Retorts: Playing the name game to win

CHOOSING a name for a baby can be a winning – or cringe-worthy – proposition

CHOOSING a name for a baby can be a winning – or cringe-worthy – proposition

What’s in a name? Plenty.

Some of us love our names; some of us rather squirm when we hear them. Some are so hard to accept that we gladly embrace whatever nickname we can attach to the clunky original.

Parents give us the first draft on our identity. Other people make modifications. Marriage and other influences often have their role as well. I think it’s fair to say that when you add all this up, about two-thirds of us reach middle age with a moniker pretty different from the one you were born with.

retortsThe subject of names is on my mind because “the Kids” are having their third child – our third grandchild – and there is much debate in the clan as to what to call Baby Girl 1.0. Like a presidential primary season, the favorites pop up, slide down and often just disappear out of sight.

Considered and (probably) jettisoned so far are Allison, Charlotte, Chloe, Abigail, Olivia and – my personal favorite – Eliza. I suspect a dozen more candidates will rise and fall between now and the child’s arrival this spring.

Why is a name so important? The significance depends on who you are. The parents are looking for a name which is a) seems unique and/or b) which honors some relative, hero or cause. There is also the influence of fashion: it’s pretty difficult to find a John or Mary these days. Today’s top choices in 2015 (according to the Social Security Administration) are (for boys) Noah, Liam, Mason and Jacob and (girls) it’s Emma, Olivia, Sophia and Ava. We will probably not be seeing any of those names at the top of the list in 10 years.

My given name is James. My folks wanted all the kids to have names that began with “J” because – follow this closely, because it’s kind of complicated – while our father’s legal name was Salvatore, his friends and family defaulted to middle name Giovanni, which is Italian for John. The first letter of that, of course, is J, so everyone called him “Jay.”

Based on that pretzel logic, we were John, June and James.

But James soon became Jimmy, which retreated to James (when I considered Jimmy too immature at the advanced age of 7) and then skipped over to Jim when (at age 14) I was called that by this cute blonde girl named Marilyn. But that’s OK; I got to change her name a mere 27 years later.

Middle names are another level of grief. Mine is Arthur, high atop the list of boring names, suggesting an accountant with a dust cough. Marilyn’s middle is Gay, which doesn’t quite mean now what it did in 1953.

This all may seem like fluffy stuff, but some studies have shown that names really do matter. One (somewhat controversial) 2007 survey suggested that students with names which begin with C or D had a lower grade-point average than those with A or B.

Another theory is that names can suggest which career or life path you might take. Still another argues that people like other folks more if they can pronounce their names easily, or if the names aren’t too commonplace. The latter instance is thought to be to blame for the demise of Sally, Joseph, Thomas, Jane, and others.

Other factors can also be in play. In 2004 a group of economists sent out fictional job resumes to potential employers. They found that the inquiries made by “applicants” with “white-sounding” names like Emily or Greg got 50 percent more callbacks than those with “black-sounding” names like Lakisha or Jamal, although the qualifications and education were otherwise the same.

There’s probably some truth – and a certain amount of hogwash – in this research, but I cling to the notion that your own hard work and talent can overcome even a name like Herbert or Prudence. And I’m sure it will be true for the newest addition to the clan, baby girl Indigo Miami.

If you want to get really technical, the columnist’s full name is James Arthur David Tortolano. The “David” is my Catholic confirmation name, which I chose to honor my favorite disc jockey.



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