It's been said and written many times that we become our names and our names become us. From this, several obvious questions evolve: Can something as simple as our names have a profound impact on who we end up becoming? Can they shape our destinies? Going back to my friend Beth as an example, would she have been less popular if she had a name like Bertha or Bess? Even though she was talented and intelligent, would a name like Bambi or Barbie have forever relegated her to bimbo-land? Would she be less happy if Brunhilde was her name?
As it turns out, the answer to all these questions is yes. Psychologists say that happy people are generally happy with their names. While it's possible to find a certain degree of happiness with lots of given names, there's no denying the fact that common, accepted names – the perennial classics like Elizabeth, Katherine, James, and David – are easier for most people to handle than names like Vitalina, Esmerelda, Baxter (great name for a dog, not a kid), or Abner.
What's in a Name
In 1990, about 3.2 percent of American parents chose the perennially popular name Michael for their new baby boys.
Giving children very foreign or highly uncommon names can cause social trauma at a very young age, leading to psychological scars that can be permanent or difficult to overcome. Even a common name with an unusual spelling can traumatize a little kid, which is a good reason to think twice about that real cool spelling of Jessica that you've managed to come up with. Something like Chessica or Jahseekah may look interesting and unusual, but think about what it will be like for your daughter to have to spell that name over and over and over again. Why saddle her with this burden when you really don't have to?
However, carrying an unusual name can also have its benefits. In his book, Unusual and Most Popular Baby Names, renowned name researcher Cleveland Kent Evans notes that people with uncommon first names are more likely to be listed in Who's Who and that college women with unusual first names often score higher when measured on sociability and self-acceptance. In addition, they often have a much stronger sense of individuality than their peers.
As someone with a somewhat uncommon first name, I can speak from experience and tell you that both sides of the equation are true. My given name, Sonia, is actually fairly common among the Scandinavians and Germans that I grew up with, but it was a more ethnic name than many, especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s when it seemed like all my little friends were named Susie or Nancy or Cathy. It's also a fun name to roll around in your mouth and play rhyming games with. I think I heard just about every pun that could be formed with my name before I finished high school.
While it didn't especially bother me (especially after I realized that many kids go through their own little hells, name-inspired or not) I did get tired of hearing the puns and I spent lots of time wishing my parents had named me something else. I wanted to blend into the background, but I had a name that always moved me into the foreground.
Do I think my destiny would have been vastly different if I had a different name? Maybe not vastly, but I'm pretty convinced it would have been different, and I base that opinion on my own informal study, conducted (unknowingly) when I was in college and right after I graduated.
Since I wasn't fond of my given name, I began using my nickname – Sunny – when I went to college. For some reason – probably because I was afraid of what my parents would do if I had changed my name permanently – I went back to Sonia when I landed my first newspaper job. It wasn't until then that I realized what a good name my parents had given me. Not only was it a name with power and substance, it was unusual and people remembered it when it appeared as a byline to a story. It made me stand out, and for the first time in my life, that's what I wanted.
I don't think Sunny, with its connotations of sweetness and light, would have had the same impact. (I also now know that I wouldn't have felt comfortable with it as I grew older.) It was at that time that I really became my name and my name became me. Now I can't imagine going by anything else, and I'm glad that my name still moves me to the foreground more often than not.
If you really love a particular name but feel it's too standard or out-of-date, think about using it as a middle name. An old-fashioned name like Marie (a derivative of Maria) is beautiful when combined with some of the new favorites like Amanda or Ashley.
We're seeing two interesting trends in naming today. One is to reach back to the past for traditional and old-fashioned names. The other is to go for the unusual and the ethnic. The result might be a lessening of the traumas that unusual names can cause. Still, there are names that are probably best left in the history books because they are so old-fashioned and dated. Maybe the TV characters Paul and Jamie Buchman on Mad About You thought Mabel was a wonderful name, but I think of a gray-haired granny with a dowager's hump every time I hear it. I have a wonderful uncle-in-law named Elmer, but I wouldn't want to bestow the name on one of my kids.