So, What’s In a Name?

by Racialicious Special Correspondent Latoya Peterson


Growing up as a Latoya, I used to be a bit annoyed with people asking me about my name and what it meant. Luckily, I was an 80s Latoya, which means I just had to respond to a lot of lame Jackson family jokes. As I grew older, I met more and more Latoyas, and felt a bit disappointed. My name was no longer unique, depending on the area. When I was a senior in high school, I knew four other Latoyas (and LaToyas) personally, and knew of a few more. At my job now, there was a LaToya working before me, so I am now and forever Latoya P. or LP. These days, my name is fairly normal, so unless I am calling across the pond* I don’t have to deal with much fuss.

Generally, the reception to my name has been pretty positive.** The only person who seems to regret it is my Mom. And while I toyed with the idea of changing my name, it was always to make it something more “cool” and less normal.***

So, I must admit, I was fairly pleased to see a piece in the New York Times backing up what I’ve known all along: People with unique names generally turn out fine. The article “A Boy Names Sue, and a Theory of Names” breaks it down:

During his 1969 concert at San Quentin prison, Johnny Cash proposed a paradigm shift in the field of developmental psychology. He used “A Boy Named Sue” to present two hypotheses:

1. A child with an awful name might grow up to be a relatively normal adult.

2. The parent who inflicted the name does not deserve to be executed.

I immediately welcomed the Boy Named Sue paradigm, although I realized that I might be biased by my middle name (Marion). Cash and his ambiguously named male collaborator, the lyricist Shel Silverstein, could offer only anecdotal evidence against decades of research suggesting that children with weird names were destined for places like San Quentin.

Studies showed that children with odd names got worse grades and were less popular than other classmates in elementary school. In college they were more likely to flunk out or become “psychoneurotic.” Prospective bosses spurned their résumés. They were overrepresented among emotionally disturbed children and psychiatric patients.


Today, though, the case for Mr. Cash’s theory looks much stronger, and I say this even after learning about Emma Royd and Post Office in a new book, “Bad Baby Names,” by Michael Sherrod and Matthew Rayback.

By scouring census records from 1790 to 1930, Mr. Sherrod and Mr. Rayback discovered Garage Empty, Hysteria Johnson, King Arthur, Infinity Hubbard, Please Cope, Major Slaughter, Helen Troy, several Satans and a host of colleagues to the famed Ima Hogg (including Ima Pigg, Ima Muskrat, Ima Nut and Ima Hooker).

The authors also interviewed adults today who had survived names like Candy Stohr, Cash Guy, Mary Christmas, River Jordan and Rasp Berry. All of them, even Happy Day, seemed untraumatized.

“They were very proud of their names, almost overly proud,” Mr. Sherrod said. “We asked if that was a reaction to getting pummeled when they were little, but they said they didn’t get that much ribbing. They did get a little tired of hearing the same jokes, but they liked having an unusual name because it made them stand out.”

My personal favorite paragraphs are these two:

Other researchers found that children with unusual names were more likely to have poorer and less educated parents, handicaps that explained their problems in school. Martin Ford and other psychologists reported, after controlling for race and ethnicity, that children with unusual names did as well as others in school. The economists Roland Fryer and Steven Levitt reached a similar conclusion after controlling for socioeconomic variables in a study of black children with distinctive names.

“Names only have a significant influence when that is the only thing you know about the person,” said Dr. Ford, a developmental psychologist at George Mason University. “Add a picture, and the impact of the name recedes. Add information about personality, motivation and ability, and the impact of the name shrinks to minimal significance.”

I remember that chapter in Freakonomics quite well, and not just because it directly applies to me. What I found were people trying to explain away my name based on the Freakonomics theory without paying attention to (1) the conclusion that the authors come to in the chapter and (2) that Freakonomics is a book applying economic theory to random events in real life. Just because Levitt and Freyer came up with a conclusion that does not make their results fact.

If you check out Levitt and Freyer’s original research paper, you see their conclusion clear as day in the first paragraph:

We find, however, no negative relationship between having a distinctively Black name and later life outcomes after controlling for a child’s circumstances at birth.

So research suggests there is no negative relationship.

However, there is a social penalty, which we discovered in Wendi’s post Sumpin’ Turrrble. There are still many people who will place a value judgement on your name, which does have an impact on one very key area of life. Let’s revisit the second paragraph from the Times’ article:

“Names only have a significant influence when that is the only thing you know about the person,” said Dr. Ford, a developmental psychologist at George Mason University. “Add a picture, and the impact of the name recedes. Add information about personality, motivation and ability, and the impact of the name shrinks to minimal significance.”

