What’s in a name?
Quite a lot as it turns out, including on the deeper level of our identity and what we end up doing in life.
Here’s a fascinating look at the most surprising ways your name affects your identity and path in life.
1) Names matter
The first thing to emphasize here is that names do matter.
In fact, there is an entire field of the study of names which is called anthroponymy.
The majority of world cultures assign an individual a name, often at birth or after a rite of initiation.
Surnames are also present in the majority of cultures, although not always, for example, many Afghans do not have surnames.
Naming customs do vary significantly and have real meaning.
In many indigenous cultures of North and South America, for example, teens have historically undergone a vision quest to find their purpose in the world and often commune with the Creator and nature and animal spirits.
It was not uncommon for a new name to be assigned or chosen after a vision quest experience as a summation and marker of the individual’s new identity and purpose in the tribe.
In most modern societies of today, a first name is generally chosen by the parents of a child, while a surname is the denotation of the family lineage passed down by heredity and marriage.
First names are often chosen based on religious tradition (such as Biblical names like “Jacob,” “Matthew,” Islamic names like “Aisha” or “Ahmed,” or Hindu names like “Arjun” or “Jayant.”).
Surnames in many cultures have indicated profession or geographic origin, such as the English surname “Taylor,” for example (somebody who makes or repairs clothing), the Spanish surname Del Rio (somebody from near the river), the Ukrainian Jewish surname Polansky (somebody from the mountain meadow), or the Congolese surname Ilunga (a person who is willing to forgive twice).
As Jeremy Rosen outlines in terms of surname derivation:
“Surnames began in the Medieval period — usually describing people’s rank, activities, and jobs. Then they began to describe where they came from.”
We can hence see that first names are often linked to one’s purpose or religious or cultural values of one’s parents, while surnames are often linked to our family’s profession, geographic origin, or ethnic derivation.
2) Naming and destiny
When choosing a name, parents, relatives, tribes, and family may take many things into consideration including whether they simply find the first name phonetically pleasing or difficult to pronounce.
Names are often chosen in order to show accordance with the wider culture or language of a location, for example, East Asian immigrants to Canada or the United States often adopt a Western name that corresponds phonetically to their real name.
Parents and those involved in the naming process may also consider whether their child is likely to be bullied, popular, or fit in with the name they are given.
How does this affect our identity?
Quite a lot!
For one thing, the intentions, desires, fears, and hopes of those who named us are contained in our name, embodying the emotional and spiritual energy that went into the name.
The intentions and beliefs of those who named us also continue to shape us as we rebel or conform to what we believe we should become by virtue of our name.
This can extend to what religion we should follow, the job we should do, the culture we should belong in or identify with and our sense of how we “rank” in society and in value.
“Sometimes we try to live up to our names.
Sometimes we try to run away from them.
But either way — and for all the options in between — your name is a crucial factor in developing your sense of self, and thus helps propel you forward on various paths of life and career.”
3) Nominative determinism
The term for how your name impacts your identity and destiny is nominative determinism.
This refers to the study of the extent to which your name determines how you see yourself and how others see you, as well as where you end up in life in your job, relationships, and every other aspect.
It’s a fascinating concept, to be sure, and one well worth exploring when we examine the question of how our name relates to our identities.
A timeless study on names and how we see ourselves was done by Professor Gustav Johoda of the University College of the Gold Coast.
He wanted to look at how names reflect identity and shape it in the Ashanti people of Africa, who live in central Ghana.
What he found was that the Ashanti held strong beliefs about what the personality traits and purpose would be of boys and girls born on different days of the week and named them in accordance with their perceived day traits.
This directly affected the behavior and record of the youngsters. For example, boys born on Wednesday were believed to often be more violent and rebellious.
Scanning the local court records, Johoda found that boys named after Wednesday and its associated aggressive tendencies had a much higher rate of criminal acts.
This study, among many others, suggests that nominative determinism is very much real and that our name and the beliefs, expectations, and societal conventions embodied in it have a huge effect on how we perceive ourselves and our future destiny and role.
4) Digging deeper
Digging deeper into the foundations of names, we can see how our own first and last name may go a great distance to how others define our place in society and how we, in turn, perceive it.
If I am a sprightly, hesitant young boy named Thor Brandsen, I am far more likely to be perceived as strong and dominant.
The chances are vastly increased that I will “grow into” the role set out by name.
Granted, not everyone is named after a god, but whatever our first and last name, how it’s perceived by others, and what it’s associated with culturally and historically makes a huge difference in what we feel called to and capable of.
