The Signals Hidden In Your Name

November 3, 2016

When Raymond and Rosa Judge welcomed their son Igor into the world, it may have seemed obvious what profession he would choose. Even Rosa’s maiden name, Micallef, was a derivation of the Arabic word for Judge.

Sure enough, Igor was called to the bar and eventually became Britain’s Lord Chief Justice: the judge’s judge. If Lord Judge has become sick of the jokes over the years, he could at least remember that there are other people with far more unfortunate names: just think of Cardinal Sin, the former Archbishop of Manila.

Does our name decide our fate? While we may brush these cases aside as coincidence, some surprising new studies would suggest that in some small way, it does, influencing our behaviour in school, our job prospects, and our popularity. Our surname may even give clues to our physique and vitality.

One explanation behind this is that we are subconsciously drawn to words and names that remind us of our own. This is called “implicit egotism,” and explains why there are a disproportionately high number of dentists called Dennis.

But our names also play a part in how others see us. In 2013, the British columnist Katie Hopkins admitted to associating children’s names to stereotypes about their socio-economic background. She said she favoured children with “good old-fashioned Victorian names” or those with a Latin or Greek origin, as playmates for her children.

Despite the outrage this incurred, a wealth of research suggests that this habit may be more widespread than we would perhaps like to admit.

David Figlio, director at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, has carried out several studies looking into the impact of names.

He first surveyed participants to work out the characteristics of names that were associated with working class or African American backgrounds. The suffix “isha” (such as in the name Lakisha) tends to be associated with poor backgrounds, as does the use of an apostrophe (in Du’Quan, for instance).

He then compared pairs of siblings, one with a working-class name and one who has a middle-class name, and found that children with names that sound working class do worse in school than those with names that sound middle-class due. “This is not just because working-class families give their children names that sound working-class,” Figlio says, but is also due to societal expectations associated with the name’s class connotation.

This effect can last well beyond school, as confirmed by a study looking at students attending Oxford University. Gregory Clark compared the first names of 14,000 students at the university between 2008 and 2013 with the general population. He found that there were three times as many Eleanors at Oxford than average, closely trailed Peters, Simons, Annas and Katherines. Shane, Shannon, Paige and Jade had less luck. The number of Jades at Oxford was less than a less than one-30th of the average rate.

Aside from class, your life chances can also be affected by how easy your name is to pronounce by those around you.

One study found that teachers pronouncing pupils’ names wrongly was seen by pupils as a “racial macroaggression”, after surveying a sample of 49 adults, who were mostly Asian American, on their past experience in school. Many had experienced racist macroaggressions in school relating to their name, including teachers pronouncing it incorrectly, and in some cases it led to feeling isolated and anxious.

Figlio says the effects of this can last well beyond the first call of the class register. “The fact that the name effects show up in a schooling setting, even after teachers have many opportunities for interactions with their students, suggests that this name-based judgment is slow to fade.

This effect can, in fact, last into adulthood, as two researchers found. They sent out two different CVs to job newspaper ads in Boston and Chicago; half were given a “white-sounding” name – the research paper gives the examples of Emily Walsh and Greg Baker – and the other half an “African American-sounding name,” such as Lakisha Washington or Jamal Jones.

They recorded the responses for their fictional candidates, and found that Emily and Greg were twice as likely as Lakisha and Jamal to be offered an interview.

The Bouba/Kiki effect

Beyond this implicit racism and class prejudice, the random sounds of your name may evoke certain characteristics: a Molly is perceived differently from a Katie, for instance, thanks to the way the syllables roll off the tongue. How come?

It’s well established that we associate certain letters and words with spiked shapes, and others as rounded. We associate the word “bouba” with softer contours, compared to the sharper-sounding “kiki” for instance.

This also extends to our names, as researchers from the University of Calgary in Canada found out. A group of people were asked whether certain names made them think of a spiked or rounded silhouette, and the results aligned with the Bouba/Kiki effect.

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