When I was in the fourth grade, my teacher often assigned a game. We were challenged to make as many different words as we could using the letters found in a word or phrase. Around President’s Day we’d have to use “George Washington.” When studying botany, we were given “photosynthesis,” and so on. Each time, my classmates groaned. I loved it. As the teacher wrote our contributions on the board I’d stay quiet until everyone else ran out of ideas. Then, even though it defined me as a word nerd, I raised my hand to add a few more (or ten more).
A few months into the school year the teacher came up with the idea of using a student’s name on his or her birthday. It was an awful idea. Anatomy and body function words popped up easily using names like Samantha, Christopher, and Stephanie. Some of those names, silly or gross, stuck on the playground too.
Names are so personal that we actually prefer the individual letters in our names. It’s called the name-letter effect. Research shows when asked to pick several favorite letters from the alphabet, people invariably pick letters found in their names. They also prefer brands that start with the same letters as their initials. This has a far-reaching effect. Studies show that people are disproportionately likely to work in careers matching their name initials or that sound like their names. They’re also more likely to live in a city with a name similar to their own first or last name.
Names have an impact on how others perceive us. For example, names expose us to racial profiling. In a study titled, “Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” it was shown that job applicants with white-sounding names were 50 percent more likely to get an interview than those with names perceived as African-American. The best resumes offered little help. Applicants with high quality resumes and white-sounding names got 30 percent more interview callbacks than those with lower-quality resumes. But for applicants with African-American names, the same credentials bump only gave them a nine percent boost over lower quality resumes.
Racial profiling may have spread to Google, perhaps reflecting bias in society. A 2013 study of advertisements appearing on Google in relation to name searches showed certain names were 25 percent more likely to return results advertising criminal record sites. For example, searching for a news story about a school athlete with a name commonly perceived as African-American was much more likely to appear with results displaying ads with the child’s first name and the word “Arrested?”—Yes, really.
Unusual names are certainly popular with celebrities. Witness Jamie Oliver’s kids: Petal Blossom Rainbow, Daisy Boo Pamela, Poppy Honey Rose, and Buddy Bear Maurice. Or, David Duchovny and Tea Leoni’s son, Kyd. Or, Ashlee Simpson’s son, Bronx Mowgli. Or, Nicolas Cage’s son, Kal-El. You know I could go on. High status may easily make up for an unusual name, although in general, oddly spelled or atypical names tend to cause problems. That means you, parents who call your babies Siri, Mac, and other technology names.
According to Freakonomics, first names gradually move down in social class. Upper classes adopt newer names initially (according to the book, the wealthy launched names like Amber, Brittany, and Crystal). Once those names enter common usage, the upper classes shift their preferences to other first names. But overall, the wealthy are very conservative about name choices, particularly avoiding odd or creatively spelled names. (Check out name popularity over time in the U.S. using BabyNameWizard or the Social Security site.)
And a new study determined that people with easy-to-pronounce names are judged more positively. They’re more likely to get special treatment from teachers and employers. This means better grades, easier hires, and faster job promotions.
It’s not just the name itself, it’s where the name falls in the alphabet. Economists looked to find a relationship between last names and academic prominence. They discovered people with surnames close to the beginning of the alphabet were much more likely to have upper level positions, even more likely to win a Nobel Prize. This may have something to do with the way names are listed on many academic papers: alphabetically. Attention may fall disproportionately on the first name or two rather than equally on all co-authors. People with names earliest in the alphabet may also be accustomed to being first in line at school and first to be called for job interviews. It was noted that, of the 15,000 people in the study, the farther down in the alphabet their surname appeared the less likely they were to be successful.
It might be easy to blame a few of my career disappointments on the alphabetical position of my surname, down at the bottom with the W’s. But as the studies predict, I’m actually quite fond of ”W” and “L.” Also, perhaps because my name is rich in vowels, I happen to adore them. I see vowels as letters brimming with potential. (That doesn’t stop me from an ongoing practice of making up a name when asked to leave a name for a restaurant reservation.)
Maybe that’s why I also get a kick out of anagrams. They remind me of those long-ago classroom exercises. Do you want to see how many words can be made out of your full name? Maybe read some deeper meaning into them? Try the Internet Anagram Server. And tell us the strangest results in the comments. It’s like yelling strange names on the playground, only this time we’re laughing together.