I, Hunter: how a name can change your life

What’s in a name? Sarah dropped out of the top 100 for the first time since records began in 1904.

How much do they matter? The most popular baby names of 2017 have been revealed. Studies show that what you are named can influence everything from your exam results to your face.

“Hunter? Lyla? Hallie?”

These names will be a lot more common in classrooms of the future.

The 2017 baby name rankings are out. Oliver and Olivia have kept the top spots, but less traditional names are on the rise. In fact, three girls were named Siri last year after Apple’s voice assistant.

Picking a name is a big decision for parents.

To add to the pressure, studies suggest a person’s name can determine everything from their career and personality to how likely they are to donate money to disaster victims.

It all starts at school. In 2001, economist David Figlio found that a child’s name influences how teachers treat them. In turn, the different treatment is reflected in the pupil’s achievements.

Other studies found that students with unusual names are more likely to drop out of college and show symptoms of neurosis.

And, according to the implicit-egotism effect, we like things that resemble ourselves. Therefore, we’re more likely to take jobs or live in towns that remind us of our own names.

Your name may even influence your physical appearance. Researchers in Jerusalem discovered that both humans and computers perform better than expected when matching strangers faces with their names.

“Our given name is our very first social tagging,” they wrote. “Each name has associated characteristics, behaviors and a look.” Over time, shared social expectations influence a person’s expressions to create a “face-type” for certain names.

Human cultures have always been fascinated by the power of names. When the Greek hero Odysseus is captured by a giant, he is able to evade harm as long as he keeps his name secret. In the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin, a girl can only rid herself of her supernatural tormentor when she discovers his name.

More than any other writer, Charles Dickens knew the importance of names for capturing the essence of a character. He created Ebenezer Scrooge, the wizened old miser, and Mr Gradgrind, a strict educator concerned only with hard facts.

But outside of literature, do our names really shape who we are?

They call me…

No way, say some. Much of the science behind nominative determinism is shaky at best. The influence would be so tiny as to be unnoticeable. Besides, it’s not that our names change our lives, but that our names often reflect other factors like class and race that can limit the opportunities available to us.

Of course they do, others respond. The differences may at first seem subtle, but names help forge who we are in a million tiny ways. They influence the teacher meeting us on our first day of school, the admissions tutor looking at our university application, and the employer reading our CV. Our names are woven into who we are.

You Decide

  1. Do you think names can influence a person’s personality and life path?
  2. What might your name tell someone about you?

Activities

  1. Here are three literary characters: Huckleberry Finn, Milo Minderbender and Bathsheba Everdene. For each, write down at least five words to describe the characteristics that you would expect them to have. Next, look up the characters and see if they are as you expected.
  2. In Become An Expert, read philosopher Roger Scruton’s account of his struggles with his name. Pick out up to 10 words that you do not understand and find out their definitions. Write them down to help you remember them.

Some People Say...

“This is the sometimes quite grotesque coincidence between a man’s name and his peculiarities.”

Carl Jung

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The 100 most popular baby names in the UK were published this week. In 2017, there were 6,259 new Olivers. Harry came next for boys, followed by George and Noah. If all variations in spelling were accounted for, Muhammad would be the most popular boys’ name. For girls, Olivia came top for the second year running, followed by Amelia, Isla and Ava. Recent years have seen a surge in romantic, vowel-heavy names for girls.
What do we not know?
To what extent your name truly impacts the rest of your life. While some studies claim to have found clear links between names and educational attainment, others have found no link at all. If we accept that our name does influence our life to some extent, it is impossible to judge how a person’s life would have gone with a different name.

Word Watch

Disaster victims
Researchers from the University of Michigan found that a person was more likely to give to a hurricane appeal if they shared an initial with the name of the hurricane.
Neurosis
A mild mental illness characterised by symptoms of stress including anxiety, obsessive behaviour and depression.
Implicit-egotism effect
The idea that people gravitate towards people, places and things that resemble themselves. Some scientists believes this also applies to our names.
“face-type”
The researchers even worked out the region of the face that is most influenced by a person’s name: the area around the eyes, where we make most of our expressions.
Charles Dickens
A Victorian novelist whose works include A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist.
Miser
Someone who spends as little money as possible, often to a cruel extent.
Nominative determinism
The theory that a person’s name can determine their career and other aspects of their life.