What's in a Name? More Than You Think

People have always sought distinctions but the ways they have tried to distinguish themselves have varied widely. Some have let their achievements speak for them but others have let their clothes, their tattoos, their pierced body parts, or just their loud and strident talk establish their claims to be noticed.

Exhibitionists have been especially rampant in our times. In an earlier era, Joe Louis wore the same regulation boxing trunks as other fighters, unlike some of today’s boxers, who sport all sorts of wild colors and patterns. But Joe Louis is remembered for being a great champion and for his dignity as a man.

One of the ways some people seek special distinction today is in the names they give their children. Not only are the names themselves distinctive, these names remain distinctive only in so far as other people do not give their children the same names. So names today have a much faster rate of turnover than in the past.

Back in 17th century Massachusetts, more than half of all girls were named Mary, Elizabeth, or Sarah. Mary remained the most popular girls’ name, nationwide, throughout the 18th, 19th and early 20th century. Today it is not even among the top ten.

In fact, none of the top ten girls’ names in 1960 were still among the top ten girls’ names in 2000.

What does all this mean?

Maybe it means that we are preoccupied with standing out — without doing anything that merits our standing out. Maybe we want distinction on the cheap.

Maybe we don’t even understand what an achievement is. There was a time when people who were neither rich, nor celebrities, nor outlandish in name or appearance, were nevertheless noticed and well regarded as pillars of their communities because of their personal qualities and character.

Names are just one of the superficialities of our time that have replaced character, wisdom and achievement.

The turnover in names in part represents people from lower economic levels imitating the names of people in the upper income brackets. "Heather" used to be a name that was fashionable in upscale circles. Over the years, however, it has become so common among people with lower incomes and less education that it has now faded among the elites.

None of the top five girls’ names among low-education families is among the top five girls’ names among high-education families. The same is true of boys’ names.

Blacks and whites used to give their children pretty much the same names. No more. Since the 1970s, racial segregation has returned, this time in names.

California is one of the most extreme examples of this, as it is of so many other extreme trends. More than 40 percent of the black girls born in California during a given year have a name not found among even one white girl born in the same state.

Asian Americans have not joined this name fad, as they have by and large avoided other fads. Maybe their emphasis on achievement has made these other claims for attention unnecessary.

"What’s in a name?" Shakespeare asked. These days, sometimes a lot.

There have been studies claiming racial discrimination by employers who are more likely to reject a job applicant named DeShawn or Jamal than one named Jack or Scott.

Names are indicative of more than race, however. They are also indicative of values and attitudes in the families from which particular people came. So are other indicators. A lady working in an employment office contacted me a while back because her boss had told her to reject job applicants with gold teeth. She wondered if that was morally right.

I have had no experience hiring people with gold teeth, so I have no idea how reliable that is as an indicator. But, since the employer pays the price of being mistaken, it is his call, not mine.

Parents who think they are doing something clever or cute — or just "making a statement" — when they name their children might consider what the consequences might be later on. They might also consider giving their child some more solid foundation than a name for achieving something worthwhile in life.