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October 10, 1996

What's in a name? A lot, according to Pitt psychology prof's research

Forget all those ABC News, New York Times and CNN polls. If popularity of first names is the criteria, presidential candidates Bill Clinton and Bob Dole are running virtually neck-and-neck, says Herbert Barry, a faculty member in Pitt's psychology department and one of the leading authorities on names.

Actually, when it comes to first names Dole has a slight edge over Clinton. Although both candidates possess names that have been among the 25 most popular boys' names in America for more than 30 years, Robert has always come in a few notches above William.

In 1960, Robert was the fourth most popular name for boys and William the sixth most popular. By 1990, Robert had dropped to the 12th most popular and William to the 16th. John was the most popular boys' name in 1960 and Michael in 1990.

As Newt Gingrich learned, though, it is never safe to count out Bill Clinton. Even when it comes to names, the incumbent has an ace in the hole. There have been three American presidents named William – McKinley, Taft and Clinton – and none named Robert.

"Maybe William would have a bit of an edge that way," says Barry, who has studied presidential names and reached some interesting conclusions.

For instance, Clinton also may have an edge because he bears his father's name. According to Barry, more than 85 percent of U.S. presidents came from a family in which one of the sons bore the first name of the father. Dole's father was named Doran, a name that was not passed down.

However, Barry adds, presidents who were named after their fathers usually had distinguished careers before entering the White House, but were not very successful as chief executives and often lasted only one term. Jimmy Carter is a classic example. He was a Naval officer and governor of Georgia before winning the presidency and fumbling his way through four years in office. It was not until he left Washington that Carter was able to rebuild his image through his peace efforts and his work with Habitat for Humanity.

If presidents who were named after their fathers did not fare well in office, those who shared the mother's family name generally did very well. They were usually elected to more than one term and, good or bad, frequently left their mark, according to Barry.

Of the 13 most recent presidents, six of them have had their mother's maiden name as their middle name. They were Thomas Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard Milhouse Nixon and Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Except for Harry S Truman, who only had a middle initial, the other seven left far less of a mark as president. They were Warren G. Harding, John Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Dwight David Eisenhower, Gerald Ford and Carter. Eisenhower was something of an oddity. At birth, he was named David Dwight after his father, but the two names were later reversed by the family.

One reason that presidents who were named after their fathers generally did not do well in office was because of their strong identification with their fathers and considerable ambivalence about surpassing them. On the other hand, sons who carry the maiden name of their mothers generally identify more with their mothers. As a reaction to that strong feminine identification, Barry says, they take on exaggerated masculine behavior. Presidents with their mother's last name as a middle name generally had more ambitious and innovative programs. They also generated stronger loyalty.

Clinton's middle name, Jefferson, belonged to his father. Dole's middle name, Joseph, belonged to neither parent. Like Dole's father's name, his mother's name, Bina, was unusual. According to Barry, it is "very rational" for parents with unusual names to choose common names for their children. They want to spare their children the abuse they went through for having unusual names. While judging the chances of Clinton and Dole based on their names may be amusing in an election year, selecting the name of a child should be serious business, Barry says.

Personal names are heard repeatedly, he points out, and become recognized as distinctive sounds within a few months of birth. If an infant's name is shared by another family member, the association is an early and prominent component of social learning, and can have an effect on personality development.

Although research has indicated positive association with common names such as William, Robert, James and John, studies involving actual individuals show that most people listed in "Who's Who" have unusual first names.

Barry has found that there are advantages and disadvantages to both common and unusual names. Having a common name generally insures that a person will not be ridiculed and provides a connection with more people. But common names also make it more difficult for a person to establish an identity.

"The basic purpose of a name is to establish a unique identity," Barry says. "So a name fulfills its purpose to the greatest degree if it is unique." Having a unique name also eliminates feelings of rivalry with people who share the same name and makes a person more memorable and distinctive. Teachers better remember students with unusual names, which is an advantage for good students, but a disadvantage for bad ones.

Parents searching for a name should do so thoughtfully and carefully, Barry says. They should pay attention to how the first name matches the family's surname. A wealthy Texas couple, for instance, named their daughter Imma without thinking – their last name was Hogg.

Aesthetics are something else parents should take into consideration. Simple first names generally sound better with complicated last names and vice versa. But don't try to combine convention with flair by selecting a common name with an unusual spelling. That just creates trouble for the child, and everyone else, as they struggle to spell it.

More important than spelling or uniqueness is the meaning parents attach to a name. A name is a message to a child of the parents' values. How a name sounds also is important, according to Barry. James, Alexander and Charles rank high in success for boys, while Victoria, Olympia and Katherine with a "K" do so for girls. Katherine ranks higher than Catherine because block letters with vertical lines are seen as stronger than curved letters.

Generally, the longer a man's name, the more likely it is that he will be viewed as honest and accomplished. However, for people who want to be considered part of a group, it is better to have a short name or use a nickname, a lesson that both Bob Dole and Bill Clinton have learned.

As far as names for girls and boys are concerned, there is quite a difference in how they are chosen. According Barry, boys are much more likely to be named after a family member, while girls are more likely to be given a name that is popular. Seldom is a girl named after her mother.

Barry says part of the reason for the difference is that surnames are generally passed on by males, so families want them to be traditional and respected. Girls' names, however, are usually chosen because they are pretty or attractive.

Nowhere is that gender difference more evident than in the current most popular girl's name, Ashley. Originally, Ashley was a boy's name. Then it slipped into unisex use and now is considered a girl's name. Once a name becomes unisex society begins to view it as frivolous and it is dropped as a boy's name.

"It is a function of sexism," Barry says. "A girl should be an ornament instead of a leader. I think there is still some of that sexist attitude around." So should parents try to compensate by choosing a boy's name for their daughter? Some experts warn that such a tactic may only reinforce the idea that boys are better than girls. But others, namely the American Name Society, believe that girls with masculine names are perceived to have greater leadership potential.

If it all sounds too confusing, Barry suggests a few simple rules to follow in choosing a child's name. The ideal name should be traditional, popular, have a good sound to it and not subject the child to ridicule. For parents with their hearts set on a unique name, he recommends pairing it with a common middle name. Whatever name parents choose, Barry adds, they should give it a conventional spelling. Don't use "Suzee" for Susie. And remember: As a last resort, a person can always change his or her name. –Mike Sajna

Filed under: Feature,Volume 29 Issue 4

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