What's in a name? A life of torment

18th March 2005 at 00:00
We should not be surprised that David and Victoria Beckham decided to name their new baby boy Cruz. After all, his two older brothers are called Brooklyn and Romeo. And the Beckhams are not the only celebrities to choose exotic names for their offspring. Woody Allen and Mia Farrow's children include Moses, Amadeus, Satchel and Lark; the daughter of the late Paula Yates and Michael Hutchence is called Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily; Sonny and Cher's daughter is Chastity; and whatever possessed Jermaine Jackson to lumber his son with the moniker Jermajesty?

One of the several theories for this phenomenon is that the famous see themselves as different from the rest of us and so balk at giving their children common names. An unusual name is a way of indicating to the world that their children have inherited special genes. Another theory is that celebrities are addicted to attention and giving their children attention-grabbing names is an unmissable opportunity to show off.

But psychologists believe children with peculiar names can be damaged by the experience. A study at a New Jersey psychiatric clinic revealed a significant tendency for boys given unusual first names to be more emotionally disturbed than those with "ordinary" names. The research, published in the Journal of Genetic Pyschology, uncovered a similar trend among girls, although it was not as strong.

In another study, published in the Journal of Social Psychology, a quarter of students at a college disliked their names and believed they had made them sensitive, embarrassed and shy. They also complained that people made fun of their names, had difficulty spelling or pronouncing them, and that they did not suit their personality. An odd name can also result in poor results at school. In a study at the University of California, two identical essays were given to secondary teachers to evaluate. The only difference was the name of the child on the paper. Essays by those with stranger names got lower grades.

This research demonstrates an important point: that most of us are known only by our name, which could be vital in influencing judgments about us.

It could, for example, make the difference between being shortlisted for an interview or not.

Other research confirms that names are strongly associated with stereotypes. For example, Davids are viewed as being strong, wise, serious and complex, while Harolds are weak, bad, foolish, passive and simple. Such expectations, psychologists argue, are bound to influence the way people interact with young men named David or Harold.

Freud was aware of the importance of names and their conscious or unconscious connotations. He noted that primitive man regarded a person's name as his defining characteristic. And Christ was clearly aware of the influence of names on character when he said, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church" (Matthew XVI, 18). In 1930s Switzerland, the government even refused to allow one couple to name their child "Trotsky".

It may be that a name reveals the mental state of the parents (there has been much tabloid speculation on what the choice of Cruz says about David and Victoria Beckham) and the family environment to which the bearer has been exposed. As the psychologist Teargarden wrote in 1940: "The name which is given to a child at birth may constitute a psychological hazard."

Professor Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Bethlem Royal and Maudsley hospitals in London. His new book The Motivated Mind (Bantam Press, pound;12.99) was published on March 10. Email: rajpersaud@tes.co.uk

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