February 03, 2020

What’s in a Name?

Jonathan Wynn (1)By Jonathan Wynn

I’ve thought a lot about names since reading a chapter in Freakonomics called “A Roshanda by any other name,” over a decade ago. (Here’s an update in podcast form.) Perhaps some of you have had the paralyzing struggle of having to name a child (or being a parent) while also trying to think about sociology. It’s tough. Sociologist Dalton Conley, somewhat famously, named his daughter E and his son Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Knuckles Jeremijenko-Conley.

Names can say a lot. What were the reasons behind your name? Was your name popular? Is your name one you share with other family members? Do your professors do a terrible job pronouncing it? As Karen Sternheimer notes, it’s important to know someone’s name in class. But let’s lend some sociological insight onto the topic.

Sociologist Norbert Elias, in The Society of Individuals, writes that forenames are individualized, “I” identities, while surnames signal “we” identities. So, “Jonathan” is my I identity, and “Wynn” is my we identity. In an article on “Names, Bodies, and Identities,” Jane Pilcher notes that the role that names play in “displaying, determining and attributing gender identity” is glossed over in much of the sociological literature, especially when we should know how labeling works.

Your first name, or forename, can say a lot about you. It can denote your gender, perhaps your ethnicity. It can be shortened into a nickname. It can reflect cultural trends. (That’s a strategy that can be a mistake if you don’t wait to read what happens to fictional characters at the end of a book or TV series.) It is Jewish custom to use an initial of a deceased relative in a baby name to honor them.

Another article by Pilcher extends our understanding of naming, using it as an example of the interactional and performative aspects of gender or another way of “Doing Gender.” Boys’ and girls’ gender and sex roles are rigid in different ways, but perhaps boys’ names are one of the areas where girls have some greater latitude? There’s greater variation in girls’ first names than boys’ first names. Why do you think that is?

Last names mean a great deal as well. What might be surprising is how our names sometimes have historical attachments to occupations, and that we can get some insight into our family histories. “Wynn” for example, is Welsh for gatekeeper. (This makes me reflect on my role as a teacher!) Occupations-as-surnames is actually quite common whether you are of British ancestry (e.g., Carpenter) or of Ashkenazi Jewish background (e.g., Plotnik means carpenter, Kravitz has to do with tailoring and fashion).

The historical effects of the dehumanization and enslavement of Africans can also be read in our present day surnames. One of my students has the last name Kitchen, because her ancestors were enslaved by a family and gave them the surname based on where they worked in their plantation. (Here is a discussion from Henry Louis Gates on slave names.)

The “we” of surnames can matter greatly in some countries. Koreans have only a few surnames, relatively speaking—250—and almost half of them were adopted from China, according to anthropologist Kim Young-un. (France has the most surnames, with a seemingly impossible 900,000.) One out of five Koreans have Kim as a last name, selected because it is an ancient royal family name.

Critically, these “I” and “we” identities can change.

I identities are not as rigid as we might think. If you are transgender, adopting a new forename is likely an extremely powerful act of reinvention and/or self-definition. Not exactly similar, but re-naming can work on ethnicity as well: I had a roommate who was given a more Chinese middle name, and she had a party to celebrate changing her name to Leejone from the more Americanized forename her parents have given her, Christina, to better embrace and represent her ethnic heritage. (It was a great party.)

Generationally, those we identities change too. Mary Waters cautions sociologists from using last names as fixed ethnic markers, in part because they change all the time, and for a variety of reasons. Intermarriage is one of them--although not in places like Korea--and there is a rise in women keeping their maiden names for a variety of reasons, including for work.

Perhaps like some readers, my ancestors had their names changed to sound more American: In my family, Lafayette became “Faett” and then “Faith.” (The Smithsonian notes that name changes for immigrants coming through Ellis Island were more likely to have been done at the point of origin and by the families themselves, and not by immigration officers.) People adjust their names on the micro level, from nicknames to adjusting their last name for the purposes of their audience (e.g., I remember my grade school teacher, Mr. Pietrowski, insisting that we call him “Mr. P”).

So, why should it matter?

On an interpersonal level, our I and we identities help us define who we are, perhaps our heritage and culture. On a sociological level, we can think about how the right last name might matter in how resources are rewarded and denied. One of the most impactful studies in recent years was Devah Pager’s audit study of employment practices: applicants with “black” names and no criminal record were far less likely to get calls for interviews that applicants with “white” names who had a criminal record.

In Japan, businesses used to keep an illegal blacklist of surnames that were associated with an “untouchable” class called the burakumin. In a fantastic post for Contexts magazine, Jennifer Lee writes about how surnames shape college admissions decisions.

Feel free to ask me what we named our two children offline!


I really like the article you posted and I would like to thank you for sharing such a nice post. Staying up to date and connected in today's digital world is simple. However, reading articles like this can be difficult as an adult because of my busy schedule. I am really happy to read such a good post.

From what I read, in Japan's past, certain companies were known to maintain prohibited lists of family names associated with individuals belonging to the burakumin social class. The burakumin were historically subjected to extensive discrimination and social exclusion.

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