Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The name game of life

Recently, I had the great privilege of becoming a father for the second time, and one of the first important decisions to be made for the little one is to pick a first name. It is hard to imagine a situation were the choice of names is very limited, and where the name you pick will be scrutinised and possibly rejected by the authorities just because it is not considered to be an appropriate Christian name. But this was reality in Cape Verde during the time of the Portuguese colonial oppression. In many cases, the authorities apparently designated “proper” Portuguese names to newborns, which the parents were more or less forced to accept.

Some might argue that your name doesn’t make that much of a difference. Personally, I would not agree. On the contrary, I think that a person’s first name is very significant, and that as a parent, you are placed with a heavy responsibility to get it right, or at least not to screw it up. Not withstanding that there are many other factors (including many which are more important) that influence a person’s identity, there are few other decisions which are as quick and simple with such potentially large consequences, as naming a newborn.

To a greater or lesser extent, your name will influence who you become in the world. I think that what you are called affects your options in life, the ability to make friends, the possibility to be chosen for a job interview. For instance, would it be easier or more difficult for a person named, say, “Grobjart” or “Barbie”, to become a successful politician, to date someone they like, or to become an artist? I think that the answer is obvious.

No wonder many celebrities use stage names or nicknames - Madonna, Pelé, Marilyn Monroe, Buffalo Bill… Even the US President apparently tries to make his name seem a little more interesting and unusual, by the addition of “Dabya”.

Moreover, the name is the key instrument to distinguish people from one another in everyday life. It is normally the first information we give – and get – when meeting someone for the first time. The first phrase you learn when studying a new language is “What is your name? My name is…” Not to remember a name when being introduced to someone (I have trouble with this myself) can be considered something of a social handicap.

As I see it, there are three main categories of names. The first one could be called neutral names. Here, you will find all the most of the rather common names, such as John, Thomas, Christina, Maria or George. Bearing these names will probably have limited impact on the life success of its bearers. A majority of all names belongs to this category.

The next category could be labelled beneficial names. These names will actively contribute to improving the conditions for a happy and rewarding life, all other factors equal. As an example, I watched the Swedish version of the TV-show “Idol” the other day. Surprisingly many of the female contestants in the runner-up to the finals – all of them self-confident, talented and determined – turned out to have rather unique names, such as Gathania, Särla, Evelina, Anastasia and Tamela. Was this pure coincidence? I doubt it. I believe that their names, at least to some degree, have contributed to getting them where they were. Whether they are more talented and self-confident because they have unusual names (e.g. by feeling special or chosen) – or, if they have been treated differently (more favourably) by the surrounding world because of what they are called, thereby making them more self-confident and brave, is hard to say.

Finally, there is a third category: the unhelpful names. What they have in common is that they could be a direct disadvantage in life. For instance, I know a little three year old boy in Praia called “Kurtrussel”, named by his father after the famous American actor. Now, what would be a likely impact of this choice of name? Is there reason to believe that his class mates will tease him for his name? That his name will work against him when trying to find a date later in life? That a future potential employer will reject his application purely on the grounds of his name? I might be wrong, but my gut feeling is that “Kurtrussel” will not be a very helpful name for the guy. And I think that there are quite a few similar unhelpful names out there.

The tricky thing is that the boundaries between the different categories are obviously not clear cut, especially as the impact of names tends to differ over time. A neutral or beneficial name in the 50’s, say Elvis, could prove unhelpful in the 90’s. Likewise, the name Adolf is probably OK until WWII; after that it is a good example of an unhelpful name.

Moreover, names can have different impact in different countries. Looking at my own name, Ulf, it would probably be classified as rather neutral in Sweden, while somewhat unhelpful abroad (few English- or French-speaking persons can even remotely pronounce it correctly, and most foreigners will consider it a rather odd and funny name). Given that I have spent a lot of time living and working abroad, I hardly think that my name has been an asset.

To find a suitable name for my own kids, I have identified a number of principles together with my wife, which I have tried to apply for the choice of name. These were, e.g.:
- to look for a name that goes well with surname and initials (in terms of phonetics and rhythm)
- to look for a name which is internationally workable (both in terms of pronunciation and meaning)
- to avoid names that are too common or too uncommon in his generation, as well as all names that might appear weird or strange and could lead to teasing
- to avoid names that are too “symbolic” (in particular, I don’t want the name to be closely linked to a specific religion or society class)
- to avoid names which are likely to generate unhelpful nick-names.

I am fortunate to live in a country and a time where I and my wife can choose the names of our children freely. I am not sure how much time and energy parents in general devote to finding a “perfect” name for their little one, or how aware they are about the significance of this decision. But I can tell you that I certainly gave it a lot of thought. And I am pretty convinced that it is time well spent.

Ah - you want to know what my kids are called? Elias and Jonathan.

Whether the names are beneficial or not? I guess time will tell.


Lapa said...



wrote about Portuguese colonial war



He has, also, translated into Portuguese the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith.

He has been awarded several prizes.

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Thanks for visiting this new literary blog

This sculpture in the picture was made, in cement, by a great artist friend of mine, named Eugénio Macedo.

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