my dead name. However, he’s 33 and lives far away from me, so it doesn’t impact my daily life.”
Clements’s case is a great example of the importance of identity and how that affects a person. Even though Clements is happy with his new name and identity, he still deals with people that don’t understand it.
“When people call me by my dead name, it really, really hurts,” Clements said. “It’s like being broken up in a way. Sometimes I even break down crying.”
Sometimes a name change is not a personal choice. Senior Divya Divya experienced problems as she went through U.S. Customs and Embassy, which resulted in her legal name changing from Divya Jairam in Pakistan to “First name unknown” Divya in the United States. As she applied for her passport, her father just wrote “Divya” with no last name, because in Pakistan, policies are relaxed. It didn’t matter if she had a last name as much as it matters in the U.S.
In the fourth grade, everyone called her “first name unknown,” so on school records, her family changed her name to Divya Divya. On her green card, however, they changed her name to “no name given” Divya. When Divya gets older, she plans on changing her legal name to Divya Divya.
“Whenever I do anything that involves sharing my identity, it always takes long,” Divya said. “Airports and cruises are horrible because they will spend half an hour just trying to figure out my name.”
Although she finds it a hassle at times, she thinks her parents picked a beautiful name for her and she loves how unique her situation is.
“It displays my crazy personality, as well,” Divya said. “My name is specifically unique to me because everyone in my house has different last names. It’s a little different from the status quo.”
Even though name-giving may seem random, there is a scientific strategy to it. The study of onomastics is the history and use of proper names.
Dr. Nick said social prejudices affect the way the public perceives name-bearers, and the fault of many parents is that they try to influence their children’s success with onomastic recommended names.
“It is very difficult to predict what names will be favored 10, 20 or 30 years from now,” Dr. Nick said. “The popular media can profoundly affect the collective popularity of a personal name, making a name which was once out very much in, or the reverse. Even if it were possible to make such predictions with a high degree of accuracy, I would contend that the solution to name-based prejudice is to increase social awareness about the dangers of implicit biases.”
The importance of names and onomastics affects people for their entire lives and can have profound impacts on them, from the way they’re identified to the way other people judge them.
“The study of names can provide us with significant insights into the different ways people perceive the world they live in,” Dr. Nick said. “The strong positive and negative associations that names carry affect the name-bearer; therefore, the name children carry can have a profound impact upon their development.”
Question & Answer with Dr. Iman Nick
Dr. Iman Nick is the president of the American Name Society.
Question: How can somebody apply onomastics to name giving?
Answer: The research findings gathered from the scientific investigation of names and naming (onomastics) can be used by the general public in any number of ways. For example, in the area of personal naming, the data compiled by onomastic specialists can be used to identify important trends in the selection of children’s names. Parents can, and very often do, consult these lists of most and least popular names when searching for a name for the newborn. This is one way that onomastic science can be used in everyday name giving. Another possibility involves the naming of products. One of the keys to successfully marketing a product marketed in today’s global economy is the development of a product name. Onomasticians regularly serve as consultants to help companies develop, market and protect the names of both goods and services.
Question: What is the importance of names?
Answer: Names and naming are two of the most fundamental manifestations of human communication and cognition. Evidence of this fact can be seen in the linguistic and cognitive development of children. As soon as children begin to acquire a language, they begin to ask about for the names used to label their perceptual world. From sign languages to spoken languages, the names we use to label our perceptual world form an intellectual framework to understand and communicate. That being the case, the study of names can provides us with significant insights into the different ways people perceive the world they live in.
Question: How do names affect somebody as they grow up?
