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This is an idea you cannot help running across if you frequent baby name forums, attend a few parent group meetings, or just read the papers – that the bestowing of a name considered strange or highly unusual upon a child is a cruel thing to do, and has the potential to impact on their life in negative ways.
A short-lived parenting blog at the Herald Sun which was written by Cheryl Critchley asked, Are Weird Names Child Abuse? It might seem a bit extreme to suggest that calling your son Raiyybanzi is the equivalent of hitting him around the head or locking him in his room for three weeks without food, but Cheryl goes to the child psychologists for further information.
According to child psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, yes, an unusual name is a form of child abuse, as it will lead to non-stop teasing in the schoolyard. Another psychologist, Dr Janet Hall, said a poor choice of name could lead to the child developing self-esteem problems. A name that others constantly question and mock is a “constant attack on your self-esteem”. It’s all sounding pretty dire for poor little Raiyybanzi.
A dim ray of light shone through when an education psychologist named Dr Helen McGrath suggested that while shy children probably won’t appreciate an unusual name, an extroverted one might enjoy the attention that it brings. She noted that unusual names do tend to change people’s perceptions, and even self-perception. However, there was no research which suggested any negative impact, and that factors such as social skills and family relationships were far more important.
The interesting thing is that Cheryl got her inspiration for the article from the names of AFL footballers she had seen in the newspapers – names such as Ayce, Jarryn, Jarrhan, Cheynee and Sharrod. These horrified her, and yet it would seem that Ayce and friends hadn’t had their lives ruined, but embarked on potentially lucrative and rewarding sporting careers. The photo of Ayce used for the article showed him looking cheerful and confident, with his self-esteem firmly intact.
This article was published a few years ago, but journalistic opinion doesn’t seem to have moved forward very much in the meantime. There’s a good reason for that – if you’ve been following the ‘Twas Ever Thus series at Elea’s blog, British Baby Names, you will see that when it comes to getting worked up over “weird” baby names, the media is pretty much churning out the same stuff they produced in the 19th century. Only the names have been changed, as the saying goes.
On Radio National a few months ago, on their popular Life Matters show, presenter Natasha Mitchell had a programme called You’ve Named Your Baby What?!. Generally light-hearted in tone, the show discussed unusual celebrity baby names (Natasha confessed she rather liked Sparrow), old-fashioned names like Mavis and Alfie, little boys just called H, and little girls named Rach’elle.
Guest Mia Freedman, who runs the successful parenting website Mamamia, while not actually accusing anyone of child abuse, opined that a strange name, especially one spelled strangely, could be a “burden” for a child. A burden in so much as they would be constantly questioned about their name – perhaps not damaging to their self-esteem, but a downright nuisance to them nonetheless.
In these sort of shows/articles, everyone is very careful to explain that when they say “unusual names”, they don’t mean names from other cultures, which to our ears may be difficult to pronounce, or sound like rude words, or appear to be on the “wrong” sex. No, these names are a wonderful sign of our diversity, and people should be proud to possess them as part of their culture, and it would be very wrong indeed to poke fun of them.
To my mind, this is the downfall of their argument, because it’s never explained why it’s not a “burden” to be named Caoilfhionn, even though that must surely involve at least as many requests to explain spelling and pronunciation as Rach’elle does. If it’s not such a terrible burden to be named Caoilfhionn, then I don’t see how Rach’elle is any heavier for a child to bear.
And if we as a society should be able to cope with Caoilfhionn, Purushottama, Oluwakanyinsola, Dudel and Phuc as names, then I don’t see why we cannot also cope with Mavis, Alfie, Sparrow, Ayce, Jarryn, Rach’elle and H. For that matter, how could anyone be confused by the spelling of the name H? Surely the strange-names-as-a-burden club should be heaping praise on H for its unburdensome simplicity? However, for some reason that never happens.
Oddly enough, Mia, who has an extremely simple and popular name, says that she needs to often correct people on the spelling and pronunciation of it. And yet, this burden doesn’t seem to have really been much bother, or held her back in life. From this I deduce that almost everyone has to explain their name at some point (“No, it’s John – J-O-H-N, not Jon – J-O-N”), and that it’s just one of those little things you have to deal with.
To befuddle the argument even further, Mia poked mild fun at “cutesy pet names” for children, singling out Jools Oliver for naming her children Poppy, Daisy, Petal and Buddy. Fun fact: Mia’s daughter is named Coco. I know: go figure.
Although these examples are not the most convincing you’ll come across, and don’t even manage to present a cogent argument, there are no lack of studies which purport to reveal the dreadful consequences of giving your child a strange name.
They tell us that your child will do worse at school, be less popular with their classmates, drop out of tertiary education, and have their resumes ignored by prospective employers (although, after doing so badly at school and flunking university, you’d think a boss would have pretty good grounds for ignoring their resume).
