Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Steve, Steve, Jennifer, and Onesimus

A recent study of 3000 parents in Britain revealed the startling finding that twenty percent of parents regret the name they chose for their children.

It's hard to decide on a name, which probably explains the plethora of baby name books out there on the market.  Parents want something that will be a source of pride for the child, and will give the child a sense of identity.  (Except, apparently, in my own parents' case, as I was named after my dad, something for which I still haven't forgiven them.)  But sometimes, in that search for uniqueness, parents land on a name that falls into the "It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time" department.

Even more common names sometimes have their downsides, suggests another study, by David Figlio of Northwestern University.  Figlio and his team first did phonemic studies of thousands of names, to sort them into "masculine sounding" and "feminine sounding" names.  They then looked at data from schools, and came up with the amazing trend that boys given feminine-sounding names (e.g. Ashley, Shannon) were significantly more likely to cause discipline problems, and girls given masculine-sounding names (e.g. Madison, Morgan) were far less likely to choose academically rigorous courses of study.

Are names destiny?  There certainly have been general shifts in naming patterns; what is popular with one generation is out in the next, which is why some names end up sounding "old fashioned."  I recall a comic strip from the 1970s, depicting the typical group photo shot of a first grade class, the teacher sitting primly at the end of the first row.  The caption read:  "Top Row:  Steve, Steve, Jennifer, Steve, Jennifer, Jennifer, Steve.  Middle Row:  Jennifer, Jennifer, Steve, Jennifer, Steve, Steve, Steve.  Bottom Row:  Jennifer, Steve, Jennifer, Jennifer, Steve, Jennifer, Steve, and Mrs. Bertha Q. Wackenhorst."

This one struck a special note for me.  My grandmother's given name was Bertha Viola, and amongst her siblings were Roxzella Vandell, Orsa Osburne, Flossie Doris, Fanny Elinore, and Clarence Arnold.  Thank heaven their last name was Scott; with an odd-sounding last name, any of those combinations would have been unfortunate indeed.

I find it interesting to consider why the rather harsh-sounding, mostly Germanic names that were in vogue in the late 19th century are mostly gone.  These days you see few, if any, children named Hilda, Ethel, Edgar, Harold, Arthur, Gertrude, Archibald, and so on.  These were amongst the most popular names during the last decades of the 1800s and the first of the 1900s, and yet by the 1950s all of them were virtually gone from the baby name books.  Did parents of that era think that giving a child a strong-sounding name would be an asset in their making their way in the world?  If so, that gives us an interesting insight into the worldview of turn-of-the-century America.

Some names make you wonder what the parents were thinking at the time.  The parents of Chanda Lear, should, in my opinion, be kicked.  I also find myself wondering why parents would choose a relatively common name and then spell it strangely.  I suppose the desire is to impart a sense of uniqueness and individuality to the name, but the sheer inconvenience of it would (for me, at least) outweigh any sense of pride in having a name that has a twist in the way it's spelled.  This seems to be more common with girls' names, for some reason.  Naming a child Krystee, Liane (pronounced like Leanne), or Erykah -- all monikers borne by former students of mine -- just seems to be asking for a lifetime of having your name misspelled.

However, it's not always the given name that results in a cross to bear for the individual, and a humorous effect for the rest of us.  Working for a registrar's office, one of my first jobs after graduating from college, I ran into transcripts for Turki Hasher, Celestina Crapp, Timothy Turnipseed, Carl Tolfree, and James Hollopeter.  Family allegiance notwithstanding, I can't imagine why Cloyd Dick IV wouldn't change his name.

As I mentioned earlier, I rather dislike my own first name, but not enough to go through the hassle of changing it.  But just considering what it would be like to go through life as Basile Bastard or Earless Romero (both real names, I swear) makes me unlikely to complain.  And if you think things are bad now, go back in history, and you run into some truly wacky ones.  My wife's ancestry boasts a woman named Albreda de Brumpton.  My own includes a German dude named Poppo von Rot.  A dear friend of mine descends from a Georgia plantation owner named Onesimus Futch.  My son thinks this sounds like an insult.  ("You... you... onesimus futch, you!!!")  So, it could be worse.

A great deal worse.

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