Answer: The name children carry can have a profound impact upon their development. From a scientific point of view, it is not the name in and of itself that affects this development. Rather it is the strong positive and negative associations that names carry that can affect the name-bearer. Research, for example, has repeatedly demonstrated that social prejudices for or against personal names can affect that ways in which name-bearers are perceived by the surrounding social environment (e.g. the degree to which the name-bearer is considered to be attractive, intelligent, likable or the reverse). These name-biased prejudices, like most biases, are often unconscious. As a result they frequently affect people’s decision-making and behavior without direct anyone’s direct notice. The effects may nevertheless be significant for the name-bearer. Children, who have names that are perceived by the larger environment as being ugly, silly or somehow unfitting, may find themselves suffering the ill-effects of name-bias throughout their development. The reserve may also happen; that is, children who have names that are considered to be beautiful, pleasant and desirable may experience a certain degree of social favoritism. Parents who seek to protect their children by only selecting attractive names may find this task to be relatively impossible task. It is very difficult, even for onomasticians, to predict what names will be favored or disfavored ten, twenty, or thirty years from now. If for no other reason, the popular media can suddenly profoundly affect the collective popularity of a personal name, making a name which was once OUT very much IN…or the reverse. Even if it were possible to make such predictions with a high degree of accuracy, I would still contend that the solution to name-based prejudice is not that society expect potential victims to constrict themselves. Instead, the answer, I believe is to increase social awareness about and sensitivity to the dangerous of implicit biases with the goal of curbing the behavior of the persons carrying the prejudice.
Question: What goes into making a name?
Answer: This is an exceedingly difficult question and is at the heart of an exceedingly heated age-old debate over what precisely is a WORD. At the end of the day though, a name is a linguistic marker used to label and identify an entity. In spoken and signed languages, this label may be composed of a single word, a phrase, even a sentence. Generally speaking, each culture and language has a set of sociolinguistic conventions for constructing names. One of the best ways to become aware of these conventions is to send time in a culture different than your own. In no time, you will discover naming traditions which are quite different than your own. For example, you might find that a name that in your culture is only given to males is routinely given in another culture to girls. There have been a lot of efforts made to discover universal rules in how people make names. I think the one universal principle that we can all pretty much agree on is that the way names are formed differs greatly cross-culturally, but the impetus to name seems to be, in and of itself, common to all human cultures. What’s more, there is a great deal of research coming from the fields of zoology and animal psychology which would seem to indicate that naming is not an exclusively human behaviour but other species use names as well (e.g. dolphins). If one considers the fundamental importance of names and naming to organizing and understanding the world around us, such research should actually come as no surprise.
Question: Can a name reflect who somebody is?
Answer: As I explained before, names, like all labels, carry associations. Where personal names are concerned, these associations are often related to expectations regarding a name-bearer’s identity (e.g. age, gender, socio-economic background, ethnoracial or national heritage, religion, personality, etc.). Want to test this? What image comes to mind when you hear the name “LaTisha Johnson”? Did you think of an elderly white man from Australia? As a result, when you meet someone and you have the feeling that his/her name “fits,” what you are essentially saying is that person’s name fits your internalized name-based expectations or associations. So judgments about whether a name reflects someone are really asking about the degree of congruence between our name-biases (positive, negative or neutral) and the person standing in front of us. Another issue to take into account here is that name-bearers also have these internal biases about their own names. A person may consciously or unconsciously attempt to conform or resist these name-based associations to better fit into or fight against these expectations. Of course, it may also happen that a name-bearer may simply decide that it is impossible to live with the perceived disjoint between his/her name and his/her self. In such cases, the person may decide to go by another name such as a nickname that is a variant of his/her original name; use another one of his/her names (e.g. a middle name); or take on a completely different name. What I find is particularly interesting is how people change their perception of and relationship to their name as they grow older. A teenager may go by the name of “Jamie” or the nickname “Jay” and then, years later decide that the full name “James” suits his adult self better. Another example involves a person who is born with the female-marked name “Ann” and later adopts the name “Andrew” in a public declaration of his true gender and sex. In some cultures, it is both expected and respected that developmental changes will often accompany the desire and need to alter one’s name. In other cultures, such name changes are made relatively difficult.
Question: Can you give somebody the wrong name?
Answer: Hmm…I would say that what would be wrong is to force an individual to accept a name that the name-bearer feels is wrong. Many excellent examples of this phenomenon can be found in group names. It would be, in my opinion, wrong to address someone who is prefers the name Cherokee with the name “Redskin” simply because you feel comfortable with that name or someone else you know feels comfortable with that name. I mean, you would not go up to a woman and insist on her calling her by the name Christina when she tells you that her name is Faith. And just as it would be nonsense to then argue that it is appropriate to call her Christina because you have a good friend who is also a woman and she is called Christina, it is also ridiculous to insist that because one set of people accepts a particular group name, everyone else in that group must also feel comfortable with that group name. The problem in both situations is not the name but the use of a name to wrongfully exercise power over another person or group.