Furthermore, they were more likely to be diagnosed as psychotic and to end up in prison – the bitter conclusion to a life of failure and misery. After reading this terribly sad story, which seems like the stuff of nightmare and soap opera, how could a parent be so heartless as to inflict on their child any name other than one selected by the Chamber of Commerce, heads of all major universities, and a panel of psychiatrists?
However, other researchers crunched the numbers and came up with opposing results. It was noted that men with rare names were over-represented in Who’s Who, suggesting that a life of success was just as possible as one of failure for those with less common names. Other researchers noted that many children with uncommon names came from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and that once this was allowed for, there was no difference in academic outcomes that could be attributed to the person’s name.
One interesting finding by development psychologist Dr. Martin Ford is that everyone tends to attach a particular image or set of expectations to a name – up and until they confronted with a person with that name. People might say that they think of Berthas as being unattractive, but if shown the photo of a beautiful woman and told she is named Bertha, they rate the photo more or less the same as someone told the lovely woman is called Jacqueline or Christine.
In other words, Shakespeare was clearly on the money in regard to roses smelling just as sweet.
So here we have two competing theories: one is that unusual names are little more than child abuse, will damage self-esteem, prove an unnecessary burden, and be a severe handicap in regards to academic and social success. At worst, they may even send your child mad, or force them into a life of crime.
The other is that names, once attached to a real person, become almost meaningless – that what we are judged on is not our names, but our appearance, voice, grooming, hygiene, mannerisms, personality, social skills, motivations, abilities, intelligence, beliefs, income, education, job, family, friends, hobbies, home, influences, aspirations, and indeed the whole “package” that is ourselves.
I’m not sure I am completely convinced by either side – mostly because I am sceptical as to whether any of them have considered genuinely “weird” names. I feel as if they have looked at unpopular or uncommon names, or names judged to be undesirable by others, but that’s not really the same thing.
I mean come on, how sheltered must your life be to think that Ayce and Rach’elle are weird!
From what can I gather, Dr. Ford’s photo experiment was just using “outdated” names of the time like Hazel and Harriet – not only in no way weird, but by now very much back in fashion.
His original name study was done in 1984, on children who would have been born in the early 1970s. Very rare names of people born in 1972 include Atticus, Briar, Bristol, Coco, Darcey, Denzel, Emmeline, Fallon, Heaven, Jaxon, Jorja, Kourtney, Larkin, Lourdes, Marigold, Reeve, Rosamond, Sonnet, Star, Theodoric, and Wilder.
These names aren’t weird any more – some of them look pretty hip, and others seem unsurprising; a couple are even quite dull. In just forty years, a name can go from Woah, what the heck? to Meh. Maybe the rare names of today, such as Cameo and Twain, will seem equally familiar by the early 2050s.
That’s looking at US data of course, but in Australia we know that just twenty years ago Olive was a strange and awkward name to give a baby, and it is now Top 100 in Victoria, and getting there in New South Wales.
If name-weirdness is dependent on time, it is equally so on space. I know that when I look at some names on the American charts, or in American birth notices, they seem odd to me because names such as Legend, Princess, Race, Tinsley, and Dutch are rarely or never used in Australia. Likewise, Americans look at Australian-used names like Lachlan, Jacinta, Hamish, Bronte and Zali, and think What the dealio?
A normal name can become weird just by crossing the Pacific; conversely, an American boy named Hamish who moves to Australia will blend in instantly. Fun fact: in the US, 8 baby boys were named Hamish last year.
What an individual person believes is weird seems to be almost entirely subjective. To Cheryl it’s Jarryn. To Natasha it’s Apple. To me it’s Race. To 1972 it’s Coco. To a commenter I saw on Mamamia it’s Felix (in the Top 100). To this journalist it’s Becket. To my mother it’s Madison. To you maybe it’s Hamish. Or Metallica. Or Banjo. Or Justus. Or Crew. Or Dudel.
I genuinely thought that this myth would be either BUSTED or CONFIRMED by the time I finished the blog entry, but not only has it not been answered, the very myth itself seems to be retreating over the horizon the closer we get to it, like heat shimmering on a bitumen road in January.
I am becoming less and less convinced that a weird name will ruin anyone’s life, and moreover, I am becoming less and less certain that weird names even exist, in any useful sense of the word “weird”.
Even Raiyybanzi isn’t that strange once you get used to it – it’s really just a juiced-up Raymond.
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I agree with Lauren, there is going to be a point with all names that there is going to be confusion leading to mispellings and mispronounciations. Its okay! If you love a name like Aveline it isn’t a burden that you have to resort to the ‘normal’ Ava. Ava could lead to confusion too, go with the name you love-thats all that matters.
Of course this is tricky to say when some names defy phoenetics like the example Cristina provided.
I’m afraid that’s one of the elephants in the room – nobody wants to quite say that’s what they mean when they say “weird name”, and the other elephant is they don’t want to say what kind of people are most likely to give those baby names.
