"What’s in a name?"
Shakespeare posed the question centuries ago. It’s still the second most important question we ask of expecting parents, right after the gender reveal: what are you going to name your baby?
A name is a place marker, a memory maker. We write it over and over at the top of every school paper, and hear it hollered out the back door at dinner time. It may end up in history books, across a marquee or on a retired jersey.
Names have origins, history and meaning. Perhaps we were named after an ancestor, a friend, a former president or a famous actress. Whether we like it or not, our name is tied to our identity.
I have memories of my mother telling me I was given the middle name of Elizabeth because I was, in her eyes, a queen.
I was a pretty confident child. Did that statement from my mom have something to do with it? Can our names go beyond our identity to determine our destiny?
Perhaps. A study published in the journal Attitudes and Social Cognition found that people named Dennis were more likely to become dentists. People named Lawrence and Laura were more likely to be lawyers.
It may seem ludicrous, but according to the head researcher on the study, Brett Pelham, this happens because of something called “implicit egotism.” In short, we associate the world around us with ourselves.
Perhaps this is why people named Armstrong become astronauts and cyclists. Or why author Orson Scott Card and his wife gave all their children literary names (see hatrack.com), in hopes they would follow in his footsteps? Or why, according to Wikipedia, former Brigham Young University coach Bronco Mendenhall named his three sons Raeder, Breaker and Cutter. Those are names you give to Viking warriors, gang leaders or, OK fine, maybe football quarterbacks.
What if Cutter turns out to be completely unsporty? What if he wants to be a balloon artist or a tap dancer? Is that even possible? Can we break out of the mold cast by our names?
My wonderful Aunt Loni was born on her Uncle LaVonne’s birthday, so her parents flipped it and named her VaLonne. From the time she could remember, she hated the name. No one could pronounce it or spell it. For two years of junior high she had to endure a teacher calling her Valon-ee (rhymes with bologna.) Although she admits it may sound silly, her self-esteem was affected by her odd name.
That is why, as an adult, she’s had it legally changed not once, but twice.
My favorite part of Loni’s name history is this: When she gave birth to her first child, a daughter, she named her Randi Sue. It was a name she loved. When her second child, a boy, was born 18 months later, she worried her only daughter might grow up with a boy’s name.
So, one morning she picked Randi Sue out of her crib and said, “Good morning Jenny.” She’s been Jennifer ever since.
While it’s never too late to change our name, most of us endure or simply come to accept our name. For instance, I always found Tiffany slighty ill-fitting. I associated my name with cheerleaders, side ponytails and '80s pop songs. While I admit I dabbled in these things (it was destiny!), they didn’t seem to connect with my essence.
Then, in high school, I looked up the meaning of the name Tiffany. It turns out my name means manifestation of God. It comes from the word epiphany. Instantly, my feelings toward my name shifted. I wasn’t an '80s popstar. I was one of God’s great ideas.
Whether you are Dennis or Laura, Tiffany or VaLonne, know you, too, are one of God’s great ideas, if not named in his image, at least made in it.
By any other name, that would still be sweet.