What’s In a Name?

by | May 13, 2014
filed under My Reality

Red and white nametag reading "Hello my name is"by Matilda Branson

My name is Matilda.

In Australia where I’m from, Matilda traditionally means “a bushman’s bundle of possessions carried when travelling” and is linked to the unofficial national anthem “Waltzing Matilda.” Going further back to its historical roots, in Old High German and its derivatives in other languages, it means “mighty in battle.”

I love my name. But for some reason, I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with the “mighty in battle” aspect. It has always seemed so…warrior-like. Strong. A bit boyish. I always had that half pride of living up to my name (when winning on the sports pitch) while half squirming that it didn’t mean something more girly and feminine. And that got me wondering, as Shakespeare so rightly asked, “What’s in a name?”

How do different names impact my own thinking and impression of someone before I’ve met them? How do they impact acquaintances and strangers alike – friends, teachers, and potential employers? What impact has your particular name had on you?

We all have opinions on names. “Oh, I love your name.” “Oh, that’s my dog/cat/turtle’s name! Such a lovely name.” “Oh…erm, that’s an interesting name.” “Imagine calling your poor kid that! He’ll be horribly teased once he starts school.”

Names go in and out of fashion. Growing up, I was at school with several thousand Jessicas, Bens and Sarahs, and the only people called Matilda were people’s Great-Great-Aunt Tillies who had sat through two World Wars, and Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Now, every second toddler I meet is a Matilda, Tilly or Tildy, after Heath Ledger’s (R.I.P.) christening of his daughter Matilda.

Names come in and out of vogue, and cycle through the decades. It’s just the way it goes. We all have our own opinions and judgments on different names. We each have our favourite names that we secretly hope we can give to our own kids one day. Growing up I had a fleet of stuffed toys and made-up friends on whom I bestowed my favourite names. As prospective parents, choosing baby names is a challenging task (and the plethora of literature on how to choose the name best for your own baby is everywhere – just do a Google search). Ultimately we can see we do care deeply about what our own names are, what we call our own children, and the implications their names may have as they grow up and live their lives.

Although there are a range of names that are unisex or “gender neutral” (e.g. Jamie, Riley, Morgan, Ashley, Drew, etc.), in most cultures, male and female names are different from one another. They’re often gendered, reflecting the socially acceptable roles and expectations of each gender. In many different languages, female names often have meanings that allude to positively perceived feminine characteristics of beauty, kindness and delicacy, while male names are more often likely to resonate with meanings based on braveness, strength, of being a gift. Does this influence our identities being formed from birth? We definitely shape our own name, but does our name shape our behaviour too? Do others (in reaction to our names) shape us, growing up?

I went to school with a Chinese exchange student, a girl, who had to the monolingual-loving Australian school system a seemingly impossible Chinese name to pronounce. So, she chose to take on an English name more easily pronounced by fellow Australian students. She chose the name Roger. She thought it was a pretty name. There was a bit of a kerfuffle, and it was quickly pointed out that Roger was not appropriate, and a more feminine name was chosen. If Leslie can be a gender-neutral name, why can’t Roger? What has to happen at the societal level for a name to become gender neutral?

Names and the impressions they may give aren’t just gendered. They can also be defined by race, ethnicity, religion, and socio-economic class among others. In response to public appetite for such correlations, a number of studies have made correlations of name choice with socioeconomic status, educational performance and influence on careers. A friend of mine with an ancestral Indian name applied for graduate jobs in Australia, and didn’t get one acceptance to the first round of interviews. After submitting more than 30 applications, he put his CV in for five jobs under the name “John Bradley” and immediately had three invitations to sit for interview. Studies have reaffirmed that employers often discriminate against resumes with names that indicate the job applicant is a woman or a person of colour. Go figure.

Whether or not our names shape us to some extent, I suspect that ultimately it comes up to the individual to transcend through their own agency any negative connotations or influence their name may have on them. Perhaps there’s not too much to a name after all, if you make you and your name whoever you want to be. I think Dr. Seuss had it right in his poem “Oh, the places you’ll go!” with the final quote: “So…
 be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea,
 you’re off to Great Places!
 Today is your day!
 Your mountain is waiting.
 So…get on your way!”

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