Call a Rose a Birthwort, and Suddenly It Doesn't Smell So Sweet

[Tony Woodlief]


Gene Fant at The Chronicle of Higher Ed talks about his advice to a young academic with the unfortunate name of Jim Dick, who was concerned that his name might hamper his search for a university position. This puts me in mind of a poor kid I knew in high school, last name of Head, whose sadomasochistic parents bequeathed him with the first name of -- wait for it -- Richard.

Years ago, Harvard sociologist Stanley Lieberson wrote a delightful book, A Matter of Taste, in which he examined the dynamics behind the evolution of names in the U.S., along with changes in fashion -- hemlines, fedoras and such. A way to understand these changes, he noted, was to remember that people want to be different from one another, but not so different as to be considered odd. I wonder what he would make of the name Ke$ha, or Lady Gaga -- though perhaps they are simply masters of the form, pushing differentness as far as we'll allow it to go, but not to the ridiculous extreme of Prince years ago, who opted for a ridiculous little symbol utterly unsuited to critical enterprises like blogging.

Most people don't want to be all that different when it comes to a name, however, and so the data show movements of names like big ocean waves. Emma is replaced by Heather is replaced by Paige is replaced by Taylor, until we come back around to Emma. One of the most interesting things I recall from Lieberson's book was a chart showing the number of newborn boys named "Adolph" every year. Their parents were largely German immigrants, and before the 1930's, Adolph was a respectable enough name. Come U.S. entry into WWII, however, the Adolph trend line dropped faster than BP's stock price.

We tend to get the big stuff right when it comes to names, in other words. And people can't help it if they've been given a last name of Head, or Dick, or Putz. They certainly have it within their power, on the other hand, to think carefully about the first names they give their children. As with so much else in life, it's not enough to choose a name with noble thoughts, one must choose a name and imagine what a cabal of twelve year-old twits will do with it on the schoolyard. The average child does not have the wherewithal to muscle past a snicker-drawing name the way the makers of the iPad seem to be doing.

All of which makes me think of a job application I reviewed once, everything about which seemed to be in order except her email address. It combined a fruit with a lovey-dovey name that freshly in love people might use with one another when no one is listening. Something like peachybear. Or persimmonboo. I winced when I read it. And I couldn't help but think less of the candidate. So I'm wondering, to tag along on Fant's query about unfortunate names, whether any of you have had a similar encounter with an email address, or whether, to consider the other side, you have an email handle that you would never dream of using in a professional context, or -- if you are like one of my friends from college who militantly refused to cut his ponytail before doing job interviews with stuffy companies -- you proudly sally forth into the marketplace with a nutterbutter12 or a gigglemonkey323 or an oopsydaisy909 as your email moniker.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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