So, where in life does it occur when someone is in the position to make a value judgement about you based only on your name?

In the hiring process.

The only time in my adult life when I have ever considered using a different version of my name was a couple years ago, when I was on the border of being an administrative assistant and getting a job with a new title. I noticed that the amount of callbacks I received did not reflect my qualifications. In many cases, I was overqualified in the right ways for the position (i.e., they asked for three years and I had four; they asked for MS Office and I had that plus bookkeeping, etc.) but still did not get the call back. My time based in recruiting positions also fed my name based-paranoia because I remember seeing things like that happen. People would look at the name on the resume and make a value judgement, regardless of skills. So ethnic names (and I mean any ethnic name – last or first) were often assumed to be accompanied by an accent and therefore deemed inappropriate for reception duties. Sometimes it was the recruiter making this judgement call, sometimes it was the client, but a lot of people with adequate to excellent resumes never got the chance to present themselves in an interview.

Ultimately, I decided that having my name potentially work against me in hiring might be a positive thing. I doubt I would want to work for a company who would use a name as means to select a candidate. So it works out.

Also, in Wendi’s post, a few of the commenters brought up some excellent points. EvilAngelFish’s post (number 73) shows how bias factors into areas like housing and recruitment. And commenter Wanna provides the other side of this perspective:

Wanna wrote:

Interesting discussion and points made by all.

My first name is Tawanna. When I was a child, people of all colors used to have a lot of trouble with it. But I haven’t had an issue with it in decades, and I have not personally felt any stigma with having such an ethnic sounding name.

Except from other blacks.

My husband told me once that when he and I were getting to know each other in college, he “was surprised at how intelligent I was for a Tawanna”. *wrinkles nose* And when I met his mother, she was blunt enough to comment on the poor choice of name my parents gave me. Since then, the only other negative experiences I have had with my name have been from other blacks on message boards.

I thought of Wanna’s comment when I was reading the Stuff Black People Hate Blog.**** In Admiral Furious’ latest post, he takes on what he calls “Stupid Names:”

At a Kenneth Cole in Bethesda a few months back, I had the pleasure of meeting a very attractive young black woman working the sales floor. Very tall, very well-built, assertive yet soft-spoken, and ambitious enough to be pursuing an advanced degree without being a dick about it. I was damn near ready to marry this girl on the spot.

Then she told me her name. “La La.”

This was her actual fucking name. It wasn’t a nickname. It wasn’t her middle name. It wasn’t her name in Sanskrit. I’m sorry to say it, but the conversation pretty much ended there. Assuming things got serious, there’s no way I’m introducing to my mother a chick whose name doubles as a drug-induced slur. I’d rather be keelhauled.

The incident got me thinking about all the ridiculous names of black people I’ve come across in my lifetime, and exactly why the fuck these childrens’ parents would do something so socially damning as to name their child something like ‘Sugar’ or ‘Heaven’ or ‘Knoshawn’.

Any parent who gives their child a ridiculous name is dooming that child to failure in more ways than they could possibly fathom. It will inhibit your life professionally, socially, romantically, and even physically […]

In analyzing this cultural disease, it became apparent that stupid black names fall under four major categories (listed in decreasing order of popularity):

1. Swahili Bastardizations
2. Megalomaniacal Descriptors
3. Luxury Latch-Ons
4. The Unfathomably Ridiculous

I will address these in turn.

He goes on to provide an indepth analysis/rant against each of the four groups.

My take from all this is that it is the perceptions of names that need to change, and not the names themselves.

Your thoughts?

*However, if I do call the UK, I always find myself in the same conversation. “Your name is Victoria? No? Oh, La-toya? Well, that is certainly unique. Very pretty. What does your name mean? No meaning? Well, you’re parents were certainly creative!”

**My friend Rob actually came down with a case of name envy. He thought his name was boring, and he said he wanted to be a “La.” So we just renamed him “LaRob.” We called him that the entire year we worked together.

*** Which is why I am thankful they make you wait until you are 18 to change your name. You could be reading pieces by “Rosetta Stardust” if my 11 year old self had her way.

**** WARNING – This is not a blog for casual readers. Rude, mean, occassionally racist commentary from a bitter and astute black man. If you follow this link start here. And then go here. And then read the blog.

About This Blog

Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at

The founders of Racialicious are Carmen Sognonvi and Jen Chau. They are no longer with the blog. Carmen now runs Urban Martial Arts with her husband and blogs about local business. Jen can still be found at Swirl or on her personal blog. Please do not send them emails here, they are no longer affiliated with this blog.

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