Parentology: What’s not in a name? E is for…?

By Dalton Conley, adapted from his book Parentology

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 DepartmentSchool 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). 

Excerpted from PARENTOLOGY by Dalton Conley. Copyright © 2014 by Dalton Conley. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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7 Responses to “Parentology: What’s not in a name? E is for…?”

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montana Says:

April 7th, 2014 at 1:08 am

so… you give your kids weird names so they learn not to stand up for themselves? what?

ruolan Says:

April 7th, 2014 at 1:20 am

I saw a link to this guy in the forums– I don’t think names are a place for social experimentation or political statements. I’m disappointed at seeing his writing featured where we appreciate names for their rich history, sound, and meaning.

Danni Says:

April 7th, 2014 at 10:06 am

I appreciate having Dalton’s perspective on naming, and I think it’s important to have a diversity of voices and opinions on a site that’s dedicated to naming. I don’t have to agree with him to respect his family’s free choice of names. He and Natalie are not terrible parents because they call their daughter E, just like other parents who choose Prin’cess or Gertrude or Emily are not bad parents. I think it’s clear from what he wrote that Dalton and his partner were thoughtful and deliberate during their naming process, which is what I think Nameberry encourages and is all about anyway.

For the record, I think Early would have been the perfect name. But hey, if E loves her moniker, then that’s all that a lot of us name nerds can hope for our own kids.

linda Says:

April 7th, 2014 at 10:11 am

Thanks, Danni–we do like to present a diversity of views in the Berry Juice blogs.

rosierose Says:

April 7th, 2014 at 11:05 am

There was a girl named E in the school of a boy I used to babysit for years ago– in NYC– I wonder if it was your daughter? Daring choice!

I love blog posts like this (analyses of names from a sociological point of view) and would love to see more of them.

One quibble– when has Dalton ever been in the top 25 for boys…? As far as I can tell it peaked at 85 in ’94, and is now around 285.

taliesin Says:

April 7th, 2014 at 2:45 pm

Well, despite his impressive credentials, I can’t take this guy seriously.
First he was griping that he had an unusual name and got teased and picked on at school. When his name became more common, he was griping because his name became common.

As far as naming his daughter ‘E’, just asking for trouble. I refer you to all the people who got initials, mostly guys, such as J.D. or T.R., not as
nicknames but as their given, legal names. Computers don’t like that sort of thing. T. D. becomes Tonly Donly. There are probably a hundred girls or gender-neutral names beginning with ‘E’ that ‘E”s parents could have used. They made the major decision to have a child but couldn’t come up with ONE name?

seanic21 Says:

April 8th, 2014 at 2:44 pm

When I got married and added my husband’s surname to my own as two separate words, I knew that I was asking for trouble. Every credit card company, dental office and employer files and spells my name differently. On plane tickets my name is all one word, on my credit cards there is a hyphen, at the dental office my file is under “S” for my maiden name, at the doctor’s office it’s under “H” for my husband’s name. It’s annoying at times BUT I live with this because it was MY choice to do this to myself.

The difference here is that this author, who openly admits that he and his partner hadn’t put much thought into names for their future child, in a moment of exhaustion and indecision gave his daughter a name that will cause confusion and complications for her for the rest of her life. Despite this rather obvious flaw, he seems inordinately proud of himself that his daughter will have to exercise patience and understanding when explaining and correcting her moniker for the next seven or eight decades. I wonder if he will still be proud of himself when his daughter, who is not yet an adult, goes out and puts her initial on the top of a resume and college application forms and finds that not everyone shares his particular views on names? I’m also curious to know when this “recent” study that he cites was published? Was this in the 90’s BEFORE his children were born? Or afterwards, as he seems to imply, meaning that he originally named his children on a whim and is just now feeling vindicated for his choices because of the findings of one research study.

I read an article only last week that a university study recently found that people with names that are familiar, easily pronounced and spelled are considered more trustworthy, a quality considered essential by many employers and relationship seekers.

I’m not advocating that every parent should name their children “Bill and Lisa”, I love interesting names but I disagree with naming children names that are potentially (or purposefully) embarrassing or may cause undue hardship. I know that I am not alone in thinking this as many European countries, like Germany for example, have laws against such names for exactly those reasons.

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