A handle on destiny Names: What you call your children can powerfully affect their lives.

May 17, 1998|By Liz Stevens | Liz Stevens,FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM

Ah, the joys of pregnancy: cramping, swelling, throwing up ... choosing a name. Of all the suffering that expectant parents endure, the most extended might be figuring out what to call the kid. Hamilton or Harpo? Dakota or Dylan?

For those who haven't visited a nursery school of late, names have entered a new dimension. Parents are tossing off the chains of normalcy, mediocrity, tradition and sometimes good taste to outfit their offspring with a title of distinction.

A tyke's moniker needs to sound aesthetically pleasing, needs to set him or her apart, needs to conjure a positive image. Many a study has purported to show the relationship between people's names and their stations in life, their emotional and financial success, even their chance of early death.

The results of one research project, released in March, contend that individuals with "good" initials - such as ACE, HUG and WOW - live longer and commit suicide less often than those with "bad" initials - like DIE, PIG and UGH.

A Loyola University-Chicago study once showed that criminals with bizarre names - like Oder - were more likely to be chronic offenders. "Unique names interfere with normal social interaction," write the researchers. "This produces disturbed adjustment."

On the one hand, prospective parents today have lots more choices when it comes to names. On the other hand, a name isn't just a name anymore: It's a child's "fortune," says Bruce Lansky, creator of "The Baby Name Survey Book."

Naming a child is "a bigger deal than it was even 10 years ago," says Pam Satran, co-author of "Beyond Jennifer and Jason: An Enlightened Guide to Naming Your Baby." "And I think it's getting to be a bigger deal all the time."

When Satran and Linda Rosenkrantz sat down in 1986 to write the first edition of their popular book, upwardly mobile monikers were in style - "names that sounded classy and had a real pedigree, established names like Elizabeth and Christopher," says Satran.

At the same time, "grandpa and grandma" names, such as Sam and Maggy, and last-name names, such as Parker and Morgan, were surfacing.

"The '80s were about Ralph Lauren: a WASPy, upscale image," says Satran. "And the '90s are much more back to your roots and individual expression."

On a Monday evening, Joyce Eckstein's Lamaze classroom accommodates nine blue mats, one for each mom-to-be, and seven almost-dads (or almost-dads again). The moms have names like Michelle, Mary, Renee, Susan and Julie (there's one Latawshwa); the dads are Jason, Barry, Andrew, John and James.

Pretty run-of-the-mill. But their kids ...

For girls, they've contemplated Alexis, Alexandria, Madison, /^ Samantha, Deja and Molly. For boys, Drew, Jacob, Zachary, Victor, Ian and Keegan.

Many of the names hold meaning for the couples: They're family names, honoring parents and grandparents, or they're names with cultural connotations.

"That meaning is really powerful," Satran says. "My kids each have an element of family in their names, and they really care about that, sort of to my surprise."

Satran's two boys go by Joe and Owen, but it was difficult finding names that couldn't also be construed as feminine. "There are only 10 possible names that people identify as clearly masculine," she jokes.

There's some truth to that. Girls are not only getting androgynous autographs such as Harper, Morgan and Sloan, but they're also being given traditionally male monikers like Seth and Thomas. Rock musician Sting calls his daughter Elliott. Teen-age supermodel James opened the door to that signature for girls.

Whether or not parents acknowledge it, when they give a child a name, they give him or her an image, says Lansky, who, with co-author Barry Sinrod, had 100,000 people assign personality traits and physical attributes to 1,700 names. The survey book's second edition, due in June, is a sort of pop-culture name dictionary.

For instance: Fran. "Fran is pictured as a strong, tall, skinny woman who is a fun-loving smart aleck." Or Arlo. "Thanks to folk singer Arlo Guthrie, people picture Arlo as a pot-smoking, musical hippie." Or Herb. "Herb is pictured as a fat bald man with glasses who is a classic wimp or an overeducated, dull pushover."

"When you think about names in a functional way, you develop a different point of view," Lansky says. "What flashes across the mind of the college admissions officer when he sees the name of your child? What comes across the mind of the personnel office?"

People tend to live up to the image of their names, Lansky believes. "The parents buy into the image and treat you that way, and by the time you grow up, you've bought into it, too."

Unique names are "a sort of trap" in Lansky's view. Take Mikhaele or Emelee: "When you have a spelling and pronunciation problem, then a name gets to be a burden," Lansky says. "And the only thing you register about a weird name is that this person must be weird."

Satran agrees that a name sends a message, but she doesn't buy into the notion that it dictates destiny.

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