What is in a Name ?


Your name is probably something that you did not choose. Yet your name is arguably one of the most under-rated elements in how people perceive and form an initial impression of you. The name you are given (or later give yourself) can provide a noticeable psychological reaction in people who have just met you.





First let me be clear about what I am suggesting. I am proposing that a person's name will often (but not always) have a deep psychological meaning for many people. For two people who are meeting for the very first time, the 'naming effect' may only last a matter of seconds, or it may be a long held personal belief. Consider this scenario....

Mike is going on a blind date - the only thing he knows about his prospective date is her name 'Cherie'. The question is this, does Mike make any attributions about this lady (even though he has never met her) based merely on knowing her first name ? In my view, he almost certainly does. Mike may construct a quite broad mental picture in his mind of Cherie's appearance, her accent, her intelligence... a whole range of personality facets. The question is this, would Mike construct a different mental construct if he is told his date is called Melanie ? If Mike does construct a different mental picture, why is this the case? Why do people give varying meanings to various names?     


UK Baby Names

Picking the name for a newborn baby is always a special time for all new parents. According to Mehrabian (1997), "...parents select names for their babies using the name of someone they like or admire...". For example a parent might name their child after their favourite movie star, a fictional character in a book, or their best friend. One interesting avenue of possible research is how a major blockbuster movie can influence baby name selection. For instance, a movie having the lead hero 'Jack' with the primary villain 'Laura'. Would we see a change within the baby names league table in the preference of Jack and Laura ? In experimental terms such changes could be measured, but with so many other variables involved it would be hard to make any definitive assumptions about any specific case.

Some baby names though are simply more popular than others. Referring to the statistics for UK baby names 1998-2002  (Source : Office for National Statistics), the most preferred name for a baby girl for the past 5 years has been Chloe, with Emily, Megan, and Jessica all pretty stable as 'highly popular' - relative to other baby names. I am not saying that some names are inherently 'good' and some are 'bad'. However I am saying that we should at least be aware that society does have a very strong preference for particular names. Additionally I suggest there are overall trends in society, in that some names are treated with relative utter disdain. Consider the following names, and what think about what thoughts/feelings enter your mind.

Damien..... and Courtney


For 'Damien' did 'Omen', and other such related nastiness come to mind ? What about 'Courtney', did you think of the happy character from 'Friends' ? Maybe you did not think along such lines, but general societal preferences for names do indeed exist. I hope you see what I am suggesting though. There will of course be great levels of individual variance between people, in how they feel about certain names. Each of us will attribute to a given name a unique set of beliefs, which will be based upon our own unique life experiences. Yet there will also be some significant degree of commonality for many names, names that evoke a general 'feeling' in a large percentage of the population.


'Names' falling in popularity due to Big Brother ?

Does the media have an effect on the popularity of names ? I propose that shows which get the British public emotionally involved can have quite significant effects on the popularity of names. Last year's Big Brother saw millions of people make the effort to vote for housemates whom they wanted to get the boot. Big Brother gets people excited, it inspires passion in millions, can it affect the popularity of any particular name ?

Since the days of BB3 the name 'Jade' has arguably taken on added meaning. Between 1998-2001 'Jade' remained quite steady in the baby names popularity league, lying between 20-24'th place (ONS data).  Figures for 2002 show 'Jade' in 32'nd place, a noticeable drop compared to the previous 4 years placement in the league table. Was this drop partly due to 'Miss Goody's' BB appearance during summer 2002 ? Did the parents of newborns in the second haft of 2002 refrain from naming their baby 'Jade' - since they negatively associated the name 'Jade' with the 'Am I Minging' woman ? It will be fascinating to see if the popularity of 'Jade' falls even further in 2003 (if you are curious, then check the ONS site in January 2004).


Name Preference theory

Perhaps the most eminent researcher in this field of social psychology is Albert Mehrabian. Mehrabian has written a number of books on the naming of people, and his work is most certainly interesting. In one study it was seen that respondents would attribute certain personality characteristics to particular names. Some names like 'John' were seen as more intelligent, successful, and more creative, than other names such as 'Knut' (Mehrabian, 2003).

