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What's in a Name? Danger!

January 13, 1988|DAVID STREITFELD | The Washington Post

Would you name your son Barrett rather than Michael? Would you name 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? Would you go on a blind date with a woman named Gertrude or a man named Elmer?

Fairly or unfairly, images have always attached themselves to names. Certain ones call forth stereotypes at their 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 Bache lor' 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.

Oswald Rated Low

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.

"Parents," Andersen said, "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."

Avoid Nicknames

This works in milder ways, too. The best names, Andersen said, 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 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 from Leonard."

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.

Who Gets Ulcers?

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 said.

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