We Are All Prisoners Of Our Names

ALICE STEINBACH

February 02, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

Throughout history, people have been been disappointed by their names. Can you imagine, for instance, how macho man "Sly" Stallone must have felt when, at about the age of 10 months or thereabouts, he found out his name was Sylvester?

I am told he was not amused.

It was Freud, I think, who claimed that biology is destiny. But my own research suggests something quite different. Which is: As far as destiny goes, we are all prisoners of our names.

In other words, every name brings with it certain expectations that act as self-fulfilling prophecies.

In fact, scientists have observed there is often a close connection between one's name and one's professional life.

Think about it.

Would Ivan Pavlov have discovered those Pavlovian dogs if he'd been named Ivan Smith?

And what about Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone? Given the onomatopoeic nature of his last name, was there ever any doubt about Baby Bell's destiny?

Ditto Evelyn Waugh. With a name like that, was anyone surprised that Mr. Waugh churned out some of the most supreme irony ever written in the English language?

And then there's the instructive case of Napoleon. If he'd been named, say, Manny, would he have suffered from that short-man, Napoleonic-complex thing?

I think not.

The latest cutting-edge research also shows that there are few among us who actually like our names. Which is not surprising since, generally speaking, names are given to please the name-givers, not the recipients.

If this were not true, there would be no one named Mortimer. Or Alma.

Most of us, however, accept our names and go on with our lives as best we can. We accommodate ourselves to being all that we can be, despite the albatross of a name we may be forced to carry about with us.

A few others are more daring. Take the case of Lilly May Painter, for instance. About 10 years ago, when the Charlottesville, Va., woman was in her 40s, this wife and mother decided to legally change her name. Which Lilly May did. To Elvis Presley.

The average person, such as I, would not have the nerve to do this. Although in my teens I used to send in poems to the New Yorker under the names of Alexis Ming and Leigh Cartwell. I learned something from that period, though: Rejections arrive with the same speed and accuracy no matter what name you use.

Of course, like everything else in life, names go through cycles of popularity and then disappear. Naming a boy "Boris" or a girl "Ida" is no longer considered cool. And speaking of cool, does anyone know if Vanilla Ice is a family name?

Right now, according to the Guinness Book of Names, the most popular girl's name is Brittany. Ten years ago, it was Jennifer. Twenty years ago, it was Michelle. And 30 years ago it was that grand old name, Mary.

It's a different story, though, when you look at the most popular boys' names of the last 30 years. A story that can be summed up in one word: Michael. It's been the top boy's name now for the last three decades.

And the Guinness Book of Names predicts the big names in the next decade will be Stephanie for a girl and -- surprise! -- Michael for a boy.

Naming a child, in my opinion, is by far one of the most important things we get to do in life. What other event in life presents the average person with the opportunity to create something where nothing existed?

You'd think, wouldn't you -- given the seriousness of such a task -- that there'd be a few rules about naming your kids. Such as:

Rule No. 1: Avoid all names that might give rise to such nicknames as: Pee Wee, Ivanka, Missy, Harpo, Muffie, Junior or Little Bit.

Rule No. 2: Check with a rhyming dictionary for possible first and second grade ambushes. To wit: Elvis the Pelvis. Mac the Hack. Willie the Silly. Pat the Fat. Psychoanalysts' offices are filled with refugees from such heckling.

Of course, parents can follow these rules and still be unable to protect their kids from Name Shame. Particularly if there's an older brother in the picture.

One who might, say, call his younger sister "Alien" instead of, say, "Alice."

One who might, say, call his younger sister "Sissy" instead of, say, "Alice."

* But that's another column.

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