Hey wait, turns out I do have something to post about after all. Baby names!
In Johnny Cash’s "A Boy Named Sue," Johnny advances the Cash Theory of baby names: a freaky name will make your child strong. Turns out there’s something to that, according to this recent article in the New York Times. But first, some history. Back in the day, author J. Marion Tierney explains, everyone agreed unusual baby names spelled disaster:
Studies showed that children with odd names got worse grades and were less popular than other classmates in elementary school. In college they were more likely to flunk out or become “psychoneurotic.”
Prospective bosses spurned their résumés. They were overrepresented among emotionally disturbed children and psychiatric patients. Some of these mental problems might have been genetic — what kind of parent picks a name like Golden Rule or Mary Mee? — but it was still bad news.
This is certainly still the theory in Germany, a country in which some government official has the power to veto names new parents want to give their children (g) because the name "doesn’t exist" or would expose the child to "ridicule." Balkan friends of mine have also been prevented from giving their male children names that end with "a" (which are common there) on the theory that these names don’t clearly indicate the child is male.
This policy has always struck me as rather hard to reconcile with family autonomy and privacy. After all, what could be more intimate and private than the what to name your baby? Whenever I’ve asked Germans why these regulations exist, they always seem surprised by the question, and can only reach for generalities: "of course" we need such a law because otherwise "uneducated" people would "cripple their childrens’ future" by giving them some crazy name.
To be fair, they also point out that there are thousands of names which are uncontroversial, so parents do have a wide spectrum to choose from. The killer argument in favor of the laws, though, is invariably the idea that some member of the "underclass" will name his daughter "Pepsi," which is supposed to make chills run up and down my spine, because it Pepsi’s name will supposedly consign her to a life of humiliation.
A few researchers have now looked into whether that’s actually true:
Today, though, the case for Mr. Cash’s theory looks much stronger, and I say this even after learning about Emma Royd and Post Office in a new book, “Bad Baby Names,” by Michael Sherrod and Matthew Rayback.
By scouring census records from 1790 to 1930, Mr. Sherrod and Mr. Rayback discovered Garage Empty, Hysteria Johnson, King Arthur, Infinity Hubbard, Please Cope, Major Slaughter, Helen Troy, several Satans and a host of colleagues to the famed Ima Hogg (including Ima Pigg, Ima Muskrat, Ima Nut and Ima Hooker).
The authors also interviewed adults today who had survived names like Candy Stohr, Cash Guy, Mary Christmas, River Jordan and Rasp Berry. All of them, even Happy Day, seemed untraumatized.
Recent studies that control for other factors have found little impact from names:
Other researchers found that children with unusual names were more likely to have poorer and less educated parents, handicaps that explained their problems in school. Martin Ford and other psychologists reported, after controlling for race and ethnicity, that children with unusual names did as well as others in school. The economists Roland Fryer and Steven Levitt reached a similar conclusion after controlling for socioeconomic variables in a study of black children with distinctive names.
“Names only have a significant influence when that is the only thing you know about the person,” said Dr. Ford, a developmental psychologist at George Mason University. “Add a picture, and the impact of the name recedes. Add information about personality, motivation and ability, and the impact of the name shrinks to minimal significance.”
I wonder whether this has any relevance to Germany. I rather suspect not, for three reasons. First, control of names is an ingrained cultural tradition here. Most Germans don’t have a problem with it, and the few who do have little political power. Second, it’s quite possible that, because of German society’s conformist/collectivist tinge, children with strange names actually will have more problems here than they would in the freewheeling U.S. Third, although I don’t doubt that concern for the child’s welfare plays some role in tolerance of government name-regulation, I rather suspect that there are other factors involved as well. So even if you proved unusual names had no effect on child welfare, the regulations would remain.