Mehrabian (2003) argued that his research findings suggested that people are treated more or less favourably depending upon their first name. One of Mehrabian's personal aims seems to be the education to new parents of what is a 'favourable name'. In a way this researcher is only enhancing the stereotyping of names - which is surely not a good thing to be doing. After all, do we really want our children to be called just one out of a few dozen 'acceptable/favourable' names ?
 

Consider this, it is pre-BB3 and you are presented with the details about one person - but the only information provided about this person is their name... which happens to be 'Jade'. You are asked to describe what you think this 'Jade' will be like. What would you write ? Personally I always liked the name, for me 'Jade' lead to thoughts of Green jewels, south American ancient civilisations (Lord Pacal of Palenque), for me Jade meant beauty and elegance. Today in summer 2003, this time when I think of 'Jade', 'missy' also comes to mind. Prior to BB3 I used to consider naming a child 'Jade', but now... I don't think so.  

Just think back to last years Big Brother opening evening. Each housemate was announced, some personal details were released about each housemate, and they walked down that famous staircase. As each name was announced what came to mind ? Did you think to yourself  'ohh.. a jonny,.. sounds a bit clown-like....... a Kate.. Hmm, sounds nice' ? Naturally within minutes of the opening evening you were watching each housemate intensely, forming your initial impression of them all. Such initial housemate impressions will be based upon a whole array of factors such as accent, dress style, attractiveness, and body posture. Yet, the housemate's name may well be a very important factor. 



Housemates 'living up to' their name ?

A great little psychological experiment (if only I had the opportunity) would be this. Supply a group of Big Brother (BB) fans with the names of the new BB4 contestants. Then ask each BB fan to describe what they think each of the new housemates will be like - for instance, whether they will be liked or not. At the end of the series, consult again each BB fan and ask them what they thought of each contestant. It would be interesting to find out how the initial expectations based upon merely knowing the housemates name, compared to how the BB fans felt about the same contestants during/post show. You could have many variations on this experiment, with various different groups of people - such as BB fans, compared to non-BB fans. In any case, it is an experiment I would certainly like to see done. Maybe this could be arranged for BB5 ?
 

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For the record here is a list of the previous people who have appeared in Big Brother UK.

BB1
Andrew, Anna, Caroline, Claire, Craig, Darren, Melanie
Nichola, Nicholas, Sada, Tom

BB2
Amma, Brian, Bubble (aka paul), Dean, Elizabeth, Helen, Narinda, Paul
Penny, Stuart, Josh

BB3
Adele, Alex, Allison, Jade, Johnny, Kate
Lee, Lynn, P.J, Sandy, (My) Sophie, Spencer, Sunita, Tim

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After a little consideration here are the names of my predicted 12 BB4 housemates...

the 'boys'

Adam - 27, builder, from Merseyside
Ben - 23, tall dark and ..err... certainly tall,
Kev : 18, London lad, up for a party every night
Mike : 34 , own company, somewhat aloof, Edinburgh
Raj : 28 , - tall dark, Indian guy from the home counties, - the one ALL women will love
Steve - 21, Blonde body builder from the south coast

the 'girls'

Emma - 30 , musical girl, constantly humming to herself
Jenny - 29 The 'English rose', she is like an angel, can't possibly win though.
Lucy - 25 - , bisexual Lucy from the midlands, office girl - a new 'Adele' ?
Me Hei - 19 , the self-reflective oriental, elegance and beauty (from Swingalegs suggestion)
Sarah - 21, moody, tends to dwell on 'what could go wrong'
Tracey - 23 'alright mate', lively - essentially an Allison 'Mk II

