Names and Personality

By H. Edward Deluzain

A number of years ago, the newspapers ran a story about a young man who re-enlisted in the Navy during the time he was hospitalized for tonsillitis. Ordinarily, an event like this wouldn't attract public notice. What gave this story its appeal, though, was the fact that the man's name was Tonsillitis Jackson, who, along with his brother Meningitis, had helped his parents care for his sisters Laryngitis, Appendicitis, and Peritonitis (Smith).

It is difficult to imagine how Tonsillitis Jackson's name could have been anything more than coincidentally related to his disease. Yet, coincidences of this type do happen, and they appeal to our basic feeling that names somehow have an influence over the people who bear them. Our Puritan ancestors certainly believed this. They chose names for their children like Flie-fornication, Steadfast-on-high, and Obedience (Smith) in the hope that the children would learn from their names and grow up to be perfect examples of virtue. One Puritan preacher made this point explicitly to his congregation when he told them, "A good name is a thread tyed about the finger, to make us mindful of the errand we came into the world to do for our Master" (qtd. in Feldman).

In our own time, a name like Flie-fornication has, for a variety of reasons, lost much of the appeal it must have once had, but the idea that names can affect the way people behave and how they feel about themselves has not disappeared. In fact, it has caught the attention of scientific researchers. During the last half-century, tentatively at first and later with a greater sense of the importance of their work, psychologists and others who study human behavior have explored the feeling that names influence their bearers, and the researchers have discovered some amazing psychological aspects of names.

Returning to the case of Tonsillitis Jackson, even the most ingenious researcher would be hard pressed to find a link between the man's name and his medical condition. However, other coincidences involving names do have rather serious effects on the psychological health of some people. One such case was described by William F. Murphy, M.D., a psychiatrist in Boston.

Murphy told of a man who was troubled by guilt that grew out of his adolescent habit of masturbation. As a boy, the patient had worn an athletic supporter to bed to try to prevent erections. This technique failed, but it had the effect of causing his erect penis to bend downward. The unfortunate coincidence involved in all of this was that the man's last name was Bent, which, coupled with his nickname "Dinkey," reminded him constantly of the early sexual activity he had struggled so hard to avoid. In the military the man's anxiety caused mild psychosexual impotence, which helped reinforce his guilt feelings when he got older (Murphy).

Case histories of this sort are excellent sources of insight into the relationship between names and personality. When supplemented by the more objective and scientific evidence from experiments in psychology, these naturalistic observations help explain the important effect names can have on the psychological development of individuals.

The most important aspect of personality affected by names is self-concept. Self-concept develops as children develop, and it is "learned" from the verbal and non-verbal messages significant people in children's lives send them. Parents are the most important message-senders, but, as children mature and become more and more independent, the messages of teachers, classmates, and other people all contribute to their developing concepts of self. In a sense, self-concept works as a kind of script for the way people act. If a boy has an image of himself as bad or as not capable of doing well in school, his behavior will probably reflect that image. He will tend to behave the way he thinks a "bad boy" is supposed to behave, or he will fail to learn as he should even though he might be quite intelligent.

A person't name has an impact on the process of building a self-concept because the name helps determine the messages other people send the child. It has been well established through research that certain names are generally considered desirable in our culture and have positive feelings associated with them. It is also well established that other names are looked upon as being undesirable and carry negative associations. For example, Curt, David, Diane, Jeff, Judy, and Linda are all considered desirable and positive, and Agatha, Edgar, Francis, Mabel, Marvin, and Phoebe all provoke the opposite reaction (See Chapter 10 of Anderson). Because of this, people unconsciously, but nevertheless effectively, send positive and negative messages in keeping with positive and negative images.

Most of the time these messages are very subtle, but sometimes they take the form of jokes, teasing, and even ridicule, especially within the child's peer group. At best, the joking and teasing can make children self-conscious about their names and reluctant to have any contact with other children out of fear of being ridiculed. At worst, especially when insensitive adults think the jokes and nicknames are funny and actually use them too, it can undermine what might otherwise be healthy personalities.

