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.