Caroline Jones of The American Scholar wrote to say “Here at The American Scholar, we have recently launched a new language blog that we think you would find interesting. Psycho Babble is written by Jessica Love, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Every Thursday, she posts about different linguistic issues and ideas, and we’re hoping to create a forum for discussion.” Psycholinguistics is something I’ve always wanted to find out more about but never actually read up on, so I expect this to be a useful read. Love’s latest post, on names, starts by pointing out that fictional names carry the significance the author put into them, then continues:

In life, however, names are not generally to be trusted. (Not human names anyhow: Fluffy the cat is probably not hurting on fluff.) The lack of a meaningful relationship between name and person, or to a lesser degree, name and place, is also what makes names so much harder to learn and remember than other words. Cleverly designed experiments reveal a so-called baker-Baker paradox: we find it easier to learn that a particular face belongs to a baker than to learn that the same face belongs to a Mr. Baker. The word “baker” actually means something in a way “Mr. Baker” does not. Bakers wake up early, tie on their aprons, and bake. This preexisting knowledge constitutes something sturdy to which new associations can be bound. As for “Mr. Baker,” well … we might suppose that he is male and, likelier than not, has an Anglo-Saxton ancestor.
The baker-Baker paradox has two caveats. First, we are considerably better at remembering names if we have assigned them ourselves. This is probably because the relationship between name and person is no longer arbitrary. [...]
But caveat two is of more practical importance: to some extent, our names may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The very arbitrariness of Mr. Baker’s name, for instance, might land him a job. A number of studies have demonstrated that having certain names—particularly those that sound ethnic or lower-class (and thus contain demographic information that makes them, well, less than arbitrary to many employers)—will hurt job seekers’ chances of landing an interview. According to economist David Figlio of Northwestern University, a girl whose name sounds more feminine (as determined by a longer length and greater frequency of “soft” consonants) is less likely to study science than her twin sister with a less feminine-sounding name.

Me, I’m adding it to my RSS feed.


  1. “Slick Billy” wouldn’t have been remotely as good as “Slick Willie”.

  2. On the other hand, I like the northern Irish “King Billy”, for William III (like only the name, I hasten to add).

  3. Do you suppose they called his co-monarch Molly?

  4. Tom Recht says:

    our names may be a self-fulfilling prophecy: Lera Boroditsky says that people named Lawrence are more likely than average to become lawyers and people named Dennis are more likely than average to become dentists.

  5. J.W. Brewer says:

    The overwhelming majority of American blacks have “Anglo-Saxon” (or Scottish) surnames, such that if you invidiously wanted to screen out non-white job applicants based on surname you would do much better just excluding everyone with a British-origin surname and instead going with those more characteristically “ethnic” (it needn’t even be as colorful as Italian or Slavic or Ashkenazic sounding names – perfectly bland/whitebread sounding names of Scandinavian derivation would be a good bet). has fascinating racial/ethnic breakdowns of the most common (if you click through to other pages on the site) 5000 surnames in the U.S. per 1990 census data, and one of the interesting things is that the black/white allocation of “Anglo-Saxon” surnames is really all over the place. Only a few such names are widely perceived as stereotypically black (e.g. the “presidential” ones like Washington/Jefferson/Jackson), but e.g. a Williams is almost as likely to be non-Hispanic black as non-Hispanic white and a Robinson is 44% likely to be non-Hispanic black even though no one thinks of “coo coo ca choo Mrs. Robinson” as carrying a notably “black-sounding” name. Baker, by contrast, actually has an on-the-low-side black percentage (14%) for an English-origin name (although Josephine Baker in her time was perhaps almost as famous a black American as Jackie Robinson in his, and no one would say her surname was an odd-sounding one for a black woman to have), perhaps because certain “occupational” surnames are unusually likely to have non-Anglo-Saxon ancestors hiding behind Anglicized respellings and/or calques? Certainly “Miller” is probably the whitest surname in the top 10 because it includes a lot of descendants of Muellers. But when you look at the typical range of British-sounding surnames, there isn’t any immediately-obvious-to-me pattern distinguishing the ones that are 15% black from those that are 35% or even more. Just a lot of historical contingency, presumably.