Another of Murphy's psychiatric case histories provides a good example of this in action. Murphy wrote of a young college man whose chief complaint at the beginning of psychoanalysis was that his excessive underarm perspiration, and the accompanying odor, were responsible for his inability to make friends. The man's last name happened to be Stankey, and, in the course of analysis, he revealed that in elementary school the other students gave him the nickname "Stinky." His classmates held their noses when they were around him, and he reacted by withdrawing from the group and becoming aloof. He also let it be known during treatment that his mother belittled the family name and that both parents were compulsive about odors of any kind. At first the young man denied any problem with his name; later, he came to realize that he had unconsciously blamed his father for his social problems by making the father bear responsibility for both his name and his unpleasant odor. Eventually, he learned that the real difficulty lay in his concept of self. In effect, the patient had come to see himself as "stinky," and this, in turn, made him act the way he thought a stinky person was supposed to act (Murphy).

This example is dramatic and powerful enough to stand on its own without the added support of elaborate scientific research. However, support for the relationship between names and self-concept is available from the results of several scientific experiments. One of these was conducted by S. Gary Garwood of Tulane University (Garwood). Garwood asked a group of teachers to rate names as desirable or undesirable. He then gave a battery of psychological tests of personality and self-concept to a group of elementary school students and compared scores of the group with desirable names to the group with undesirable names. He found that members of the desirable-name group showed "a considerably higher level of adjustment" than the undesirable-name group. Furthermore, the students who had desirable names showed less conflict about how they felt about themselves.

Garwood's findings were basically the same as those of Orlo Strunk, Jr., of West Virginia Wesleyan College, who compared personal liking for one's first name with self-concept. Strunk concluded that "there appears to be a persistent tendency for individuals who dislike their first name to have less affirmative attitudes toward themselves than do those who like their first name" (Strunk). This seems to be a world-wide phenomenon, because D.J.W. Strumpfer of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, reported research results that "generally supported those of Strunk . . ." (Strumpfer).

In light of the important link between names and self-concept, it's not surprising that investigators have found relationships between names and the tendency toward mental illness. In four separate studies conducted over a twenty-year period, researchers found decided tendencies toward psychosis and neurosis among people with unusual and uncommon first names (Hartman, et al.; Ellis and Beechley; Houston and Sumner; and Savage and Wells). Interestingly, the tendency seemed stronger among boys and men than among girls and women. One pair of researchers who noticed this tendency attributed it to the fact that our culture permits greater flexibility and freedom in the names of females than of males (Ellis and Beechley). Girls are given unusual names much more often than boys are. Therefore, these names do not attract as much attention and are less likely to cause embarrassment for the girls who have them. As a result, these names do less damage to the self-concepts of the girls as they develop during childhood and adolescence.

Even though research data consistently show a relationship between names and personality difficulties, bizarre and highly unusual names of children may be, in themselves, no more than indicators of the psychological states of parents. Earlier I made the point that parents are the most important message-senders in the development of a child's self-concept and personality. It may well be that peculiar names, which are likely to cause other children to poke fun, are actually unconscious messages from the parents that the children are peculiar and deserving of ridicule. If this is the case, then the name is probably only the first of many such messages these children get from their parents during the time their self-concepts are developing. Then it becomes a question of whether the name is the cause of the child's later psychological problems or whether the child's name is only a symptom of deeper problems within the family.

Myron Brender, writing for the journal of the American Name Society, offered several hypotheses about the psychological significance for the parents of the names they choose for their children. According to Brender, family tradition is an important factor in the names many children receive. Sometimes traditional names express the hope that a rich relative will remember the namesake generously in a will. Other times, though, a traditional family name may be an attempt by the child's parents to appease their own parents because of feelings of guilt or fear of rejection (Brender).

Apart from any problems a child might have with a name that is an expression of parental guilt or fear, traditional names can work to a person's disadvantage in other ways. Dr. Murphy told of a case from his psychiatric practice of a college student who sought psychiatric help because he couldn't concentrate on his school work and because he had developed a facial tic. The young man had been given his mother's maiden name as a middle name, and he used it habitually in combination with his last name. The family of the man's father was undistinguished; but the mother had descended from old and important New England stock, and her last name carried prestige in the area where the man lived. Without realizing it, he had come to depend on his middle name, rather than on personal hard work, to assure his success in life, and he often became angry and frustrated when his middle name failed to work its magic. As he improved during treatment, but before he became conscious of the importance of his middle name to his problem, he stopped using the middle name as a way of identifying himself (Murphy).

