Your Name Is My Name, Too
July 21, 2013

Your Name Is My Name, Too

Expecting a little bundle of joy? You have a big decision to make. I don’t mean what type of crib to buy, or the color scheme for the nursery. I’m talking about the big one, the doozy, the most important decision you’ll ever make for him: his name.

But what, exactly, is in a name? Turns out, a lot more than etymology. According to a new study by Hema Yoganarasimhan of UC Davis, the name you pick for your kid might say something about your social status. When Yoganarasimhan tracked trendy names in different states, she found that popular names peaked earlier in states with greater “cultural capital” – that is, states with higher educational attainment and greater engagement with arts and entertainment. The name trickled down through the rest of the population, either through random exposure or deliberate imitation, and took off.

Like hemlines, however, what goes up, must come down. The highly “cultured” were also the first to abandon a fad name, once it became popular. After all, names, like cars and handbags, are signals. They tell the world whether you’re modern or old-fashioned, trendy or contrarian. Names that shoot up in popularity no longer serve that function. In fact, the faster a name is adopted by the masses, the more likely it is to be labeled a short-lived fad and abandoned by the next wave of image-conscious parents.

Once upon a time, though, names were more than just a fashion statement. At the beginning of the last century, names evoked family and religious values. Boys were named after fathers and grandfathers; girls after grandmothers. Biblical names were also popular, with Marys and Johns cropping up in Sunday schools all over the nation.

As nuclear families and secular values took over in the last half of the century, name choices shifted, especially among baby girls. Appellations started to fall along class lines, as well. Parents with less education tended towards non-traditional names, like Crystal or Tammy. More educated parents preferred historical classics, like Elizabeth or Catherine. They also gave their girls less feminized names, ending in a strong “n”, instead of the diminutive “ee”.

Today, the trend towards traditional names has taken over. Century-old names, like Emma and Mason, which seemed dated and dowdy to previous generations, are now topping the baby charts. While the upswing in turn-of-the-century monikers could be the result of a perennial nostalgic zeitgeist, they might fit another bill: they’re different enough to be distinguishing, but familiar enough to avoid alienation, or ridicule.

After all, humans have a natural tendency to conform. We like things we’re exposed to more often, and we’re exposed to things that are popular. People of the same race, education, occupation, and religion are also more likely to associate with each other, and share the same interests. Even physical mimicking can create a sense of social bonding.

On the flip side, too much similarity evokes negative emotions. It drives people to differentiate themselves, and identify as a member of a smaller sub-group. So, minorities pick names that evoke their ethnic identity. Educated classes opt for historic or literary monikers. As soon as these names cross group lines, they lose their appeal.

This means expectant parents can expect a balancing act when it comes to picking the perfect appellation. But whatever you choose, just make sure your little one won’t grow up to regret it.

Image Credit: Amir Ridhwan / Shutterstock

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