We may not control what race or gender we bequeath our offspring (unless, of course, we are utilizing a sperm bank in the Empire State Building for IVF), but we do have say over their names. If you play it safe with Bill or Lisa, it probably means your kids will be marginally more likely to avoid risk, too. If you’re like us and name them E or Yo, they are likely to grow up into weirdoes like their parents—or at least not work in middle management.
Early studies on names claimed that folks with strange ones were overrepresented in prisons and mental hospitals. But the more recent (and in my professional opinion, better) research actually comes to the opposite conclusion: Having a weird name makes you more likely to have impulse control since you get lots of practice biting your tongue when bigger, stronger, older kids make fun of you in the schoolyard. This study makes me happy, given the growing scientific literature around the extreme importance of impulse control and its close cousin, delayed gratification. These two, some argue, are even more important than raw IQ in predicting socioeconomic success, marital stability, and even staying out of prison.
So the idea of endowing my children with names that would force them to bite their tongues and thereby raise their noncognitive IQs was appealing to me. What’s more, I can personally attest to this effect of weird names since everyone called me “Dolphin” growing up, and there was not a single thing I could do about it, given that I was a skinny little nerd.
And besides, what’s a fairly unique name in one decade could become commonplace later on; imagine my shock when I read a few years ago that “Dalton” had made it into the top twenty- five list of boys names; or my horror when I learned that not only are there now a bunch of five-year-old Daltons running around town, I am also no longer the only Dalton Conley in the world.
When [my daughter] E was born, we had hardly given a thought to her name—not only because she was born eight weeks early but also because Natalie superstitiously believes that to name an unborn child is to give it the evil eye. With all the confusion of the conditions surrounding her birth and our sleepless nights thereafter in the NICU, we had only gotten down to a short list of various names that started with E—including “Early” and “Etchbrook,” the latter being the middle name my mother gave herself when she was a kid. (Normal names like Elizabeth were not on the list.) We also wanted a gender-neutral name. I had, in fact, suggested “Co,” which was a feminist pronoun in the 1970s that was meant to be a third, gender-neutral personal pronoun to allow us to avoid the clunky “she or he.” Needless to say, Co didn’t catch on during the bra- burning era, nor did it in our household in 1998. So we agreed to disagree on our list of E- names and just left it at that, deciding that she could choose what it stood for when she was old enough.
We figured that she’d go through a long phase of thinking her parents too weird and ask to be referred to as Ellen (my mother’s name), or Emily, or something else relatively common before reverting, in her twenties, to just plain E. So far, however, she’s stuck with the family circus freaks and calls herself E, correcting everyone when they think she’s saying, “Eve.” Little did we know that we were channeling the zeitgeist and that within a year or two, we’d all be living in the E-age of eBay, E*TRADE, e-zines, e-commerce, and so on. Oh well. And if you say that’s the weirdest name you’ve ever heard, you clearly don’t read the New York Times carefully, since if you did, you’d quite frequently see the byline Jennifer 8. Lee (who, I might add, chose the number herself when she was a teenager, and she turned out okay, despite the sinking ship of print journalism).
Dalton Conley is University Professor at New York University. He holds faculty appointments in NYU’s Sociology Department, School of Medicine and the Wagner School of Public Service. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor of Community Medicineat Mount Sinai School of Medicine and as a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).