What’s in a name?

‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose,

By any other word would smell as sweet…’

Juliet Capulet

For those of you who slept through Shakespeare in Grade 11, what Juliet is trying to say is that names themselves are arbitrary and the fundamental makeup of a person or thing would not change if they were to be labelled with a different collection of letters.

Her costume, unlike her judgment, is flawless

But given that this was the same girl who faked her own death without making sure her very dramatic boo knew what was going on, it’s important that we take her judgment on this with a grain of salt. 

Romeo is a messy bitch who lives (then dies) for the drama

For despite Juliet’s teenage musings, names are actually an incredibly powerful label that can not only affect how society sees us, but have a serious impact on how we see ourselves.

Why do names matter?

One of the most important things that a parent will ever do is write a name on their child’s birth certificate. In recognition of this, some countries have even legislated to restrict the names that parents are allowed to choose.

People will literally name their child Apple unless you tell them not to

This is a decision that many parents don’t take lightly –  and for good reason, too! Numerous studies have been conducted on the influence a name can have and the results are seriously telling.

According to research, your given name can impact the grades you get at school, the type of job you get and even whether people like you. In part, this is because if you have a common name, strangers are more likely to trust you, as you already feel somewhat familiar to them. 

So, if you can’t pass maths, Maccas won’t hire you, and you have no friends? Well, good news, you can lay all of that – and more – at the feet of Mum and Dad.

They never even gave you a shot

If these potentially damaging outward perceptions aren’t enough, our names can also inadvertently inform the decisions we make in our own lives. One study by Nelson and Simmons found that our subconscious preference for the letters which make up our own names is a factor in deciding where we live, what letter grade we aspire to at school, and even who we marry.

Many scientists attempt to explain away these trends by reference to the theory of implicit egotism, which suggests that people gravitate toward people, places, and things that resemble the self.’

These experts believe that the implicit value and identity that we draw from our names and initials makes our subconscious seek out things or people that are linguistically similar.

However, these studies are plagued by responses critical of their methodology, not to mention the myriad of other reasons for these trends – such as prejudices relating to race, ethnicity, and religion – cannot be overlooked.

That being said, there is undoubtedly some merit to the notion that names alter our perceptions of ourselves and each other.

Why do people hate their names?

Think about how often you use your name on a daily basis: answering the phone, ordering a coffee, or introducing yourself to someone new. So many mundane, day-to-day activities, where giving your name to strangers is an unfortunate social necessity.

Even Eminem doesn’t use his ‘real’ name

Now, imagine every time you have to say it, or hear it, every single day of your life, your entire body and mind cringe in response.

Much to the anguish of my parents, I have hated my name for my entire life, with a burning, fiery passion that would rival even the animosity between the Capulets and the Montagues.

Apologies to all the other Sarahs out there – and boy are there a lot of us – but for me, it was simply too common, too boring and just not my name.

Sarah, who?

From Grade 8 to Grade 12, there were seven Sarahs in my year – or 16% of the entire cohort.

Three of us had the middle name Louise.

Two of us even had the same last name.

If I had a dollar for everytime someone yelled ‘Sarah’ and I turned around only to be met with ‘no, the other one’, I’d be on a yacht in the Bahamas drinking mojitos right about now.

I’m more like the Omega

But it’s not just people with common names who have cause to complain – at the other end of the spectrum are those whose parents went for something a little more unique.

In the 21st century, parents are increasingly inclined to stray from traditional names in favour of those which have fallen into disuse, or even those which they create themselves.

Unfortunately, they don’t always think it through

This cultural change has been attributed to the growth of digital media and the concept of the ‘user name’, which by its nature must be unique in order to be valid. Underlying this is parents’ fear that their children will be ordinary and what better way to prevent this than to give them a name that is anything but?

While there is scientific evidence to support the notion that a unique name often results in a unique kid, when individuality is forced upon you at birth it doesn’t always have favourable outcomes.

Sometimes – particularly in a schoolyard where bullies smell out difference like a dog seeking a bone – all you want to do is fit in.

And while there are those who love their unusual names – and shudder at the thought of being given something more run of the mill – for many the burden of having to constantly correct teachers, or spell their name for strangers, far outweighs any benefits.

Just forget about having your name spelt right at Starbucks

How does it feel to hate your name?

Names signify to the world who you are.

And if you don’t like what they say about you? Well, that can be a profoundly discomforting and altogether alienating feeling, making meeting new people a particularly anxiety-inducing experience.

It feels like this…but not so self-inflicted

For those with common names, the psychological distress comes from the fact that when something that is meant to be individual – meant to be your identifier – doesn’t perform that function, it makes you feel faceless and unknown.

I’m not the only person who feels this way – hell, I’m not even the only Sarah who feels this way.

‘I think of “Sarah” less as a name that’s specific to me and more as a general descriptor—another word for “woman” or “girl,” or something else that applies both to me and to a lot of other people, too.’

The Other Sarah

Conversely, for those with uncommon names, the experience is profoundly different.

Firstly, there is the curse of always standing out, no matter how much they might wish they could blend in with the crowd. Then, there is the continuous distortion and mispronunciation of their names that can even cause genuine psychological harm.

Wise words that both movie – and real life – Amanda Bynes took to heart

According to Freud, mispronouncing someone’s name – either accidentally or intentionally – may be detrimental to a person’s self-esteem. This is largely because by distorting a name, you are also distorting – and even erasing – the identity with which it is so inextricably linked.  

So, what can you do about it?

If you’re a parent, think long and hard about the name you bestow upon your child  – try to make it a gift and not a burden. While this is easier said than done, one useful tip is to avoid naming your child after an inanimate object.

Off the top of my head, I’m thinking Apple and Blanket would be good names to strike off your list.

To my brothers and sisters in name-hatred, there is hope for us yet. Based on the available literature, there is some suggestion that you can actually grow into your name.

But while you’re waiting for that miracle to occur, you can always choose to go by something else – such as your middle or last name, a nickname, or even something you created yourself.

If you’re particularly sure, then why not even change your name legally? Although, take caution here, as just like a tattoo it’s difficult to change or remove once you make the commitment.

Enjoy telling the ATO you’ve changed your name to this

Finally – and most importantly – if someone tells you that they don’t like their name and asks that you call them something else, try not to be like many of the boys I knew in high school.

Having gone by my last name since I was about 12 years old, there were always those that told me ‘that’s a bit masculine isn’t it’ and ‘yeah I’m just going to call you Sarah, I like it better.’

The moral of that story?

The world has enough assholes. Try not to be one of them.

 

 

 

 

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