One of the most common uses of traditional names is to name a son after the father and to use "Jr." as part of the son's name. Although there sometimes practical problems in differentiating between father and son, especially if both happen to be prominent, the real difficulty lies in the son's feeling of sharing an identity with someone else or of having to compete with his father for recognition as an individual. This, apparently, was the experience of the well-known American novelist, Henry James, as Leon Edel relates in his biography of the writer.

According to Edel, "throughout his life, Henry volubly protested against the parental failure to let him have a distinctive name and (by the same token) an identity of his own." James and his father were both well known and occasionally even wrote for the same issue of The Atlantic Monthly. As a young man, James used "Jr." as a prominent part of his signature, sometimes even spelling out the word rather than using the abbreviation. As his own career progressed and his fame increased, the "Jr." became less and less legible and was finally spelled with a lower-case "j" (Edel). In effect, he asserted his own identity by gradually, and probably unconsciously, deemphasizing the part of his name that signified his "lesser" status.

According to Brender, another naming pattern which reflects the personalities of the parents is the use of names that are highly fashionable and popular at any given time--or, in other words, fad names. Parents who select fad names may be giving in to subtle social pressure to conform to what they think the general culture says is acceptable, and this, in turn, may result from a lack of confidence in their own judgment, fear of being conspicuous by going against the prevailing tide, or simply a lack of originality.

The list of fad names changes often, and it varies quite a bit from one part of the country to another. Girls seem to receive fad names more often than boys, and the reason goes back to the earlier point that there is greater flexibility in the names we tolerate for females than for males. This greater toleration may be a kind of deep-seated, unconscious sexism that says, in effect, men need serious, traditional names to suit their serious concerns, but women, who won't be engaged in serious pursuits, don't. The same may be true of the greater latitude women are afforded in what is considered acceptable dress, even in professional situations. If a female colleague of mine arrives at school wearing slacks, a dress shirt, a necktie, and a jacket--traditional men's clothes, in other words--she's complimented as looking chic. If I showed up in a dress, I'd be arrested or taken for psychiatric treatment. Thus, as with names, public attitudes about clothing may well be endemic sexism.

The possibility of sexism aside, a fad name almost always becomes faddish because some famous person has it. Shirley Temple was at the height of her childhood career in the late 1930's and early 1940's, so we find a much higher number of Shirleys among 45- to 55-year-old women than any other group. Judy Garland left her mark on women's names a few years later, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis did the same thing to the names of girls born in the early Sixties (Smith).

Whatever the fad name or the reasons for giving it, though, there are two distinct problems which the bearers of fad names must endure. First, fad names tend to lose their popular appeal after only a few years and then more or less drop out of sight as names given to babies. As a result, in later years it's possible to "date" people on the basis of when their names were in vogue. This may not be a problem for everyone with a fad name, but people who would like to keep their age a mystery are at a definite disadvantage if they have a name that had great popularity for only a brief time.

The second problem with fad names occurs much earlier in the lives of people than the first one does, and it has the potential for some fairly serious consequences. This problem occurs at school, and it results from the fact that more than one child in a classroom is likely to have the same fad name. This happens with all names that are reasonably common, but it happens much more often with names that go through periods of great popularity.

The difficulty with the multiple occurrence of a name in a classroom is that children with the same first name have to be called by something other than just their first name in order to avoid confusion. Usually this means using both the first and last names of these children, instead of simply their first names, like everyone else. This has the effect of singling these children out from all the others and making them different from their peers. This is no problem at all for many children, but to a child who is trying hard to be accepted by a peer group by not being different, this can become a source of embarrassment and frustration. The analogy in the adult world might be a situation in, say, an auto repair shop where the workers are on a first-name basis but where everyone insists on calling one of the workers Mr. Johnson instead of his first name. Imagine how twenty-five-year-old Johnson would feel when a new worker comes to work and is introduced to the others in the shop. "Guys," the supervisor might say, "this is our new man, Jack. Jack, this is Mike, Jerry, Mr. Johnson, and Fred." The situation in a classroom may be the same or worse for a six-year-old: "Boys and girls," the teacher might say, "I would like for Timmy, Billy, Shane Miller, and Eddie to come to the reading circle now."

