Sticks and stones can break your bones, and names can also hurt you.
"In the absence of other information, your name conjures up a stereotype, a first impression," says Robert C. Nicolay, professor of psychology at Loyola University, Chicago.
"If your name is Oral Roberts, you can end up in the loony bin or in the public eye," says Leonard R.N. Ashley, professor of English at Brooklyn College and former president of the American Names Society. Your course in life, he contends, depends on whether you see your name as unique or peculiar.
When psychologists study the impact of given names, the results vary, depending on samples. But generally, findings indicate that oddly-named children are stereotyped negatively by peers because they have developed little else--tastes, mannerisms, occupations--on which to be judged.
Adults, however, might pride themselves on a distinct name, depending on the quality of that distinction.
"Unusual names--like Oder and Lethel -- may represent the weird parent," says Nicolay. "The parents may have expressed anger in the way they named their kid. It's interesting that the names are misspellings of odor and lethal--as if the parent drew back a little by changing the spellings."
Even teachers may be subject to name stereotyping.
When psychologists Herbert Harari and John McDavid gave artificially constructed essays -- ascribed with different names -- to 80 San Diego elementary school teachers they found that the teachers graded David's and Michael's essays higher than Elmer's and Hubert's.
Psychologist S. Gray Garwood asked teachers to nominate desirable and undesirable names. After finding sixth-graders with those names, he looked at achievement scores and the results of a self-concept test.
"Kids with names considered desirable have higher self-concepts and stand to achieve more," declares Garwood, a developmental psychology professor at Tulane University. "The expectancy generated by name stereotypes over the course of six or seven years had affected the behavior of kids in public schools."
When the unusually-named child is taunted, he may become "antagonistic toward teachers. One thing he doesn't do is study," adds Harari, social and clinical psychology professor at San Diego State Unversity.
"Stereotypes are a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you treat a person like the label, eventually the person becomes what you expect him to be."
People stereotype others so they can "know how to carry out their own behavior," claims Edwin D. Lawson, psychology professor at State University of New York, Fredonia, who usually goes by E.D. Lawson because he dislikes the name Edwin.
"In social groups, we want to know where we stand and how to behave, so we rely on subtle cues such as stereotypes, which are rational but not logical."
Robin Lakoff, professor of linguistics at University of California, Berkeley, says parents often generate the stereotype:
"When they name their daughter Zsa Zsa, they imply they want a girl who is a Zsa Zsa. If they wanted a Bertha, they'd name her Bertha . . . she'll either be a Zsa Zsa or a rebel who's a Bertha at heart."
However, concedes Herbert Harari, "We don't know whether positive names are so because everybody has them, or whether everybody has them because they're positive."
Usually, the stigma of an unusual name wears off as the bearer matures into adulthood. When community college teachers graded identical essays attributed to differently named students, "the teachers were not influenced by variant first or last names," says Laurence Seits, German and English instructor at Waubonsee (Ill.) College, but wrote more favorable comments "on essays of Hispanic-surnamed students than on essays of German-surnamed students."
Women, claims Nicolay, tend to like unique names. "We found that one out of three college women shortens her name, arranges a different spelling or modifies it in some way."
Men, he says, are less inclined to modify even a disliked name. "Men have a more fixed, rigidly established self-system or self-concept. And there's a cultural tradition of men holding onto their names and women being more flexible and changing it."
Says Lakoff: "There seems to be a rule that the more frivolous the creature, the more frivolous the name," with women's more frivolous than men's, cats' more frivolous than dogs.' And "a rock group would have a less serious name than a classical string quartet."
Blacks tend to have more unusual names than whites but don't appear to suffer psychological problems because of it, claims Richard L. Zweigenhaft, psychology professor at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C.
During the '60s when black power took hold, unusual--especially African -- names were an affront to the establishment and therefore "positive," says Brooklyn College's Ashley. "The masculine Lavonne went against the rules of the white naming system. The feminine Ja'net or Bever-Leigh seemed like misspellings of the white standards. But they weren't misspellings -- just new names."
Although more relaxed among adults, name stereotyping can nevertheless pervade social interaction.
"If a man were offered a blind date with Lola or Martha," says former Names Society president Ashley, "he'd probably assume he'd have a wilder time with Lola. Martha is thought of as over 40 and wearing her hair in a bun. So Lola would have a reputation to live down, or live up to, before the man even met her."
Men's names, although less faddish than women's, may reflect whims of history.
"The French conquered England and for 300 years they were the upper class," says Ashley. "So French names -- like Sidney, Mortimer, Maurice and Percy -- took on an aristocratic ring. But when the chivalric code declined, those names became associated with debility and played-out aristocrats."
Women's -- more than men's -- names tend to be diminutives, which imply smallness. When a man goes by a diminutive, says Lakoff, people often think he "hasn't really grown up."
And "If Zsa Zsa tries to go to law school," says Ashley, "she's going to get a lot of kidding -- more so if she's blond and especially if she's not pretty."
Ashley, who often goes by L.R.N. Ashley -- "everybody I know named Leonard wears glasses and is interested in the futures market" -- believes in changing names, like clothes, for a job.
"Just tell your friends, you're sick of your name and want to be called a variation, or something else. If they're your friends, they'll cooperate."
Robin Lakoff disagrees: "Changing your name as an adult may be a sign of low self-esteem. Not changing a name can be a way of growing, becoming stronger."
"If you were born to an upper-class family" and have an unusual name, says Zweigenhaft, "you might get the message that you're privileged, not weird," and are "more, not less, likely to be found in Who's Who."
Meanwhile, psychologist S. Gray Garwood declares that names with a first initial -- F. Lee Bailey, J. Paul Getty, W. Clement Stone--connote power.
So should job counselors write the name-your-baby books of the future?
Perhaps, hints Ashley. "Do you know any Episcopal priests," he cracks, "named Buck or Brad?"