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Mehmet Oz, M.D.

Mehmet Oz, M.D.

Posted: December 18, 2009 12:55 PM

"The View" of What's In a Name?

What's Your Reaction:

with Craig Wynett and Art Markman, Ph.D.

I was planning my visit on "The View" last week to discuss the new "YOU: Having a Baby" book and started thinking about the importance of the names that our parents present to us after the arduous nine-month pregnancy journey. Some names reflect real parental foresight; others appear to have been created with less strategic effect in mind. A few names may even represent a kind of lexical retribution - - designed to punish the new child for all the suffering he has imparted over the previous nine months.

Naming your new child Porky may seem perfectly appropriate or even endearing, when he's three days old. But fast forward a few years and you (and your child) may be asking, "What was I thinking?" Imagine this future scenario: "I, Porkchop, take thee, Rosemary..." or "My name is Porkchop, and I approve this message." To avoid these and other kinds of naming disasters, you have to think of human names like brand names.

Just like a product, your child's brand name has to reveal its products features and benefits. And while a brand may change its logo or advertising - even the size of its package, it never changes its name. For better or for worse names are forever, so choose wisely. So I thought what pithy insights could I develop about the names of my hosts? The short answer was none. So I called two world experts on the subject, Craig Wynett and Art Markman, who created a site for our new pregnancy book that helps parents pick their children's names, ask.doctoroz.com/pages/pregnancy-center. They offered the lowdown on how the names of my female friends on "The View" may have influenced their lives.

For people in the public eye where name recognition and name associations matter, it has often been useful for them to pick names that have particular properties. For example, people with names that are simple to pronounce are viewed as more intelligent than people with longer, less pronounceable names. And, believe it or not, the stock of new companies that have simple, understandable names grow significantly faster than their complex sounding counterparts. Names were often changed to remove ethnic associations that may have engaged stereotypes. Certainly in the early 20th century, many immigrants selected more "American" names. That said, most kids don't have the luxury to change the names given to them by their parents (except to go by a nickname), and so the name quickly begins to stick as part of their identity.

Unfamiliar names (like Whoopi) have the benefit of standing out. It is easier to remember the one Whoopi in a class than the four Christines and three Cindys. On the downside, unfamiliar names can also lead someone to be the butt of teasing. Kids can be mean to each other, and having an unfamiliar name can be difficult through the grade-school years. However, speaking from personal experience, surviving that teasing intact will help to give a child a real sense of self.

Names also differ in formality or what professionals call register. A name like Elizabeth is formal. Parents and kids often give a child a formal name and then use a nickname in most circumstances, so that Elizabeth becomes known to many people as Beth or Betsy. So be on the lookout for "nickname-ability." Long names have a habit of being compressed into shorter ones - "Kentucky Fried Chicken" into "KFC", "Coca-Cola" into "Coke." Dr. J works well for Julius Irving both on and off the court. But, William "The Refrigerator" Perry's nickname works less well off the football field and into retirement - "Hi, I'm your dietician Refrigerator."

On the other hand, a nickname like Dean can have a big upside if your child becomes a college professor - - "Hello, I'm Dean Smith (wow he's only been teaching for two years he must be good)." In a similarly misleading vein, Walter Cronkite named his beloved sailboat "On Assignment." Question: "Where's Walter?" Answer: "On Assignment."

However, the formal version of a name has some interesting properties. It can create distance between a person and their peers. This distance can be useful in some fields where you do not want to be so informal as to go by a title (Dr. X), but still don't want to be seen as a peer to everyone else.

Names also have an effect on the person who has that name. The letters and sounds of your own name become part of your identity. As a result, other things with those letters and sounds will become slightly more likeable for you. There is a tendency for people to be somewhat more likely to go into professions and to live in cities that share the letters and sounds from their names. Not surprisingly, lots of dentists are named Dennis. People also tend to like products whose names are similar to their own. This "phonetic gravitational pull" is fascinating and it demonstrates the subtle effect language has on our psyche. We have intuitively drawn these associations but do not fully understand them yet.

Names also have associations that may matter to the name bearer. A name like Sherri is strongly associated with a girl's name, and so it will reinforce a connection to being a girl. A name like Whoopi can be similarly suggestive, as in "if you keep making fun of my name, I'm going to whoopi your a**!" A name like Sydney is a girl's name that sounds the same as a name also used for boys, and so the name provides less reinforcement for gender.

Names can also have strong ethnic or racial associations. Mehmet has a strong ethnic association. Barbara and Joy do not. Having a name that is associated with an ethnic or racial group can reinforce the connection to that group, though if the group is one for which there are negative connotations in a majority culture, that can also lead to teasing or even prejudice. Someone who is successful and has a name strongly associated with a particular ethnic or racial group, though, can become an important role model for others from that group.

A name may also be associated with an idea or profession because there are already other people with that name in the profession or who have expressed that idea. For example, there are many famous Barbaras in entertainment, so the name may carry a connotation of the Arts.

To better understand how we unconsciously process names, let's review two principles of sound symbolism. First, there are two types of consonants: sonorants, and obstruents. Sonorants are perceived as softer and smoother. Obstruents are perceived as harder and sharper. Think of Clorox, a hard-working laundry product, versus Chanel, a woman's perfume.

Second, we need to assess hidden meaning. For example, Nike was the Greek goddess of victory and traditionally was associated with an exalted image of triumph. Now it's a brand of athletic footwear with a name that conveys strength and power. Viagra expresses strength and power through its resemblance to other words and its innate sound symbolism. The initial syllable is the same as English vie, 'to fight,' and similar to other English words like vigor, vitality, and victory. Car companies have long known this principle and their entire industry revolves around the hidden meaning in the names of cars. For example, a mustang is a wild horse and immediately conjures up an image of beauty, speed, freedom and rebellion. The very name appeals to our emotional sensibilities so much that we feel if we drive a Mustang, we too can be wild, free and untamable. You could have a ton of fun listing leading car names of the last century and comparing them to their brand image.

Now let's apply these insights to the name "Whoopi". Let's break the name into its component parts. Whoop + eeh. Whoop rhymes with the southern pronunciation of whip (to whup), as in Whoopi gave her a whupping. This suggests sternness. "Eeh" implies surprise--as in "eeh!, is that a spider crawling on your blouse?" Of course, taken together, the name Whoopi is also a cry of surprise and delight (as well as old slang for a delightful way to spend the afternoon). You can decide for yourself how well these elements actually fit any particular Whoopi you happen to know.

Finally, there is a competitive analysis to every name selection. Whoopi's only obvious competitor is Joseph A. "Joey" Buttafuoco. Personally, I think the name is a perfect match of its owner. Do you agree?

 

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