November 29, 2005
What's in a Name?
People have always sought distinctions but the ways they have tried
to distinguish themselves have varied widely. Some have let their
achievements speak for them but others have let their clothes, their
tattoos, their pierced body parts, or just their loud and strident
talk establish their claims to be noticed.
have been especially rampant in our times. In an earlier era,
Joe Louis wore the same regulation boxing trunks as other fighters,
unlike some of today's boxers, who sport all sorts of wild colors
and patterns. But Joe Louis is remembered for being a great champion
and for his dignity as a man.
One of the
ways some people seek special distinction today is in the names
they give their children. Not only are the names themselves distinctive,
these names remain distinctive only in so far as other people
do not give their children the same names. So names today have
a much faster rate of turnover than in the past.
17th century Massachusetts, more than half of all girls were named
Mary, Elizabeth, or Sarah. Mary remained the most popular girls'
name, nationwide, throughout the 18th, 19th and early 20th century.
Today it is not even among the top ten.
none of the top ten girls' names in 1960 were still among the
top ten girls' names in 2000.
all this mean?
means that we are preoccupied with standing out -- without doing
anything that merits our standing out. Maybe we want distinction
on the cheap.
don't even understand what an achievement is. There was a time
when people who were neither rich, nor celebrities, nor outlandish
in name or appearance, were nevertheless noticed and well regarded
as pillars of their communities because of their personal qualities
just one of the superficialities of our time that have replaced
character, wisdom and achievement.
in names in part represents people from lower economic levels
imitating the names of people in the upper income brackets. "Heather"
used to be a name that was fashionable in upscale circles. Over
the years, however, it has become so common among people with
lower incomes and less education that it has now faded among the
the top five girls' names among low-education families is among
the top five girls' names among high-education families. The same
is true of boys' names.
whites used to give their children pretty much the same names.
No more. Since the 1970s, racial segregation has returned, this
time in names.
is one of the most extreme examples of this, as it is of so many
other extreme trends. More than 40 percent of the black girls
born in California during a given year have a name not found among
even one white girl born in the same state.
have not joined this name fad, as they have by and large avoided
other fads. Maybe their emphasis on achievement has made these
other claims for attention unnecessary.
in a name?" Shakespeare asked. These days, sometimes a lot.
been studies claiming racial discrimination by employers who are
more likely to reject a job applicant named DeShawn or Jamal than
one named Jack or Scott.
indicative of more than race, however. They are also indicative
of values and attitudes in the families from which particular
people came. So are other indicators. A lady working in an employment
office contacted me a while back because her boss had told her
to reject job applicants with gold teeth. She wondered if that
was morally right.
I have had
no experience hiring people with gold teeth, so I have no idea
how reliable that is as an indicator. But, since the employer
pays the price of being mistaken, it is his call, not mine.
who think they are doing something clever or cute -- or just "making
a statement" -- when they name their children might consider
what the consequences might be later on. They might also consider
giving their child some more solid foundation than a name for
achieving something worthwhile in life.
2005 Creators Syndicate