What's in a name? An early death

Children are merciless when it comes to mocking people with unfortunate surnames. But research published in 1998 suggests that the consequences of having an embarrassing name can be a lot more serious than just a dose of embarrassment. The psychologists from the University of California in San Diego found that having initials that spell acronyms can significantly affect your life expectancy.

Dr Nicholas Christenfeld and colleagues examined around five million death certificates issued between 1969 and 1997 and found that men whose initials spelt "negative words" (such as DIE or PIG) died, on average, almost three years earlier than those whose initials spelt neutral words or were not acronyms. Men with positive initials (ACE or VIP) lived almost four and a half years longer than men with innocuous ones.

These effects were less pronounced with women; those with positive initials enjoyed a longer life of slightly more than three years. The authors argue that because women's initials change if they take their husband's surname, any effect, although still statistically significant, is likely to be diluted.

Initials also seemed to influence the cause of death: having a negative set makes it more likely you will die as the result of an accident or suicide rather than heart disease. This suggests your initials could have a major impact on your self-esteem and outlook on life and, therefore, your mental state. "If you think less of yourself, you may be more likely to drive your car into a bridge abutment," Dr Christenfeld says.

Initials such as APE or BUM might lead to persistent teasing during childhood and beyond, while positive sets such as WOW or JOY may help you form a more positive self-image, supported by the reactions of others.

(Other psychological studies have found that your name does affect your self-esteem and influence the treatment you get from educational, legal, political and psychiatric practitioners.) All of this points to a rather obvious conclusion: parents should be careful about the names they give their children. Cruel, careless and neglectful parents might favour negative initials, while kind and considerate parents take care to avoid them, and even take the effort to bestow positive ones. So those with negative initials might die younger because of poor parenting rather than malevolent initials.

But the Californian psychologists emphasise the power of the symbolism attached to our names; it seems unlikely, they argue, that someone with initials such as ASS or JOY could fail to notice the negative or positive connotations.

Teachers are in an ideal position to get a sense of whether initials or an odd name are having a negative impact on a child's sense of self or mental health and should be aware of nicknames and other pupils' attitudes. They can then step in early and take measures to boost a child's self-esteem.

We derive our sense of self-worth from our achievements. Teachers can help children find their strengths and give them a confidence that will see them through the rest of their lives. It's something to bear in mind next time you take the register.

Professor Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley hospital and senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. He is a fellow of University College London, and author of From the Edge of the Couch published by Bantam Press, pound;12.99. Email: rajpersaud@tes.co.uk

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