Names and Power

I have come to find conversations about names and naming absolutely fasinating – the fact that this has not been mitigated by writing an entire dissertation chapter about state management of naming practices, or by doing the necessary background reading to produce said chapter, means that this is quite an intense interest, indeed. It seems to be a topic that allows a lot of language ideologies, mostly around beliefs about identity, to come to the surface and become a topic for heated conversation. Literally everybody has some type of opinion about names – how they should be chosen, who should have a say in it, how they will affect the life of the nam-ee, etc.

This last part is probably the most interesting aspect of Anglo-American naming conversations for me, as it seems to express a belief in a power that names have to shape and produce an identity in a way that, I suspect, would not be attributed to any other linguistic material. This GQ Guide to Naming captures a lot of those dominant themes, starting from the teaser:

If name is destiny (Destynee?), then judging from the dumb-ass, intentionally misspelled, needlessly apostrophe’d names we Americans are giving our kids nowadays—Jaxxon, Branlee, Scot’t—we’re raising a generation of meth heads

The main thing that the author seems to think parents want their child to become via the power of the name is special:

as if a uniquely horrible name serves as some kind of guarantee against little Aston Martin growing up to be merely ordinary

The whole point of sarcastic, funny, faux advice pieces like this one, though, is to point out the errors in this type of thinking. And in this case, it’s the illusion among parents that their intentions are the only ones that will be at work in the child’s life, as the passage of time will make the trendy and cool turn into stale and dated (“If you’re going to name your kid Ace, you might as well name him 1987”).

Which leads into another major element of this whole conversation about names and power, the one operating beneath the surface of the commentary about the futility and misguidedness of certain efforts to create an identity for your child – when we talk about names as markers of identity, the signals go way beyond establishing the individual we’re talking about. Names have everything to do with class (and dismissing certain names as “stripper names” or “meth head names” is all about reinforcing that relationship), with race (as some really good research has shown, otherwise identical resumés are treated very differently when they’re presented as belonging to candidates names “Jamal” vs candidates named “Peter”), and of course with sex/gender (I think there’s a reason that variations on names that are most closely associated with boys are reasonably popular with girls – like Bobbie, Billie, and Charlie – but not vice versa). The age reference is another addition to this, as certain names mark people as likely to belong to a certain generation (subversions of these expectations can expose those assumptions, like when I heard that my midwife’s name was “Frances” and I was very surprised to meet a Middle Eastern woman in her early 20s who would be attending the birth of my son).

All this is captured nicely in the Lingua Franca article about young Prince George. After discussing the use of some relatively unusual linguistic constructions describing his birth (without addressing the implications of these constructions, but that’s another topic, really), Yagoda makes the point:

If you’re interested—as how could you not be?—in the issues of self-definition, status, class, and taste, then first-name choices provide fascinating and endlessly rich data. Being free of charge and compulsory, they’re not constricted in the way most other markers are. Moreover, for many if not most people, a baby is a vessel for aspiration and social extrapolation, so the choice carries special meaning. The challenge is in the analysis, of course. It seems safe to observe that contemporary American naming customs suggest a longing for Colonial times. (If you remove outliers like Mia, Jayden and Aiden from the top-10 lists, and switch Madison from first name to last, then the people in a 2013 day care and a 1776 tea party have the same names.)  The Brits, meanwhile, seem to fancy hanging about with the blokes down at the local.

I don’t totally agree with the analysis of what aspirations are being expressed on each side of the pond  – he didn’t include the list of British favourites, so I’m not sure what names are associated with “blokes down at the local”, especially among the girls’ names, but I think there’s more to the conversation about how certain names take on the sense of being “classic” or “timeless” than a longing for colonial times. But the overall point is an important one – choosing a name for a baby is far from a neutral act, and any number of people, from relatives and friends to random strangers to bookmakers (when the baby is already predefined as an important one, anyway) will influence your decision and put thoughts in your head about who your baby will be with X name, and what their experiences will be like if it’s hard to spell, easily mockable, or too common.

I’m verging on turning this into another dissertation chapter, so I will let it go with the curiosity about whether this pre-identified-powerful George baby will contribute to an upswing in young Georges, despite this particular “classic” name being quite strongly out of fashion over the past few decades. I’m going to bet against it, but I’d need to think more to say why.

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2 thoughts on “Names and Power”

  1. Interesting thoughts. A few reactions of mine:

    1.) You didn’t seem to touch on the matter of names as a legacy…both in naming after a relative (most commonly the father) and also the entire concept of surnames (and the related matter of taking a spouse’s surname on marriage), although I understand your focus is primarily on the given name. I think the fact that you name your kid “John Paul Jones IV” is a pretty declarative statement about how you relate to your kid, though.

    2.) There are also some surprising personal connotations to names, quite often, which can influence your choice…not so much about what you want for the kid or want them to be, but just whether you do or don’t want to hear a particular name that you’re going to repeat thousands of times in that child’s life. For instance, my wife categorically refused to name our son Patrick (even though she likes Irish names in general, and I like that one in particular) because of bad associations with 2 other guys named Patrick. I’ve heard of this trend (refusing names due to bad associations) from many different people.

    3.) I am torn on the issue of “unique” names. In my opinion, if you want a truly “unique” name, make something up (like a fantasy name), don’t just misspell a more common name or word; the latter makes you look ignorant, rather than unique. That said…I hate it when people judge a person due to their name, or more aptly, judge their parents (“how could they saddle their child with that horrible name”, etc). Nobody appointed anyone to the name police.

    4.) There was an interesting chapter in Freakonomics on this issue, in case you hadn’t read it or weren’t aware. I was particularly intrigued by the anecdote of the two brothers named “Winner” and “Loser”.

    1. 1. Legacy names is a good point too. Hadn’t totally thought of that angle, but you’re right that it’s different, and you’re right about why (“how you relate to your kid”). As for surnames, that’s a kettle of fish that I’m sure to open up at another time, but not right now.
      2. Personal reasons are almost always going to be present, and can’t totally be accounted for. I’m less interested, overall, in those reasons that parents reject a particular name for their own kids as a result of past experiences or associations – because, as you point out, they’re highly specific and personal – and more interested in the cultural discourse about names in general. I don’t know if that makes sense. Though I guess in and of itself, it’s worth looking at why we have such visceral reactions to first names that we will exclude them from use, and whether that avoidance strategy applies elsewhere.
      3. Yeah, pretty much. Not much to add there.
      4. Thanks! I’ve read a few chapters of that, but it was years ago (long before I was in any way interested in names at an academic thought level) and either have forgotten or never read that chapter.

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