What’s In a Name?

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of One of the Oldest Distinctions in Society

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Arianne Browne

Saldon Tenzin ’24 said, “Although I didn’t always feel like this, I grew to love and feel lucky for having a name like mine because of the ‘unique’ quality that it has.”

A name is what draws someone into a business, a song, an artist, or a brand. It’s something that represents where we’re from, who our families are, and our sense of pride. And, yet, it’s so easy to have a difficult relationship with your name, especially if it’s seen as “hard to pronounce” or “unusual.” 

I have disliked my own name for quite a while, and I know that might not be the nicest thing to say about a name that my parents spent nine long months deliberating upon, but I still spent my childhood running through a maze of names of my favorite cartoon characters wishing I could be them. I’d rather have been named after a Disney princess than have a name that no one at school could pronounce. I’d often wondered if I looked like an “Aurora” or an “Ariel.” Would I be a different person than I am now if had I one of those names, or any other name for that matter? A name can’t possibly affect who I am, right?

This article, written by Natalie Frank for Medium, delves into the impact of our name on our personalities and even appearances.“The name given to us at birth is the first way we are identified socially,” said Frank.  She goes on to explain that the name that we’re given, and the way it’s perceived by society (whether it is classified as being either uncommon or common) has a major impact upon our personalities, behaviors, and even our appearances. We want to live up to the expectations that our names place on us. 

A study conducted in 1948 sought to discover the effect that one’s name had on their academic success. A total of 3,320 students from the Harvard classes of 1941, ’42, ’43, and ’44 were included, and it was determined that those with a more “unusual name” fared worse off in society than those with a “common name.” Two hundred and eighty-eight of those with unusual names ended up dropping out of university for “unsatisfactory academic performance.” 

Even Business Insider went so far as to say that having a rare name is a major drawback when applying for a job. In a New York University study, “researchers found that people with easier-to-pronounce names often have higher-status positions at work. One of the psychologists, Adam Alter, explains to Wired, ‘When we can process a piece of information more easily when it’s easier to comprehend, we come to like it more.’”

Does that mean we should all change our names to Mary and John?

In short, no! So many names that are considered “unusual” or “rare” are actually quite common in their respective cultures, despite being seen as unconventional in Western culture. Most of these names have a distinct cultural significance or have meanings deeper than just something that we refer to someone as.  And, as I think many of us have grown to feel, our names offer us a sense of comfort and familiarity that can’t so easily be explained by any word.

So, what’s in a name?

Sadia Ali ’22 

“I love my name, although it’s pretty common, but I have let multiple people get away with an awful pronunciation of it. It annoys me that it’s difficult for people to pronounce such an easy name even after being told how it’s pronounced. It’s a Muslim, Arabic name given to me by my grandfather, so it means a lot to me and I take a lot of pride in it.”

Iskander Khan ’22 

“My name supposedly means ‘defender of mankind,’ so I’m not sure if I ‘live up’ to my name. But I do find the positive meaning of my name to be nice, and I think that it represents a broader idea of being compassionate, which is something that I do hope to live up to. My name was a way for me to combine a more American name with my family’s culture, as ‘Iskander’ is derived from ‘Alexander.’ I like my name since it’s rare for there to be anyone in the same room with the same name. I like my nicknames — Isky or Iskee or Iski — since there’s no exact spelling and it allows me to be known as different names by different people.” 

Arifa Tasmiya ’22 

“I don’t live up to my name because it has a religious connotation and I am atheist/agnostic. My friends sometimes ask me for advice, so I assume that they view me as someone who makes good decisions and thus could be considered wise, despite the fact that my feelings of inadequacy sometimes convince me that I’m not as smart as I really am. My name is Arabic in origin, with ‘Arifa’ meaning ‘wise,’ and ‘Tasmiya’ meaning ‘in the name of God (Allah).’ I wouldn’t change my name because it’s a part of my identity and culture. Although I don’t like my last name, because it alienates me from the rest of my family (no one else has my last name), it makes me unique, which I don’t see as a bad thing.”

Saldon Tenzin ’24

My first name ‘Saldon’ means ‘to bring light to the dark places,’ (basically spark a bit of hope to people and places that need it) and I think my personality does connect to this idea, but I don’t think that I live up to it as much as I should. My last name ‘Tenzin’ represents the people and religion I’m from. It shows that I’m proud to be Tibetan. When I was younger, I wanted to change my name because I thought it was weird, especially when I had to tell people how to pronounce it, when they pronounced names like ‘Emma’ and ‘Olivia’ so easily. It made me feel a bit insecure. But growing up, I realized that I’m lucky to have such a unique name with such a beautiful meaning.” 

At the end of the day, our names serve as both a divisive and unifying factor in the way that we identify with those around us. In a room full of those with similar names, we feel more at peace and less alone. In a room full of those who think our names are a hindrance, I suppose it’s easy to feel alienated. But our names, whether chosen or given, make us who we are, and it’s important for others to recognize and respect that. And, while our names can dictate quite a bit about who we are and give us something for which to strive, it’s important to realize that we can choose how our name represents us. You can see that quite a few people at Bronx Science enjoy how unique and familiar their names make them feel, and I’ve grown to join them in this regard.

I think that many of us have grown to feel that our names offer us a sense of comfort and familiarity that can’t so easily be explained by any word.

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