A third category that Brender gives as revealing something about the personalities of parents consists of a fairly small group of names that are bizarre and fanciful. Names like Last Chance, Boy, Truck Stop (a name once given to a boy because he was born in one), and the like may indicate whimsical, highly individualistic, and exhibitionistic personalities. On the other hand, names of this type may well result from a lack of education, imagination, intelligence, or all three. In some cases, these names may even be expressions of hostility toward the unwanted economic burden the child represents to the parents.

Even though parents are the ones responsible for the names people bear throughout life, there is a great deal of latitude available to individuals in the way they choose to use their names. As name authority Elsdon C. Smith points out, often the style of name we choose for ourselves can reveal a great deal about our personalities and about how we see ourselves (Smith).

Smith identifies six common and distinctive styles for names, and he offers opinions about what they suggest about the people who use each style.

John Baker

Simplest and least formal; reflects a "no frills" attitude; has "plain folks" appeal

John William Baker

Says the person wants to be noticed; suggests seriousness; suggests having nothing to hide; enables a prominent middle name to be displayed

John W. Baker

Shows maturity and a solid, conservative personality; middle initial implies a fullness and completeness without the flamboyance of using the middle name in full; creates a sense of mystery, especially in women; style used by almost half of the men in the United States and many women; works well in writing but is slightly ludicrous when used in speech ("Hi, I'm Matthew M. Parker."); computer forms tend to demand this style

J. W. Baker

A favorite of the British; appears reserved and standoffish; creates a sense of mystery; offer no hints about gender, which frustrates letter-writers

J. William Baker

Suggests high self-opinion and vanity, especially when the middle name is uncommon; sometimes a happy solution for "juniors"

J. Baker

Implies a feeling of insignificance; creates confusion and gender ambiguity of J. W. Baker, but none of the mystery

The ideas of Brender on the clues names offer about the personalities of parents and the observations of Smith on what name styles say about the ways people see themselves are theories that were developed through years of reflection on people and names. Even though these theories haven't been thoroughly tested through research, they tend to ring true to personal experience, and they give good insight into the importance of names in everyday life.

All of the case histories, research findings, and theories support the feeling that names help shape our personalities. Names are certainly not the only force in our lives that causes us to develop in a certain way and become the kinds of people we become. However, when we look at the evidence, we can't help wondering how we would have turned out if our names had been different.

Anderson, Christopher P. The Name Game. New York: Jove, 1979.

Ellis, A. and M. Beechley. "Emotional Distrubance in Children with Peculiar Given Names." Journal of Genetic Psychology 85 (1954): 337-339.

Feldman, Harold. "The Problem of Personal Names as a Universal Element in Culture." American Imago 16 (1959): 237-250.

Garwood, S. Gary. "First-name Stereotypes as a Factor in Self-concept and School Achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology 68 (1976): 482-487.

Hartman, A. Arthur, Robert C. Nicolay, and Jesse Hurley. "Unique Personal Names as a Social Adjustment Factor." Journal of Social Psychology 75 (1968): 107-110.

Houston, T. J. and F. C. Sumner. "Measurement of Neurotic Tendency in Women with Uncommon Given Names." Journal of General Psychology 39 (1948): 289-292.

Murphy, William F. "A Note on the Significance of Names." Psychoanalytical Quarterly 26 (1957): 91-106.

Savage, B. M. and F. L. Wells. "Note on Singularity in Given Names." Journal of Social Psychology 27 (1948): 271-272.

Smith, Elsdon C. Treasury of Name Lore. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.

Strumpfer, D. J. W. "The Relationship Between Attitudes Toward One's Name and Self-esteem." Psychological Reports 43 (1978): 699-702.

Strunk, Orlo, Jr. "Attitudes Toward One's Name and One's Self." Journal of Individual Psychology 14 (1958): 64-67.

Copyright ©1996 by H. Edward Deluzain. Permission is hereby granted to print this file and to disseminate it in hard copy or online, provided it is not changed in any way.