The following op-ed appeared in the June 3, 2018 print edition of The New York Times:
“Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” So said Dale Carnegie in his 1936 self-improvement classic, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” That is probably true for a majority of the population — 79 percent like their names, according to a 2013 survey of 1,844 respondents.
Unfortunately, I am in the other 21 percent. I cringe a little whenever I hear someone say my name, and have ever since I was a child. One of my earliest memories is of a lady in a department store asking me my name and bursting out laughing when I said, “Arthur.”
Before you judge that lady, let’s acknowledge that it is actually pretty amusing to meet a little kid with an old man’s name. According to the Social Security Administration, “Arthur” maxed out in popularity back in the ’90s. That is, the 1890s. It has fallen like a rock in popularity since then. I was named after my grandfather, and even he complained that his name made him sound old. Currently, “Arthur” doesn’t even crack the top 200 boys’ names. Since 2013, it has been beaten in popularity by “Maximus” (No. 200 last year) and “Maverick” (No. 85).
One thing I constantly hear from people I meet for the first time is, “I imagined you as being much older.” I don’t take this as flattery, because at 54, I’m really not that young. What they are saying is that they imagined someone about 100 years old. Why? Because people actually tend to look like their names.
In a study last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers placed images of unfamiliar faces in front of participants and asked them to guess the person’s name from a list of four plausible-seeming names. The participants should have guessed correctly 25 percent of the time. Instead, they got it right 38 percent of the time. The researchers found similar results across eight studies.
In case you are wondering, this fact and others make up part of an entire field called “onomastics.” Onomasticians, who are trained in various scholarly subdisciplines, study proper names, and many of their results are fascinating. One of my favorite onomastic studies comes from the economist David Figlio, who found that boys with more feminine-sounding names tend to misbehave disproportionately upon entry to middle school compared with boys with more traditionally masculine names. So if your son is in trouble after beating up another kid, it’s probably your own fault for naming him “Robin.” (His victim is probably named “Arthur,” by the way.)
Another finding of note, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2002, is that people gravitate toward places of residence and occupations that resemble their own names. So, the researchers assert, a higher proportion of men named Louis live in St. Louis than would occur at random, and a lot of people named Dennis or Denise become dentists. It had never occurred to me that there were dark forces at work making me into Arthur the author. It all makes sense now.
One way to attenuate the impact of a name you don’t like is to marry someone with a name that somehow offsets yours — in my case, someone with a name that is a little more up-to-date. But I did the opposite: I married Ester. This was a pretty common name in her native Barcelona in the 1960s, but here in America it mostly predates World War I. To make matters worse, after we married, our first home was Boca Raton, Fla. We were aggressively pursued by telemarketers for burial plots and Medigap insurance.
I once heard that to have an aversion to a name is a condition called “nomomisia.” I suppose you would say I suffer from autonomomisia. Yes, I am an autonomomisist.
Still, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Like everything else in life, it could be a lot worse. Years ago, my mother and I were talking about all this. I asked her about her second choice for my name. How about David? “David Brooks” has a nice ring to it. After all, “David” was the second most popular boys’ name the decade I was born and was also my beloved father’s name. She thought about it for a minute and said, “Well, we thought about naming you Chester.”
You know, on second thought, Arthur’s not so bad.