What’s in a name?

What's in a name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

In Act II, Scene II of playwright William Shakespeare’s lyrical tale of “star-cross’d” lovers, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet “are doomed from the start as members of two warring families,” explains the website:

Here Juliet tells Romeo that a name is an artificial and meaningless convention, and that she loves the person who is called “Montague”, not the Montague name and not the Montague family. Romeo, out of his passion for Juliet, rejects his family name and vows, as Juliet asks, to “deny (his) father” and instead be “new baptized” as Juliet’s lover. This one short line encapsulates the central struggle and tragedy of the play.1

“Does your name play a role in determining what career you choose or how successful you are within your chosen profession?” asks Steve Tobak of CBS News. “There’s certainly a ton of anecdotal evidence that names and career choices are related and additional evidence that people don’t necessarily choose doctors, lawyers, and who knows what else, completely at random from a list.” 2

Rachel Emma Silverman and Joe Light write in The Wall Street Journal:

In a controversial, widely cited 2002 paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers from the State University of New York at Buffalo found that people were more likely to choose professions with names that are similar to their own first names. Another study, out of Wayne State University, Detroit, found that medical doctors and lawyers were more likely to have last names that somehow evoked their professions. It was published [in 2010] in the journal “Names: A Journal of Onomastics.” 3

The CBS News article continues:

Not surprisingly, there are dissenting views in academia. Frank Nuessel, professor of languages and linguistics at the University of Louisville, who edits [the Names journal] and coined the term “aptonym” — when your name reflects your profession — says he doesn’t really believe in “nominal determinism.” 4

The Wall Street Journal quotes Professor Nuessel: “I really don’t believe in nominal determinism. Probably most of these tend to be accidental.” 5

But Jozef M. Nuttin, Jr., in 1987 “showed that individuals tend to like both their names and initials, called the name-letter effect,” notes Psychlopedia. “In particular, they appear to like their initials more than other letters of the alphabet.” 6

According to Wikipedia, “The name–letter effect is one of the widest used measures of implicit self-esteem:”

This effect has been found in a vast range of studies. In one such scenario, participants were given a list of letters, one of which contained letters from their own name and the other of which contained other letters, and asked them to circle the preferred letter. This study found that, even when accounting for all other variables, letters belonging to the participants’ own names were preferred [Nuttin, 1985].

Similar results have been found in cross-cultural studies, using different alphabets [Hoorens, V., Nuttin, J.M., Herman, I.E., & Pavakanun, U., 1990].7

“The name-letter effect has been ascribed to implicit egoism, as propounded by Pelham, Carvallo, and Jones (2005),” continues Psychlopedia. “In particular, individuals like to perceive themselves favorably. Hence, any object or concept they feel is connected to the self is also conferred this favorable status.” 8

“Baby names weren’t always used to indicate parents’ social status,” notes Erin Brodwin for the website.

That trend began somewhere in the past two or three decades, when people shifted away from the bland baby names of the 1950s and ’60s, according to Laura Wattenberg, author of the popular book The Baby Name Wizard. Half of all girls born in the 1950s had one of just 50 names; half of all boys had one of 25 names. Today, that number has skyrocketed to 320 names for girls and 134 for boys. Because there are now so many options out there, a parent’s choice can carry more weight than it had in the past.9


1 “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose,” Shakespeare Quotes, Ed. Roger Moore,, Inc., 2006,, 15 February 2012, at (retrieved: 15 February 2012).

2 Steve Tobak, “Does Your Name Affect Your Career?” CBS News, 22 June 2011, at (retrieved: 15 February 2012).

3 Rachel Emma Silverman and Joe Light, “Dr. Chopp, Meet Congressman Weiner; What’s in a Name? For Some, an Identity to Live Up To — or Down To,” The Wall Street Journal, 21 June 2011, at (retrieved: 15 February 2012).

4 Tobak, “Name Affect.”

5 Silverman and Light, “Dr. Chopp.”

6 “Name letter effect,” Psychlopedia, at (retrieved: 15 February 2012).

7 “Name–letter effect,”, at (retrieved: February 2012).

8 “Name letter effect,” Psycholpedia.

9 Erin Brodwin, “The Difference in Baby Names Between Liberal and Conservative Parents,”, 2 September 2014, at (retrieved: 9 September 2014).

See also

Brett W. Pelham, Matthew C. Mirenberg, and John T. Jones, “Why Susie Sells Seashells by the Seashore: Implicit Egotism and Major Life Decisions,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2002, Vol. 82, No. 4, 469–487, at (retrieved: 15 February 2012).

Ernest Able, “Influence of Names on Career Choices in Medicine,” Names: A Journal of Onomastics, Volume 58, Number 2, June 2010 , pp. 65-74(10), at (retrieved: 15 February 2012).

Nuttin, J.M. (1985). Narcissism beyond Gestalt and awareness: The name–letter effect. European Journal of Social Psychology, 15(3), 353–361, at (retrieved: 15 February 2012).

Hoorens, V., Nuttin, J.M., Herman, I.E., & Pavakanun, U. (1990). Mastery pleasure versus mere ownership: A quasi-experimental cross-cultural and cross alphabetical test of the name–letter effect. European Journal of Social Psychology, 20(3), 181–205, at (retrieved: 15 February 2012).

Pelham, B. W., Carvallo, M., & Jones, J. T. (2005). Implicit egotism. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 106-110, at (retrieved:15 February 2012).

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