The late Canadian intellectual Marshall McLuhan once declared that “the name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers”.
Numerous parents in Europe and America apparently agree with him and will pay good money to mitigate the damage. Naming-consultancy services, offering to guide nervous mothers and fathers through the delicate business of ascribing a label to their newborn infants, have sprung up in Europe and America.
“My job is to hand-pick names that match a family’s priorities,” said Sherri Suzanne, whose New York company, My Name For Life, runs a “hotline” on which parents can confide their hopes for their little darlings.
Usually she is approached after a disagreement between the parents, or a conundrum posed by the child’s background. “For example, they desire an ‘American’ name that family overseas can pronounce easily,” she said. She might then spend up to 30 hours researching viable names. Though the price varies, her services start at several hundred dollars.
This advice comes cheap, however, in comparison with the guidance offered by Erfolgswelle (Success Wave), a Swiss consultancy whose founder, Marc Hauser, reportedly charges $29,000 for each child it names. Mr Hauser told Bloomberg news agency that parents should consider their children’s names in the way that a company might ponder a brand. He said his approach was strictly data driven, and usually required hundreds of hours of work.
Albert Mehrabian, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, has attempted to quantify the effect of a name in surveys. “We asked respondents to imagine that they were meeting someone for the first time,” he said. “You don’t know anything about them except their gender and their first name.”
They were then asked to score their reactions to a given name on three scales. One score was for a person’s perceived trustworthiness. Another measured how popular or playful a person was presumed to be, and a third looked at whether people thought they were intelligent, ambitious and independent.
By Dr Mehrabian’s reckoning, men ought to be named Stephen, Christopher, Kenneth or Thomas — these were among the highest scoring names. Baby girls should be named Elizabeth, Mary, Anne, Jessica or Jennifer.
While his study only measures perception, Dr Mehrabian believes that perceptions rule so many of a person’s social and professional interactions that a name can be critical. “Albert is not such a terrific name,” he said. “It’s kind of middle-of-the-road. My brother, on the other hand, is called Robert. Robert is a fabulous, highscoring name.”