I think regardless of your name you will have to at some point spell it or correct some one. I have had Lauren spelt Lauryn, Loren and Lorrenne, and pronounced with the first syllable the same as Laura. And guess what I am still alive and semi successful in life. It’s not like you pop out an adult that has to walk around introduing to everybody that they are named Ladarius and this is how you spell it, very person has to learn a new baby’s name and it becomes part of their identity.And if you think that your parenting success is determined by a single moment in naming your child and not the 20 odd years that you are actually raising them to be successful adults may indicate you were infact named incorrectly.
I think Americans do often say Laura and Lauren with the same sound, don’t they?
Yes it’s funny, somehow the idea that the name you give a child and your parenting ability go together in some way has become quite popular. It’s very odd!
I agree sure having an unusual name can be hard, mine isn’t unusual but my sisters is and lets just say on her birth cards she got every possible spelling from Adel to Edel (her name is Adele). My name in America is thought of as a “black” or “lower class” name and reading the behind the name comments can be disturbing but in my 13 years I have never been discriminated for my name and sometimes it gets a bit annoying to read comments on name sites that a name is going to ruin a childs life. A name doesn’t make a child and I hate all the assumptions we make. I mean I am from a middle class family and I am only 13 but my brother and sister have what you could say “upper class names with history (Adele and Isaac)” that doesn’t men they will get higher then me in life. Though having an unconventional name with an unconventional spelling can be hard. Back on topic my mum is Elspeth an unusual scottish name with no “normal” nickname (now there is Ellie but that wasn’t popular then). People still say and spell it wrong and it does get annoying for her but she has to live with it. Rant over.
Names can have totally different images and associations in different countries, so it doesn’t make much sense to listen to what people in the US think of Ebony.
Gosh, I utterly adore the name Elspeth, but I can see that it does sound like other names that it could get confused with. The traditional nickname for Elspeth is Elsie, which is where the name Elsie comes from. I love Elsie as well.
Elsie wasn’t normal then either. She gets it spelt Elsbeth about 98% of the time and it gets pronounced El-sa-beth.
Sounds like your mum’s name would be really cool now, and totally normal about 30 years before she was born, so she just happened to get it at a time when it was “weird”.
Wait I just noticed Justus and then Crew was that intentional as in Justice Crew or is it just me.
Haha, I didn’t do it on purpose, but after I noticed it myself, I didn’t bother changing it! I thought about it, but it seemed silly to think of another name just for that reason.
I agree, I wouldn’t be convinced by either side with the information they provided. I know someone named Adolf who became a priest, someone name Izik who is incredibly smart, etc, and people with normal names who are below par or have had many issues in life. However, I did read a study recently that said employers (in the U.S.) were less likely to hire people with names perceived as “black” names, and another study that said students with misspelled traditional/common names were more likely to do poorly in spelling class if their own name defies phonics. I do believe both of those are true, but I can’t find the studies at the moment.
Australian studies show the same thing, obviously not whether the name sounds “black”, but more if it sounds Muslim, or even difficult to spell. Meanwhile, a name that looks Chinese is apparently favoured – something to consider! I do believe the studies, but I would prefer we change society, and not our names. Of course Condoleeza Rice and Barack Obama managed to be quite successful anyway.
I guess if names defying phonics are bad news, we should all re-think Penelope, which makes little sense phonetically. I mean I wonder if they looked at regular names which defy phonetics? Otherwise the study doesn’t seem complete.
Yes, it makes me want to find that study again. And I wonder if they meant just really creative names that defy phonetics, like Alyzzibyth said the same as Elizabeth. I think some ancient Greek names (and other kinds) are in their own special category because of the same letter being pronounced differently through the name, like Penelope, but maybe it’s because they have history and were spelled with a different alphabet in their original form that no one questions the pronunciation?
Some mis-spelled names are hyper-phonetic. I wonder if that means someone named Jorga will be a better speller than one named Georgia.
I was given a ‘weird’ name. I was an A student, went to university, and have yet to go to prison (fingers crossed I can keep that one up). My self-esteem is indeed in tatters because I sometimes get called Sophia or Sapphire, and don’t even get me started on how emotionally draining it is to have someone mispronounce my name. Sheesh, what a burden.
Ah Zeffy, I think they would say your name is one of those “protected” names we’re not allowed to say anything about … but seriously your name is GORGEOUS! Only a Grade A nutjob would want to ban your name.
(I sometimes get called Emma or Hannah; still struggling through the pain!) 😉
Blue Juniper said:
Wow, I found Cheryl Critchley’s post to be really offensive! Does she think we need a pre-defined list of “acceptable” names that everyone must choose from or something?
Great, well balanced post Anna, made for some fantastic reading!
I actually had more problems with the radio show, which you can listen to in full by clicking the link provided.
I’m not sure whether they want some pre-approved list, or just want everyone to be re-educated to their liking. They never quite explain what their goal is.