What Our Names Say About Us

Parents looking for a name to mirror their ambitious aspirations for their daughter might consider the name Kate, which bespeaks intensity and decisiveness. Beginning with an explosive K and followed quickly by an equally sharp T, the name forms the anagram teak -- one of the hardest woods found in nature -- and aptly reflects the unyielding timbre of her parent's aspirations. These same parents would be unlikely to consider a softly curved name like Mallory or Mary. Presumably this is what Shakespeare had in mind when he penned this verse from The Tempest.

The master, the swabber, the boatswain, and I,
The gunner, and his mate,
Loved Mall, Meg, and Marian, and Margery,
But none of us cared for Kate.

When Jimmy Carter made his successful bid for the presidency in 1976, there was some controversy surrounding the use of the first name Jimmy on the ballot rather than his legal name James. Feeling that the more approachable Jimmy was better aligned with his 'man of the people' image, his campaign staff recommended its use. The strategy worked and encouraged William Clinton to use the same technique when campaigning under his nickname Bill in 1992. While not reducing the amount of syllables, adding a diminutizing I, Y or IE at the end of a name (Andrew to Andy, Randall to Randy, or Fred to Freddy) imparts a distinct air of approachability and submissiveness albeit with a corresponding loss of dignity.

How we choose our nicknames reveals much about how we wish to be perceived. In general, when an individual shortens his or her name, there is a subconscious tendency to keep a lower profile. When a Christopher introduces himself as Chris, or an Elizabeth as Liz, they are demonstrating an unconscious respect for the other person by offering a reduced syllable version of their name that is easier and quicker to pronounce. Also, because our words are necessarily short and sharply pronounced in times of stress, there tends to be a sense of urgency surrounding people with short, sharp names. Conversely, when we're relaxed, we tend to lengthen the vowel sounds indicate our mood, as in: free, jamboree, jubilee, spree, whoopee, whee, yippee, and glee. This is why the name Bob is more likely to be associated with an impulsive personality than the more delicate Sally.

Humans seem to have an innate response to these mechanisms, which explains why so many aspiring actors and singers readily change their given names. Notice how the new names are so much more reflective of the actors' style. They are either more complex in construction like Sigourney from Susan, or sharper in pronunciation as in Rock from Roy.

  • Red Buttons was originally Aaron Chwatt. The RD root in the new name fitted his comedic style perfectly: rude, ruddy, ridiculous, radiant, randy, and random.
  • Bette Davis started out as Ruth Davis, opting for the sharper BT combination of bright, bitch, bitter and best.
  • The former Roy Scherer became Rock Hudson after his agent came with an amalgamation of the Hudson River and the Rock of Gibraltar. His masculine name helped conceal his homosexuality until his death in 1985.
  • Originally Susan Weaver, Sigourney Weaver picked out her complex three-syllabled name from a character in The Great Gatsby.
  • Oprah was actually a typo. Her parents intended to use the biblical name Orpah, but the nurse misunderstood and her name became Oprah.
  • Luke Perry was originally Coy Luther Perry but he preferred the cutting resonance of the name of his favorite movie character: Cool Hand Luke.
  • Born Frank Cooper, Gary Cooper's agent suggested naming himself after the agent's hometown - Gary, Indiana.
  • Comedian Sinbad was born David Adkins, but chose the name Sinbad - an amalgam of sin and bad - "because the mythical Sinbad didn't have the strength of Hercules, but he could outwit anyone."
  • Gene Simmons from Kiss, followed everyone's advice in renouncing Chaim Witz.
  • Bjork Gudmundsdottir wisely opted simply for Bjork.

Picking a Persona

Every person uses a particular set of personality characteristics to best function in society. Subject to the vagaries or our DNA and environments growing up, each of us unconsciously tests our various talents to discover what works best. Some people find that it's better to use their brains, others their charm or agility, while some find that deception works best. Since our names play an important role in how people perceive us (an we perceive ourselves), is it possible that our names can give us a clue to which personality traits are best for us?

Consider the names traditionally associated with the following attributes: Strength, power and physical ability.

