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How Important Is a Name?

Rachel Miller, a mom of two in Benwood, West Virginia, is obsessed with names. She bought her first baby-naming book when she was in sixth grade and wrote long lists of possibilities for her dolls and pets. So when she got pregnant with her first child and was finally in a position to choose a name for a real live human being, she says, "I was a woman with a mission."

"I considered myself a researcher of one of the most important things I could ever do for my child. I'm shocked by friends who know the sticker price of every option available on a car they're buying but have no idea how popular their new baby's name is."

Miller pored over the annual SSA (Social Security Administration) tally of how many babies received which names as avidly as other people read front-page headlines or baseball stats. She worried about whether the names she was most enamored of would be equally suitable for a child and an adult, if they might inspire embarrassing nicknames, and what kind of image they were likely to convey.

Like many parents, Miller believes that a name holds the power to shape a child's self-esteem and his identity—and influence how he's seen and treated by others. "There were times during my pregnancy when we felt that choosing the name was a greater responsibility than having the child," says Heather Abrahams, the Woonsocket, Rhode Island, mom of 5-month-old Jaden. What gives a name choice so much weight? The permanence of the decision, for one thing. While parents have been known to change their baby's name, you can't very well call a child Jaden today, Sam a few weeks from now, and Louis at Thanksgiving.

A heightened awareness of the power of marketing is another significant factor, especially in an era when celebrities with distinctive monikers—think Madonna, Oprah, Gwyneth—wield so much influence. "Your name defines you," says Gregg Steiner, a Los Angeles talent manager who's expecting his first child. "It's your brand, really, for the rest of your life."

And then there's the belief that names have been proven to affect everything from a child's self-confidence to his grades in school and his future professional success. "I'm a scientist, so I take great stock in studies," says Sheryl Wildt, a Terre Haute, Indiana, molecular geneticist who's pregnant with, and name hunting for, her first child. "Studies have shown that names do set up certain expectations and can influence people who put a lot of weight on first impressions. And that elementary school teachers tend to grade students with unusual names more strictly than children with common names." The problem is that most of the studies Wildt's referring to—the same ones rehashed over and over in baby-naming books—are more than a quarter century old, when names and the perception of them were radically different than they are today. A generation ago, ethnic, androgynous, and invented names, and those with rejigged spellings, were much less common. But in this era of diversity and individual style, when Madison is one of the ten most popular names for girls and two of the hottest male stars are named Viggo and Orlando, the old findings no longer apply.

And most of the newer studies, what few of them there are, contradict one another, with one demonstrating that children with "unattractive" names receive lower grades, while another claims they perform better in school. Some show that names influence perceptions of a person's potential attractiveness or intelligence—but that those perceptions fade away once the real person and his or her real qualities appear.