Names, and their connotations, are mutable. Somebody who has spent their life as a Mr Charles Hoad, shortened to C. Hoad, would not have had any negative connotations to his name until the last few years (why not check Urban Dictionary or, for the brave, Tumblr?). And, as with mohawks, names come in and out of fashion. Fuck you, the mohawk’ll come back. Forecast, boom!
In 2011, there were only 10 babies named Desmond, and only 4 Clives. Desmonds and Clives are ever-dwindling. Yet my auto-correct does recognise them (although my name still throws it off kilter). Also in 2011, there were as many sprogs dubbed Derek as there were Ace. Tastes change, whether or not people have an opinion on how the name sounds.
By contrast, names sometimes deliberately make a statement. My parents, for instance, wanted both their sons to have Welsh forenames. Having moved to England, I quite like it; it’s a conscious part of my identity as a Welshman. If I ever have children, I would be very in favour of another Welsh name (I’ve always liked Angharad).
This can be done subtly. My neighbours in Swansea named their daughter Emilia. It’s roots are Welsh, but is close enough in pronunciation to Amelia. This is significant in that nobody will bat a eyelid, or think the name “weird” – Amelia was the top girls’ name in 2011. Coincidentally, a certain Ms Pond made her debut on Doctor Who in 2010. We could be back to fashion.
Do we have name-based prejudices? Probably. And they can point to a more unappealing psychological reality. A study called Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?, by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullaianathan in 2004, sent thousands of fake résumés to job openings in Boston. Names classified (by the study) as “White” and “Black” were assigned at random to the résumés. They discovered that “White-sounding” names received 50% more callbacks for interviews.
It’s not just race. Would you be more surprised if you were introduced to a nine-year-old Doreen, or to a ninety-year old? Of course, some of this is down to fashion. And there are flaws to the Boston study. Whereas the name Will has clear Indo-European roots, that doesn’t necessarily make it “White-sounding”. But one of the first Wills to pop into my head was Will Smith (just after the second-in line to the throne).
There is little evidence that this same effect is found in surnames; these tend to be seen as less-related to family circumstances. But I disagree. What assumptions would you make about (the fictional) Ms Featherly-Smythe? Is she tewwibly posh, or does she just not want to adopt her husband’s surname?
Sidenote: this is something that really bothers me. My partner and I are engaged, and would like to share a surname. I don’t want to lose mine to his (Karlsson is a pseudonym, by the way). But I don’t expect my partner to lose his, either. What should we do? Double-barreled versions look ridiculous and unwieldy. We could pick a new surname. But what? I thought Fox, because it’s short, and nobody’s going to misspell it. I’m stumped.
Yes. I’ve fallen into the trap. I did call a potential surname “ridiculous”. And I thought of Fox “because it’s easy”. I’m guilty of judging a name.
There seems to be little connection to etymology here. Native English speakers seem to pick and choose whatever they like for a name, regardless of its origin. We aren’t alone in this; I have a Spanish-speaking penpal named Omar (not unusual in Cuba).
Having said that, to me the social and psychological impact of a name is very real. Take New Zealand. Like several other countries – Iceland and France among them – New Zealand regulates its names. Iceland and France have lists you can pick from; the Kiwis have an ever-growing list of banned names. Some of the banned names require a second reading. Kiwis are certainly creative in this field, along with zorbing and kits for homemade yoghurt (yeah, there’re called EasiYo and they exist). Names like AJ, CJ and the like are banned – though as nicknames, they’re fine. That’d be a bit draconian otherwise. Some of the other no-no names are (hello, judgmental Karlsson):
Lucifer (this means “the bringer of light”, which sounds nice to me; told you people don’t worry about etymology)
Justice (also Justus and Juztice, and fucking rightly so)
. (yes, a full stop. Kiwis, what are you doing?)
V8 (Kiwis. Stahp)
Benson and Hedges (twins – I worry that someone made such a hackneyed stab at this)
4Real (because the parents couldn’t believe their kid was “for real”. *Gouges out eyes*)
And, most scadenfreude of the lot, Talula does the Hula from Hawaii. When someone called their kid this for nine years, before it was banned, you really do think that government intervention may be required. The judge in this case noted that the name “makes a fool of the child” and, frankly, it’s hard not to disagree. Especially if she isn’t a great dancer.
So – is there anything linguistic behind prejudices in names? Probably not. Do I think these prejudices exist? Completely. And that unnerves me.