Sunday, September 15, 2013

What's in a Name?

...A rose by any other name would smell as sweet..............

But would it really, Julliette? If Romeo had been named Flugh, would he have been as romantic a figure?

Many countries insist that given names be chosen from a specified list. The US isn't one of them, so imagination occasionally runs wild. Biblical names tend to be popular, and recent lists of popular boys names are strongly dominated by them. The same is true in Spain, slightly less true in Hungary, and largely absent in Sweden. In the US the most popular girl's names of 2012 contains only a sprinkling of biblical derivations - famous actresses seem to be a much bigger influence.

Unusual names probably have a few different origins, but we know that conventional names dominate in highly affluent neighborhoods. Unusual names, on the other hand, dominate in poorer neighborhoods, and especially among blacks of low economic status. Clebrities also are famous for their wacky baby names.

Giving your kid a peculiar name can be an attempt to give him or her something, especially if you have nothing material to offer. It can be an act of rebellion. I suspect, though, that it's usually a way to build cultural fences. The Puritan movement was an exceptionally rich source of weird English names. Joseph Norwood, writing in Slate, has some of the more colorful ones:

Praise-God. Full name, Praise-God Barebone. The Barebones were a rich source of crazy names. This one was a leather-worker, member of a particularly odd Puritan group and an MP. He gave his name to the Barebones Parliament, which ruled Britain in 1653. If-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned. Praise-God's son, he made a name for himself as an economist. But, for some inexplicable reason, he decided to go by the name Nicolas Barbon. Fear-God. Also a Barebone. Job-raked-out-of-the-ashes Has-descendents Wrestling Fight-the-good-fight-of-faith

Names of that sort are cultural badges, proclaiming your membership in a group and definitively separating you from the larger culture. The same can be said of the tendency for some unusual "Black" names.

Jamelle Bouie has an article entitled Are Blacks Names ‘Weird,’ or Are You Just Racist?, but I think the article is confusing a couple of different phenomena. First of all, it's a simple statistical fact that black parents, especially those of low socio-economic status, tend to choose unusual names (statistically rare names) more frequently than affluent whites. He points out that plenty of white people also have peculiar names, and notes that many of them do quite well (as do some weirdly named black people - see, e.g., President, US). He has a point, though, when he says that the reaction of society to "ghetto" names can be racist. Of course that's unfortunate, but it's also predictable. Give your kid a name associated with a deprecated culture, and you might hinder his chances for advancement in a wider society. On the other hand, you might give her a leg up on name recognition.