  6. J.W. Brewer says:

    Of course, neither first names nor career paths are evenly distributed by class/ethnicity. For example, “Vivian” is apparently about five times as common a name for Chinese-American girls than for the general population. If Chinese-American girls grow up to attend medical school at a substantially greater rate than the general population (which is certainly the current trend), then ceteris paribus the U.S. medical profession will eventually end up with a higher Vivian percentage than the general population, without any causal need for a just-so story about how the etymology of the name implies an interest in being alive and thus in helping others to remain alive. The possibility that Lawrence is a popular name among Ashkenazic-Americans (which I do not have data at hand to test, but seems anecdotally plausible) might be a more parsimonious explanation for apparent overrepresentation in the legal profession than any mysterious consequences of alliteration.

  7. David Eddyshaw says:

    I once worked in a hospital which had a pair of house surgeons called Kneebone and Slasher.
    On the other hand, my contemporary at medical school, Dr Nurse, seems to have got married as soon as she could.

  8. @J.W. Brewer: But surely the reason that so many Ashkenazic-Americans become lawyers is that so many are named Lawrence?

  9. The overwhelming majority of American blacks have “Anglo-Saxon” (or Scottish) surnames: I think the reference is to given names, though, which are much more variable and thus informative. I know three black Ayeshas, for example, but have never heard of a white one. Likewise I would take say, LaBicapitalized as a black name, Billy Bob as Southern, Fly-From-Sin as Puritan, etc.

  10. I have a female medical school classmate with the surname John, and intend to call her Doctor John at every opportunity once we graduate. At least with the decline in formality in patient contact here she won’t have to introduce *herself* as that.

  11. Re the first part of Jones’s latest post, the part Hat didn’t paste about fictional characters’ names, I thought I’d mention that FX’s Justified has some of the best names I’ve ever seen in a TV show — Rayland Givens, Boyd Crowder, Bo Crowder, Johnny Crowder, Devil, Mags Bennett, Dickey Bennett, Arlo Givens, Ava Crowder, Wynn Duffy, Art Mullen, etc. — perhaps because a bunch of them are taken from the Elmore Leonard novella, Fire in the Hole, on which the show is based. The show is great, BTW, better than The Wire, almost as good as the last couple seasons of The Sopranos, and whole lot of fun.

  12. J.W. Brewer says:

    Given the placement of the remark about the mysterious Mr. Baker, I thought the focus was more on surnames than given names, but that may have been a misreading. It seems harder to get good national data on racial/ethnic divergences in given names, especially quantified. I.e., there are some very “black-sounding” given names out there, but it’s hard to get a very good sense of what percentage of the black population has those names, other than that it varies pretty dramatically by cohort (much less common in my cohort born mid 1960′s than those born say mid 1980′s) and socio-economic background and is more common for females than males. For males, especially, black parents may most often draw on the the general old American inventory of “Anglo-Saxon” names but for whatever reasons be particularly fond of different ones. As of 2009, the top 10 names given non-Hispanic white baby boys and non-Hispanic black baby boys in New York City only had two names in common, but the not-in-common names on the black list included five from the Old Testament (Joshua, Elijah, Jeremiah, Ethan, Josiah) which have been certainly been extant in some numbers among American whites from the first Puritan presence in New England to the present day. (Indeed, the two names shared between the white top ten and black top ten were the OT-origin Michael and Daniel, and Ethan was in the Hispanic top ten despite I assume being very unusual in Hispanophone countries.)

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    So, just to connect the dots, as with surnames, if someone wanted to use onomastics to invidiously screen out non-whites (in a U.S. context), the best strategy would probably be to look for non-Anglo-Saxon first names associated with some specific non-British white ethnicity (Gunther, Seamus, Constantinos, etc., or OT names in a non-Anglicized form such as Yitzhak rather than Isaac). Because of the various contingencies and ironies of American history, the ethnic groups conventionally viewed as located at the top and bottom of the heap (i.e., WASPs and blacks) have considerable onomastic overlap.

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