If I said I had lined up a blind date for you with a woman named Gertrude, would you crawl under your desk? Would you rather name your son Barrett or Michael; your daughter Norma or Jennifer? If you had a choice between two job applicants of equal merit, whom would you call in first: Elroy or Douglas?
Fairly or unfairly, images have always attached themselves to names. Not all Gertrudes are homely, but that's the stereotype brought forth by its mention. Naming a child is an activity fraught with pitfalls. That's why many parents -- who often place too much emphasis on pleasing relatives, honoring their favorite TV show or making a harmonious combination with the family name -- might want to put some extra effort into it.
Consider the "Dynasty" boom, which has caused otherwise normal folk to select Alexis, Krystle (or Krystal or Crystal) and even Fallon for their offspring. In 20 years, they might be regretting it. "Trendy names eventually work against you because they let people know when you were born," says Christopher Andersen, author of The Baby Boomer's Name Game. "Most Tammys were born in the late '50s, when Debbie Reynolds' 'Tammy and the Bachelor' was a hit. To be pegged so perfectly is something you want to avoid."
Andersen cites a recent study by Edwin Lawson, a researcher at New York State University at Fredonia who asked 225 men and 225 women to rank 453 male names on six dimensions: Good/Bad, Strong/Weak, Active/Passive, Sincere/Insincere, Intelligent/Dumb and Calm/Emotional. The results tend to confirm any suspicions you might have about the relative value of names.
Garry received the best rating from men, with an overall score of 85.7. He was closely followed by John, Daniel, David, Kurt and Erik. Women gave the highest score to Moses, at 91.9. He was followed by Gregory, Mike, Jon, Brad and Luke. The sexes didn't agree on the best names. Only four in the top 20 were chosen by both men and women: John, David, Mike and Steve.
When it came to the lowest overall scores, there was more consensus. Oswald was the most unpopular name with both sexes, with an approval rating of only 29.8 for men and 26.7 for women. Other names that got poor marks from both men and women were Angus, Boris, Delbert, Elmer, Melvin, Horace and Myron.
Remember, though: Just because you have a name that makes people think you're a jerk or a failure, that doesn't mean you need confirm their impressions. "Certainly people have overcome names that have made them the object of ridicule," Andersen notes. "Take Winston Churchill, who was called 'Winnie' when he was young, or Hubert Humphrey. But it's better not to have this handicap.
"Parents," he adds, "need to pay attention to what a name is going to do. Psychologists will say that if parents give their child a name that's going to make him an object of ridicule by his peers, then obviously those parents are either terribly ignorant of the damage that name can do, or on some subconscious level they want to make their child's life miserable. If you name your kid Lethal, it says something about your intentions."
"Lethal" comes up because of another study, a five-year examination of 10,000 delinquents at Cook County Psychiatric Institute in Illinois. Criminal misdeeds among those with such bizarre names as Lethal, Oder and Vere were four times more frequent. Said one of the researchers, Robert C. Nicolay: "When a child is given a name that is an object of ridicule (such as Precious) or connotes snobbery (such as Throckmorton) or provokes embarrassment (Looney) or confusion as to sex (Marion), he is placed on the defensive and may have to fight for it."
This works in milder ways, too. The best names, Andersen says, are not too trendy (86 babies were given the name Tiffany in Washington in 1985), not too popular (national and local leaders were Jennifer and Michael), and not too androgynous (such as Ivory and Jade, which were given to both girls and boys here in '85).
He also suggests avoiding nicknames. "I tell parents not to let their kids be given nicknames they don't approve of. If they want their child to be known as Michael and not Mikey, make sure that's what he's called. Childhood nicknames often last into adulthood, and sometimes they have a profound impact on what someone thinks of you before meeting you. Lenny conveys a different impression than Leonard."
And finally, watch out for the "juniors." "If you give your child a recycled name," Andersen argues, "it doesn't really give him the sense of identity that his own name could provide." So of course the obvious question comes up: What did Andersen call his own child? "Kate, short for Katherine. It does very well in these studies and polls, and all the connotations are positive." He notes, though, that in the seven years since his daughter was born, her name has gotten more popular. All the good ones, it seems, get taken.
But maybe all first names are created equal, and none of the studies quoted by Andersen matter. Woody Allen, who grew up as Allen Stewart Konigsberg, is an advocate of this view. "When the other kids learned my name," he once said, "they beat me up. So I'd tell them my name was Frank, but they'd still beat me up."
Sue Browder, author of The New Age Baby Name Book, takes particular issue with the famous San Diego study, where 80 elementary school teachers were asked to grade eight papers of supposedly equal quality. The results: Michael and David received a full grade higher than Elmer and Hubert, while Karen and Lisa did a grade and a half better than Bertha, although Adelle -- supposedly one of the unpopular names -- did best of all.
Browder argues that the study was flawed because neither the quality nor the subjects of the papers were necessarily equal. Lisa's subject, for instance, was "Walking the Dog," which is a tad more exciting than Bertha's "Planting Seeds." And she believes the study's claim to significance was greatly weakened after an attempt to replicate it proved unsuccessful.
"Name studies are very simplistic, but a babies' world is very complex," she says. "You can't generalize from a simplified world to a complex one. A lot of these name studies have been done in a vacuum."
The child, in this analysis, controls the name, rather than the name controlling the child. If the child is proud of himself, if he has a great deal of confidence, he'll tend to like his name. There's no cause or effect.
"If you want to name your kid after Uncle Hubert, do it," Browder says. "But there are limits. You don't want a name like Howotmila -- a name so weird and so strange that an American child would have trouble with it. And if you're a lower-class parent, I'd be very careful of giving a kid a common name spelled uncommonly, like Karyn. People will think you misspelled the name out of ignorance. Also, watch out for Adolf."
Otherwise, she says, don't sweat it: "It's not that a name has no effect, but it doesn't have these super, super effects that some claim. As for a study that says 'If you name your kid Bertha, she's going to get bad marks in school' -- baloney."
By the way, even if your first name is irrelevant to your chances for happiness, there's evidence that your last name can cause serious problems. According to Dr. Trevor Weston, a London doctor and hospital consultant who checked into a decade's worth of British mortality statistics, people whose last names begin with the letters S through Z died a dozen years earlier than the national average.
Furthermore, Weston's survey at a London hospital reportedly determined that end-of-the-alphabeters were twice as likely to get ulcers and three times as likely to have coronaries.
The schools are blamed for this unhappy state of affairs, which is labeled "Alphabetical Neurosis." "The strain of all this waiting for our names to be reached -- or always being last -- renders us much more liable to become morose and introspective," Weston told a medical association meeting.
Notice how he said "us"? With a name beginning with W, the doctor surely had a personal interest in this condition. At the least, his theory could provide some of us with another excuse to be somber and sullen.