People who make their living through their physical prowess tend to be rugged and direct. Capable with their hands, they make their living as blue-collar workers, professional sportsmen, and policemen. It's not difficult to imagine that early names describing these hunters and warriors contained the low-pitched and explosive sounds of the letters B, G, T, K, and C. These were the brutes that did the trapping, killing, breaking, grabbing, bashing, bonking, tearing, destroying, and stabbing. Their names - albeit in primitive grunts - might well have reflected these roles. Perhaps the residue of these sounds accounts for the high percentage of these 'power' letters found in names that are overwhelmingly perceived to be masculine: Butch, Conan, Buck, Duke, Bill, Kurt, Jake, Chuck, Jock, Kirk, Scott, Troy, and Dick

Adorability and maternal roles

Babies of every animal species share common features that adults find irresistible; their heads are disproportionately large and their facial features are inversely small. These alluring qualities of innocence and youth play powerfully on the human psyche, which is why people are drawn to the cry of a cute baby or compelled to come to the aid of a damsel in distress. Since a large portion of our society makes their living from being adorable in some way, their names play a particularly important role in communicating their charms. This explains the high pitched tones common to members of the world's oldest profession -- Bambi, Dolly, Fifi and Barbi, etc. -- and why actors, singers, dancers, and sometimes politicians benefit from having cute sounding names: Britney Spears, Betty Page, Betty White, Sally Fields, Amy Irving, Judy Garland, and Audrey Hepburn. Other popular names that clearly demonstrate this adorability effect include Bunny, Missy, Susie, Katie, Didi, Melody, Chrissy, Daisy, and Honey.

Guile and intelligence are qualities found in the leaders, toolmakers and intellectuals of society. Their professions encompass jobs that require mental rather than physical attributes: teachers, writers, journalists, politicians, intellectuals, computer programmers, accountants, etc. This is why people whose names begin with the letters of learning and wisdom, J, L, W, and D, have an almost 40% higher chance of becoming a millionaire than those who don't.

Feedback

Can the letters and sounds in our names really influence which road we take in our lives? How could the mere spelling of our names compete with the powerful personality-shaping forces of our teachers, parents, friends, and genes? The answer lies in the scientific principle of feedback.

We're all familiar with the high-pitched feedback squeal produced by a singer's microphone during a stage performance. The whine is created when sounds from onstage speakers are picked up by the microphone and then played back over the speakers. The amplified sound is then fed back into the microphone causing an ever-increasing feedback loop that spins rapidly out of control. The initial sound that sparked this deafening clamor might have been barely perceptible, but the feedback loop was able to magnify the noise to a deafening level. Feedback loops are responsible for weather, animal migrations, war, and even life itself, and explains why our personalities are so deeply affected by our names. As we unconsciously prejudge people based on the sounds of their names, these responses subtly interact with the person's self-image, in turn affecting their responses in a classic feedback loop.

To illustrate how this process works with regard to our names, consider this hypothetical example of identical twin brothers. Imagine that the two boys look like each other and have the same IQ and ambitions. The only difference is that one is named Dirk and the other Timmy. Dirk was named after the leading man in a film the parents had seen on their first date. The hero was ruggedly masculine, as reflected in the name's strong, sharp letters (Dirk is also the Finnish word for dagger). Timmy was named after a sensitive character in a book they were both reading.

Throughout childhood, each boy received positive feedback when his behavior matched his parent's expectations. This was the beginning of a feedback loop in which Dirk, with his strong name, discovered that he was being treated by his peers with marginally more respect than Timmy, when it came to social activities like sports and dating. Imperceptibly at first, Dirk's self-esteem began to improve in these areas. As he strove for additional reinforcement, he was rewarded with even more respect and soon the feedback loop was in full swing. Timmy, on the other hand, was being rewarded by parents and peers whenever he behaved in a sensitive and communicative fashion. Timmy found it more rewarding to become the sensitive child his parents had hoped for and soon, the personality of the two brothers began to diverge and eventually came to resemble their parents' original aspirations for them.