What’s In a Name?

Rachel Rabkin Peachman

When I began researching first and middle names for our second daughter, I came upon some unexpected—and unpleasant—information. I found out that the meaning of my last name, Pechman (the last name my husband was given; the one I took when we married), means “bad luck” in five European languages. I felt like we were jinxed! This was not the legacy my husband and I wanted to pass on to our children—and we didn’t want them associating misfortune with their identities. So after a lot of thought, we decided to change our name to “Peachman.” The peach is a symbol of luck, health, and abundance in Chinese, and our new name represents a sweet, auspicious new start for our family—plus it was close to the original.

This seemingly subtle change made a big difference to us, and it got me thinking about the impact of names. “There is a mounting body of evidence showing that names can have a significant effect on people,” says Laura Wattenberg, author and creator of babynamewizard.com. “Names send a strong signal about who you are and where you come from.” Studies show that names affect how others perceive us—and how we see ourselves—and can influence school performance, job prospects, self-concept, and more. So if you’re in the market for a baby name, here are some things to consider:

Look up the meaning: While it’s not crucial to pick a name that has a special meaning, it’s a good idea to check that the name doesn’t have a negative meaning. “A lot of parents are oblivious to the meanings of the names they’ve chosen,” says Pamela Redmond Satran, co-author of 10 books on names, and co-creator of nameberry.com. She chose her daughter’s name, in part, because of what it signified. “‘Rory’ means ‘red’—and because my maiden name is ‘Redmond,’ and I have red hair, choosing the name ‘Rory’ was a way to get my family name and history into my daughter’s name,” she explains.

If you’d like to give your child a name that has a particular meaning but you’re set on a different first name, the middle name is a great spot to put a meaningful name, says Satran. And there’s no rule that says you can’t alter your last name, as I did—or completely change it.

Think of the impact a name makes without a face: As more of our introductions are made online instead of in person, a name can precede your child and make an impression all on its own. “You can’t help but form an image in your mind based on a name, and that has a powerful effect,” says Wattenberg. Research shows that people make assumptions about others before they’ve met based purely on that idea. “Online dating sites have found that people with names like Jenny are approached more often than people with more formal or conservative names like Jennifer, presumably because the shorter nickname conveys a more approachable personality,” says Wattenberg, who also notes that politicians often shorten their names to seem more accessible. What’s more, evidence shows that androgynous names on résumés, like Sawyer, or names that are perceived to be male, like Alex, can actually up the odds of landing an interview in certain industries that have a bias toward males. “Your name is your calling card,” says Wattenberg. 

Choose the spelling carefully: Just as there is a trend now toward more creative names, there is also a definite trend toward more creative spellings, says Wattenberg. But giving a traditional name a unique spelling (like Osten for Austin) in an attempt to make it special may backfire. “It’s easiest to spell your child’s name in the conventionally accepted way because coming up with a misguided creative spelling usually makes the name more confusing, and in the end it doesn’t make the name more creative in the way people hope it might,” says Satran. “It just gives your child more explaining to do.” If you love a traditional name, go for it as is, and don’t put pressure on yourself to be unique, says Wattenberg.

How did you choose your child’s name? Tell is the comments section below or tweet your answer to @KiwiMagazine!

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