   How did I come to such a prospective list ? My predictions for this year are based on a few simple rules. First, no name has appeared in a previous BB series. Maybe I am wrong but surely BB will not select a housemate with the same name as from a previous year? Second, all names are relatively short in length. Yes, I realise most names are shortened anyway - for example 'Sam' could be derived from Samantha, but still the producers are not going to take someone with a really long name. Third, contestant's names will generally be 'classic' British names - we're not going to see a house filled with people with non-British names (obvious maybe, but still worth noting). Finally, I took note of the most popular baby names. We know that the average age of a housemate is around 25-30. Therefore we look back at the baby names from the period 1973-1978 (refer to ONS data sources)  
   Out of the thousands of possible names that could be chosen, I bet at least 2-3 of my selection do appear - especially 'Ben', 'Sarah' and 'Steve'. We shall see.
 

BB5 contestants ?

As a note to any prospective BB5 contestant, if your name has already appeared in the previous four series  - then why not provide a false first name in your application. If you get invited to an initial audition you can always change your first name (temporarily at least). Just remember that the show's producers will not be taking applications from any more 'Jades', 'Kates' or 'alex's' for instance. The producers at Endomol will want 'fresh' definable characters in any further series, they certainly don't want the public to associate one housemate from a new BB series with a housemate from an earlier series.- they will be seeking a clear distinction between each series. I suppose it is understandable why this situation happens, sadly we can be certain there will never be another 'Jade' in the Big Brother house.  

   In summary what can we say about name preference ? From the limited research that does exist on the psychological meaning of names, it is arguable that a person's name is one of the initial factors in how people initially judge someone. It is clear that society holds strong preferences and disdain for particular names. It is proposed that sometimes people attribute an array of personality traits/behaviours about a given person - based just from knowing the person's name. In addition such attributions are very much culturally influenced, and have been seen to change across time. One final point of note, the 12 names of the BB4 contestants. Take note of their position in the baby name preference league, and then review the league in a year or so. I foresee that this year's most 'hated' BB4 housemate (and there will be such a person) will slide down the name popularity table in the 2 years following the show. What parent would name their new baby with the same name as a reviled BB character, whose name has been demonised across the covers of the tabloids throughout the summer of 2003 ? As Mehrabian (2003) noted, the name a parent gives their baby can have serious long term implications for the life long success/failure for that child. 

So, w
hen it is Friday evening and Davina begins to reveal the people who are to live in this year's Big Brother house, just remember that sometimes a name can be more than just a name.
 

Philip Calrissian : Never been a friend to any horse, although he does occasionally say "its not my fault".



Suggested Reading

Albert Mehrabian, 1992 - The Name Game: The Decision That Lasts a Lifetime

Linda Rosenkrantz, Pamela Redmond Satran, 1995, The Last Word on First Names: The Definitive A-Z Guide to the Best and Worst in Baby Names by America's Leading Experts  

Bruce Lansky, Barry Sinrod, 1989, The Baby Name Personality Survey  

Aronson, E.,Wilson, T.D., Akert, R.M. (1997) Social Psychology, Stereotyping (chp. 13)


Related Websites

Behind the Name : Dedicated to exploring the etymology and history of first names - superb site.

Kabalarian Philosophy : What's in your name ?

NameAnalysis.com : A quirky site that will analyse your name

Numerology : Name analysis system

and for the absolutely absurd....check this one out...

Pet name analysis : Acrophonology  ( i couldn't resist acknowledging this site, pet name analysis, lol)


Articles


Choosing beneficial and Harmful baby names : Albert Mehrabian, a very interesting article on the implications of what parents decide to name their offspring.

Babies Names 2002 : UK Office of National Statistics

Most popular Girls Names  &  Most popular boys Names UK 1998-2002 : ONS

Internet Name Analysis is Inaccurate : Kansas State Collegian

Names and Personality : Robert Needleman, M.A




References

Case of Tonsilitus Jackson : H. Edward Deluzain

Mehrabian, A. (2003)  Choosing beneficial and Harmful baby names : http://www.kaaj.com/psych/namebk.html

 

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2003 Philip Calrissian
Last Updated : 08/10/04