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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. 

Racial Perceptions Of a Name

However, one new study by National Bureau of Economics researchers from MIT and the University of Chicago does offer a significant finding: The racial perception of a job applicant's name can significantly affect his or her chances of landing an interview. The researchers submitted 5,000 resumes with identical credentials for advertised jobs, tagging some of them with names commonly seen as African-American—Latoya and Rasheed, for instance—while others carried "white" names, such as Sarah and Brad. The theoretically white applicants received 50 percent more interview offers. There were names, however, that showed no racial differential, with Anne and Kenya garnering equal interest from employers, and Leroy as likely to succeed as Matthew.

Indeed, another large-scale study last year, The Causes and Consequences of Distinctively Black Names, by a Harvard fellow and a University of Chicago professor, contradicted the finding that a person's career success could be affected by her name's racial identity. "We find little evidence," it concluded, "that names have a causal impact on adult life outcomes."

Race issues aside, the National Bureau of Economics study contains other provocative implications for the long-range effects of name choices. The researchers found no link between the familiarity of a name and the likelihood of getting an interview, for instance, which means parents needn't worry that they're undermining their child's career prospects by choosing an unusual or popular name. More baffling, some names garnered far more interview requests than others, with Kristen and Brad inexplicably getting twice as many callbacks as Emily or Geoffrey. Similarly, "black" Jermaine and Ebony won nearly three times as many interview invites as equally African-American sounding Tremayne and Keisha.

Forming Stereotypes

If the statistical data supporting the power of names are sketchy and confusing at best, there's no shortage of anecdotal evidence that names carry potent messages. Parents confess to forming their own stereotypes about other people based on names. One mom said she'd hire a babysitter with a reassuringly ordinary name like Jennifer but wouldn't chance an Abra, while another admitted to being more likely to pass on resumes at work that donned sexually ambiguous or difficult-to-pronounce names. Moms and dads we interviewed say they assume that Bambi is a bimbo and Ethel an old lady, expect Ainsley to be a snob, and wonder whether Mikel came from a family that fancied itself creative or didn't know how to spell.

We all grew up hearing kids get teased about their names, and swearing we wouldn't knowingly put our own child in that position. Jayne Denker, the associate editor of the Rochester Review, who ended up naming her son Owen Christopher, says she ran all her options past her 14-year-old niece to check for teasability potential. "I'd say Barrett, she'd say Carrot. Kids don't like things that are too out there or that sound too weird." Indeed, our feelings about our own names can make us want to pass down a similarly satisfied experience to our children --or make sure they never suffer what we went through.

"I hated it when people would get my name wrong or when I had to spell it for everyone," says Roman Blahoski, a Minneapolis public relations executive who plans to name his soon-to-be-born son Tom. "I always felt that having a more common name would be one less thing to worry about."

Blahoski theorizes that a straightforward name will make his son's life easier at school and for the rest of his life. "I believe it will give him a great sense of accomplishment and boost his self-esteem to be able to write his name easily and not be challenged by spelling issues."

Mary Ingram-Schatz, a Chicago mom of one, also strove for the simplicity and characteristics that her own name epitomizes: purity, timelessness, familiarity. "When my husband and I talked about giving our son the name Paul, we both felt that it was a blank slate for him to fill with his own personality," she says. "It doesn't take you down a predetermined path the way that, say, Fifi or Agatha or Blake does. I'm hopeful that it will allow him to write his own life script with teachers, friends, and future employers."

Other parents look for just the opposite: names that will confer unique qualities on their children. "My wife and I both felt that having a strong, memorable name would be important to our daughter as a way of standing out from the crowd later in life," says Dave Lakhani, a Boise, Idaho, president of a business acceleration strategy firm and now the dad of a 3-month-old girl.

Lakhani and his wife talked about baby names for years before they became parents, settling on Austria Raine, a name they believed was distinctive and that held personal associations for them both—Lakhani spent a lot of time in the country, and his wife was a big Sound of Music fan.

Even if parents don't believe that a name has the capacity to shape a child's future, many believe it speaks volumes about their own tastes and values. "Names say much more about who the parent is than who the child is or will become," says Hillary Harris, a Los Angeles photographer and mom of two boys. "If I want to say, 'I am honest, trustworthy, warm, solid, accessible, disarming,' well, then I name my kid Charlie." Which is exactly what she did.

The So-Called Naming Mania

Some parents, though, refuse to dip so much as a toe into the baby-naming frenzy, choosing instead names to honor family members or even because they—gasp!—merely like them.

"I think the naming mania has gotten out of hand," says Heather Feeney, the Silver Spring, Maryland, mom of 21-month-old Cora. "The pressure to choose a name that's distinctive enough to set a child apart, that says something about your family history or culture or worldview, but that won't subject the child to being teased or ostracized, drives some parents to crazy lengths."

Determined not to go to those lengths herself, Feeney tried to keep the process of finding a name for her child "natural and organic." One day she noticed the town name "Cora" on a map of Wyoming and suggested the choice to her husband, who instantly agreed—perhaps qualifying the couple for the Guinness World Record for quickest and easiest baby-name selection ever.

"We liked the name because it's uncommon but traditional at the same time, without sounding too old-fashioned" she says. "It also links Cora with Wyoming, where she was born."

Rachael Miller's lifetime quest for the perfect name for her child led her down the same path as Feeney, though with less than perfect results.

"My husband and I love the mountains, and while in the Smokies we visited Cade's Cove," she says. "It was so serene and beautiful, and we talked about using the name Cade if we had a son someday."

This was in 1998, when the name Cade was very unusual. But by the time she gave it to her child three years later, it was much less so. "The popularity has only grown in the past two years—our special-place name has become a trendy one complete with creative spellings," says Miller.

She feels less conflicted about her second son's name, Reed, age 1, but still won't put her baby-naming books away anytime soon.

"Even though I may not have more children," she says, "I don't see my name obsession ending. I'll always have an opinion for family and friends who are picking names for their babies."


Pamela Redmond Satran and Linda Rosenkrantz are the authors of Beyond Jennifer and Jason, Madison and Montana: What to Name Your Baby Now.