Far too often, our names and their perceived power or weakness are defined for us by society and other people.
This can occur through things like:
- Employers, partners, friends approving or disapproving of our name or responding to it in a sympathetic or oppositional manner;
- Experiencing early childhood popularity or bullying on the basis of our name, regardless of whether it’s because of the sound of the name, the culture or meaning associated with it, or even only being used an excuse for bullying by others.
- Being praised or blamed for our surname due to our family’s history or reputation in society or being loved or hated for our first name due to its connotations and what it’s associated with historically, religiously or ethnically.
5) Names and uniqueness
More research backs up the link between our names and where we end up in life and how we identify.
As 2021 research done by Bruce Bao and Hua-Jian Cai with the Beijing Institute of Psychology found that those with names that were more rare had a much higher chance of ending up in rare careers.
Rare names were also linked to higher levels of creativity and innovation.
Now of course this raises another interesting and intertwined question regarding names:
To what extent does the genetic and personality traits of the parents themselves determine what sort of name is chosen for their children?
In other words, are the children with rarer names more creative as a result of “living up to their name” or as a result of having a rare name because their parents are more original and creative to start with?
This ends up becoming more of a philosophical question than one that can be definitively proven in either direction.
What’s clear is that names are far more than just some chicken scratch we write down or type into a website registration form.
Our name, no matter how close we feel to it or far away, represents so much of who we are, where we came from, and who we are destined to become.
This is part of what makes this subject so worthy of exploration and deeper analysis.
6) Looking statistically
Numerous research studies that went beyond the scope of Johoda’s work have been done.
One prime example is the work done by Professor David Figlio of Northwestern University.
Figio, a psychological researcher, went through several million birth certificates, examining names.
In his approach, he went for the most basic metric, breaking names into phonetic components and gendered typologies then looking at later life behavior and how it might correspond to phonetic patterns and variations.
What he found was fascinating, including that boys given names more often associated with girls, such as Ashley, act out much more in adolescence.
This points to our own relation to our name:
When we hate our name or feel out of place in it, this can cause us to act out more or try to “fight back” and assert our place in society more proactively.
“We’re hardwired to try to figure out in a heartbeat whether or not we want to trust somebody, whether we want to run from somebody.”
Someone’s name plays a big part in that.
7) Owning and disowning your name
I personally have the surname of my mother’s side of my family, Brian, a side which has German-American and English-American roots.
The surname has alternately been spelled as Bryan in its roots and includes relation to the American frontiersman Daniel Boone and other early American pioneers.
The reason I have my mom’s surname is because I was raised by my mom and had a close relationship with my Brian grandparents who wanted me to take on the name.
My first name Paul was chosen because my father was inspired by the travels and work of St. Paul and because I was born in St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver.
My mother liked the name as well but said she also had dreams of naming me Seth which she later decided against due to the association of Seth with the Egyptian god “Set,” a rather vengeful and scary deity.
My dad’s family emigrated to western Canada from western Ukraine in 1890. Their surname was Polansky but half the family changed it to “Ames” in order to fit better into an Anglophone country which was widely and aggressively prejudiced against Jews.
My great uncle Morris Polansky, a World War Two veteran from my dad’s side, is the perfect example of someone who kept his surname.
As he recounted to me, he never denied its roots and experienced some consequences such as one job he was applying for and wanted badly.
It was going well.
The employer shook his hand ready to offer him the job, asking:
“Polansky, that’s Polish, right?”
“Jewish,” my great uncle responded.
“Ahh,” the employer said. “Well…we’ll be in touch…”
Needless to say, Morris never got a call.
It’s worth noting, however, that even with the Polansky surname, my uncle Morris and my grandfather on my dad’s side, Harry both had Anglicized first names in order to “fit in” to the Western culture they entered.
Similarly to Chinese or Cantonese immigrants taking on Western names that phonetically lined up with their original name, my great uncle was named Morris as a stand-in for his Hebrew name (Moses), while my grandfather was named Harry as an Anglophone phonetic for his Hebrew name (Chaim).
I was never raised in Judaism, nor do I have a name that stands out, but I still reflect on how my name would likely be something like “Saul Polansky” if I were living 200 years ago in Ukraine.
This idea of the “realness” of one’s name and its authenticity fascinates me and has deep roots in many stories.
As Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay) famously said:
“Cassius Clay is a slave name.
“I didn’t choose it, and I didn’t want it.
“I am Muhammad Ali, a free name, and I insist people using it when speaking to me and of me.”
