- - Monday, June 4, 2018


A lot of people don’t like their names, even good, solid, substantial names like Woodrow, Arthur or Gertrude. Particularly, apparently, “Arthur.” Names can predict fortune. June brides, dreaming of making children, might one day regret choosing something cute, such as naming a daughter “Chastity,” or a son “Shirley.” They could keep this in mind.

Dale Carnegie, who wrote the first self-help classic, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” remarked that “a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” But he apparently never met any of the 21 percent of the Americans polled several years ago by onomastics scholars. The 21-percenters profess no respect at all for the names their parents gave them.

Dale Carnegie was clearly on to something, but the learned doctors of onomastics, as the study of names is called, wanted to know how the average person perceives his or her name. Researchers placed photographs of actual but unfamiliar faces in front of participants, together with a list of four plausible names, and directed them to guess which name went with which face. The researchers expected the participants to guess correctly only 25 percent of the time. In the event, they guessed correctly 38 percent of the time. The findings were disclosed in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

This didn’t surprise one particular Arthur, a contributor to The New York Times, Arthur Brooks. He learned early that names can define a person, rather than the other way around. Some names, and “Arthur” is apparently one of them, make a small child sound like an old man.

“I cringe a little when I hear someone say my name, and have ever since I was a child,” he writes. “One of my earliest memories is of a lady in a department store asking me my name and bursting out laughing when I said, ‘Arthur.’

“Before you judge that lady, let’s acknowledge that it is actually pretty amusing to meet a little kid with an old man’s name. According to the Social Security Administration, ‘Arthur’ maxed out in popularity back in the ‘90s. That is, the 1890s. It has fallen like a rock in popularity since then. I was named after my grandfather, and even he complained that his name made him sound old. Currently, ‘Arthur’ doesn’t even crack the top 200 boys’ names. In this decade it has been shaded in popularity by Maximus (No. 200) and Maverick (No. 85).”

Judging a book by its cover is not fair, we were instructed in childhood, but everybody does it, anyway. The “cover” hints at characteristics like attractiveness, intelligence, warmth and ability to lead others. Like it or not, people judge others by their names, which suggest those envied characteristics. Kenesaw Mountain Landis was a federal judge in Chicago, and who else could have been chosen to clean up baseball after the Chicago White Sox took a dive to lose the 1920 World Series, but someone named for a mountain.

How could someone named Roman Gabriel not become a Hall of Fame quarterback? Or Mercury Morris not a standout running back? Could Archibald Leach melt the hearts of millions of movie-going women? Not likely, but when Archie changed his name to Cary Grant, he could. Frances Gumm was nice, but forgettable, but she became a superstar as Judy Garland. Herman Ruth became a legend as the Babe, not as a Herman. The name assisted with the slugging.

Another scholarly study, by the economist David Figlio, found that boys with names that suggest he’s a girl — the likes of Robin, or Frances or Shirley — tend to misbehave more than boys with names like John, Michael or Sam, which often lead on the schoolyard to masculine diminutives like Jack, Mike or Spike. Robin has something to prove.

Politicians yearn for such solid names, like Harry (as in Truman) or Jack (as in Kennedy), but softer names can be honorably overcome by the right man. Consider the unfortunate Chester Alan Arthur. He didn’t even get a recognizable surname. But he did get the presidency, and that’s not a nothingburger. So the answer to Shakespeare’s famous question, “what’s in a name,” is plain enough. As Juliet learned in her doomed romance with Romeo, the wrong name can kill.

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