People tend to stop caring about their names once they get past certain life landmarks: getting teased for an unfortunate last name in high school, agonizing over a nickname in college, wondering if a spouse should change their name. After all, it’s just a name. Right? Wrong. Psychological studies have proved, time after time, that our names have a real impact on our fiscal, educational, and personal success.
Which is what makes the recent trend of bizarre baby names even more confusing. Many European surnames evolved from occupations — Glover, Baker, Smith, Abbot, Draper — and the plethora of first names that now exist is actually a pretty modern phenomenon; according to a BBC report, until 1800, 50 percent of all men in England shared the same four first names. You were most likely named after your parent, or a common saint. Looking to celebrities and book characters for inspiration is a very modern preoccupation, as is wanting your kid to be “different”. As we’ll discover, for some kids, that can actually backfire pretty badly, with far-reaching consequences for future education and success. You’ve got to be wise when you’re naming your kid.
As somebody who’s named her cat Eglantine (after Angela Lansbury’s dignified but clumsy character in Bedknobs & Broomsticks), I’m not one to talk. But at least Eglantine won’t have to navigate preschool, college acceptance, resumes, or changing her maiden name. What’s in a name? As it turns out, rather a lot.
1. You Earn More If Your Name Is Shorter
A large quantity of research has gone into what many adults worry about: is their name holding them back from professional success? According to a survey done by an online job search site, perhaps. The top-earning names for men among the site’s six million members were Tom, Rob, Dale, Doug, and Wayne, while top-earning women were called Lynn, Melissa, Cathy, Dana, and Christine. Seeing a pattern? Shorter — albeit, “whiter” names, which we’ll get to in a second — seem to be the key to a successful career. Five letters, in fact, was the optimal length.
Forbes, which analyzed the study, pointed out that the most common names among “C-level executives” (that is, CEOs, CFOs, CTOs and other big guns at the very top of any company ladder) were names like Lawrence, Marc, Denise, Cindy, and Sarah. Commonality didn’t guarantee you a top-level salary, though; having an easy-to-pronounce, familiarly short name did. Part of this may be that shorter names are seen as more sociable, because we as humans like easily understandable bits of information. It could also be that giving yourself a nickname makes you seem more “human” and less Christian Grey.
If you think this is nonsense, the study even put it in cold hard cash: every extra letter a C-level executive had in their name above the five-letter “ideal” cost them $3,600 in earnings per year.
2. A “White” Name Is More Employable Than A “Black” One
This famous but seriously upsetting bit of information comes courtesy of a 2003 study that demonstrated just how much harder it is in America to get employed with a so-called “ethnic” name. The study, “Are Emily And Greg More Employable Than Lakisha And Jamal?”, sent out resumes in response to Wanted ads in Boston and Chicago. The resumes either had a stereotypically “white” name or a stereotypically “black” one, and were of either respectable quality or high quality (you know, sterling references, lots of experience, the things that make a resume shine). The results were pretty sobering.
“White” names received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews than “black” names, and even if “black” names were attached to the really stellar resumes, they still received a seriously low level of interest. “White” names on the awesome resumes, however, got a 30 percent jump in callbacks. The scientists pointed out that having a “white” name equated to having eight more years of experience on your CV.
In case you were wondering if things have changed since 2003, a 2014 research paper found that employers are just as racially discriminatory now as they were then. It’s a seriously unfair world, and white privilege and racism are very real.
3. An Easy-To-Pronounce Name May Get You More Promotions
A 2011 study found something interesting: if your name’s easy to pronounce, it may help you get ahead. And that applies to both first names and surnames. Apparently we form more “positive” impressions of words that we can pronounce and process easily; our brain rewards the name for being easy as opposed to driving us slightly nuts.
The study pointed out that even drugs with simpler names are seen as safer and more effective than ones with complex names. The scientists did experiments with name association that proved that people “like” shorter names better in others — and found that people with easy-to-pronounce surnames tend to have higher-up jobs in law firms.
4. A Last Name At The Beginning Of The Alphabet Might Help You Get Into College
There’s a caveat on this one: it was done in the Czech Republic, where names obviously differ in some significant ways from America, complete with cultural associations. But a study, done in 2007, found that if your last name is at the beginning of the alphabet, you’re more likely to be accepted into both application-only high schools and into college.
It’s likely this is because, in some places, applications are processed alphabetically, and that quotas are filled early on, leaving spaces few as the alphabet progresses. Of course, this depends on how your college processes applications, so don’t count on it helping you out.
5. Highly-Gendered Names Influence How You Do In School
It seems that social expectations of gender actually have a predictive role in how a kid behaves, at least when it comes to their name. According toresearch by Northwestern University reported by TIME, linguistically “feminine” and “masculine” names actually may predict a girl’s interest in more male-dominated subjects like math and science. Studies of twins showed that girls with less girly names were more inclined to stick with STEM subjects.
And there’s a flip-side, too. The studies also showed that boys with stereotypically “feminine” names, like Ashley or Courtney, often exhibited significant behavioral problems in middle school, likely in response to bullying. Poor kids.
6. Keeping Your Maiden Name May Earn You More
In an interesting revelation from 2011, a Dutch study revealed that people assess women who keep their maiden names as smarter and more career-focused than those who don’t. Part of this is likely the result of social change and evolved expectation: there’s a clear statistical link between high levels of education, marrying later in life, and the practice of keeping maiden names.
So it could just be a case of (albeit highly-problematic) connect-the-dots. But the research also found something more concrete: women who hadn’t changed their names earned higher salaries overall, often by up to $6,000 more a year. It seems that public perception about maiden names may be keeping married women who remove theirs from reaching their full earning potential.
7. Using Your Middle Initial Makes People Think You’re More Intelligent
If you’ve ever read an academic paper by “Professor A. E. X. Whatever” and wondered why they felt the need to cram every little initial into their title, there may be an answer in public perception. The practice in academia often comes from an attempt to distinguish your name from similar ones, butresearch in the European Journal of Social Psychology has revealed that using the initials of your middle name actually makes people think you’re smarter.
People rated essays as better-written and more intelligent if the writer was given a middle initial, or three. I didn’t know this before I started to go by my initials, but I’m pretty damn glad I did now.
Images: Evelyn Giggles/Flickr, Giphy, QuickMeme