I find this history of owning and disowning one’s name, as well as choosing names to fit into new societies or express one’s independence and roots fascinating.
There’s no doubt that how this is perceived by others makes a big difference in how we also see ourselves.
However, it’s also important to move on to how we, ourselves, perceive our name and its role in society.
8) Say your name
Try saying your name out loud. Say it in any way you’d like, but clearly and audibly.
What do you feel when you say your name? What do you think? Do any images or sensations occur to you as well?
Your name has an impact in many ways, including what went into it and how others perceive and react to your name.
But most important of all in the surprising ways your name affects your identity is how you yourself perceive and relate to your name.
Do you like the phonetic sound of your name or does it sound strange to you? Does your name strike you as something you’re confident about or feel awkward or ashamed of?
Is your name hard for people in your surroundings to pronounce or common? Does your name make you feel special, unusual, common, boring or intimidating?
What cultural, spiritual, religious, economic or popular culture factors do you associate with your name?
Your perception of your name is crucially important in how it shapes your identity.
If your name is Albert and your father who you respected more than anything told you it is the classiest, best man’s name in existence, you are likely to be very proud of this name.
Even if others tell you Albert is an outdated or silly name, you’re likely to remain within your frame that Albert is a great name.
That’s why our own perception and what we’ve learned and absorbed about our name is always more important than the outside expectations and perceptions that get latched onto our name by other people or society.
What does your name mean to you?
Do its roots matter to you?
Are you proud of your name or ashamed of it? Do you not care about it at all?
Do others care about it in a way that’s touched you?
As American psychologist Gordon Allport wrote in 1961:
“The most important anchorage to our self-identity throughout life remains our own name.”
9) Unlocking your real name
For Cassius Clay, his “real name” that he felt defined who he was and his identity was “Muhammad Ali.”
We each identify or dissociate from our name in various ways. We may identify strongly with our name but also dislike it on an instinctive level or dislike how it’s received by others.
The importance of our name and how it affects our identity and perception of ourselves is very significant.
But digging even deeper we find that the entire concept of naming can be a mask to who we truly are.
The point is that even if your name is very meaningful to you and aligns with who you feel you are, it’s likely that it comes along with a number of correlative roles and beliefs about who you are or who you should be.
No matter where these beliefs came from, including popular culture or your own imagination, these beliefs can be very limiting and put you on a narrow path that excludes valuable and brilliant opportunities from your field of vision.
In order to rediscover the true range of what’s available to you, I highly recommend discovering who you truly are in a new and empowering way.
In this free masterclass, the shaman Rudá Iandê explains how many of us have been socially and culturally conditioned into roles that don’t unlock our real power.
Our names and the baggage and advantages that come along with our names can be a big part of keeping us in the matrix.
This free masterclass definitely changed how I look at my identity and my spiritual destiny.
Check out the free video on unlocking your mind here.
The name of the game
Looking at the various surprising ways your name affects your identity, it’s clear that names are far more than just random labels we stick on each other.
They reflect an idea or at least partial reality of who we are or who others view us as.
They define so much of who we are and what we believe about ourselves.
But names can also hold us back and be a barrier to our real identity and power.
In this way, names are a paradox.
They can say so much about our authentic self, but they can also be such a mask to who we really are and our authentic self.
Discovering our own power and freeing our mind is all about questioning everything and also being prepared to rediscover we are in surprising and sometimes challenging ways.
In the popular series Game of Thrones the character Arya Stark ends up adopting a nameless identity after being orphaned and cast out of her royal heritage.
She is obsessed with getting revenge on those who murdered her father and destroyed her lineage, homeless and struggling on the path to become a skilled warrior and use her special sword Needle to end the life of every last person who robbed her of who she was.
In her quest, she enters a special school for faceless, anonymous killers who serve what they call “the Many-Faced God.”
Instead of being welcomed, Arya is forced to reduce herself down to “a girl with no name” and is then struck blind by the Many-Faced god and left on the streets to fight off her attacker.
Eventually, when she truly comes to believe she has no name and lets go of all vestiges of pride and her given identity and ego, she is able to achieve her goal.
As Cornelia Hertzler explains:
“It is then that she manages to finally master the deadly skill and accuracy of the Faceless Men, through the power and strength of being ‘no one.’”
The point here is that by removing her ego and detaching from outcome, Arya is finally able to find revenge and truly inhabit the kind of fierce combat she will need in order to be victorious.
The point is that our name defines so much of who we are, but sometimes it’s only by (at least temporarily) letting go of our name that we can free our mind and discover our true role and power in the world.