What’s in a Name?


What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
 By any other word would smell as sweet

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

In the early 2000’s, New York native Cassie Pappadapoulous was employed by Queens Hospital Center as a baby photographer. Before exiting the hospital, mothers’ and their new offsprings’ last stop before heading home would be a polaroid snapped by Mrs. Pappadapoulous. Loving the job, but not the sky-high rent in the Big Apple, Ms. Pappa and her partner bolted to Denver for a similar role at St. Joseph Hospital in 2010.

Aside from the locals’ infatuation with craft breweries and hiking in the snow, Cassie was surprised to see a similar percentage of babies with “foreign or unique names” in the Mile-High City as Queens (The New York borough is the most diverse place…in the world).

As she recounted her stories with me over a few phone calls and e-mails, Cassie thought her experience was circumstantial. But she was wrong.

Every year the Social Security Administration releases a list of the 1,000 most popular baby names, along with naming trends in the United States. This year’s report shows Cassie’s accounts are far from subjective: While female names like Olivia, Ava, and Sophia are and male names Liam and Noah are still popular, there is a rise in babies being name Lin, Ming, and Raj. The number of babies named Jose doubled in the five years, while the name “John” has become less of a namesake for newborns over the past decade. Among the 10 most popular female names in 1980, Sarah is the only holdover. Last year also witnessed a sharp increase in the number of Americans naming their females babies Melania (An accolade that was also paid to Michelle in 2008 and Laura in 2000).

This trend of unique baby names is unlikely to change. The US Census Bureau estimates that 50–60 percent of children will be bequeathed names with ethnic or racial influences largely stemming from Latin America and South Asia.

As I reviewed these numbers, my biggest wonder — and worry — was what kind of world these new crop of non-traditional named babies will inhibit?

Professionally, despite a burgeoning diverse labor pool, these young bucks will be hampered with systematically unfair hurdles. In a 2011 study from New York University, researchers found that people with easier-to-pronounce and more common names often have higher-status positions at work. An additional Marquette University study from 2018, discovered evidence that more unique names were viewed as less likable.

People with common names were more likely to be hired, and those with rare names were fired the fastest (Mrs. Pappadapoulous told me this was true even at her time at metropolitan Queens). That means, regardless of charisma, caliber or character, the Mukeshs, Zhi, and Anitas will often be bypassed for the Jameses, Marys, Johns, and Katys of the world.

By no means will this be a present-day conundrum that withers away with a more heterogeneous workforce force. As Mathew Stewart points out in his fascinating article, “The 9.9 percent is the new American Aristocracy, “The meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children.” In short, the Bill and Barbara’s will still reign supreme.

The torturous sweaty palms experience — the time when you meet someone, they hold onto your hand until they pronounce your name correctly…and then subsequently walk away.

Socially, these kids will also still grapple with the questions surrounding identity as many third culture kids do today.

How can my name define me without shoehorning me into a stereotype? How do I find the balance between understanding and attaching myself to the ethnic roots that inspired my name, but also immerse myself into my surroundings? How can I convey the complexity of my life more than the world might indicate? How can I express that a Western inspired nickname is a metaphor for a cultural divide that I have zero desire to amalgamate for another person’s convenience?

Who will butcher my name the worst — the substitute teacher or the Starbucks barista?

But even with bleak research, pending identity crises, and my own struggles with a unique name, I am not filled with complete gloom. In fact, it brings me immense joy in seeing others be given a screwball name (as my Environmental Policy Professor at Berkeley put it).

Eric Oliver, political scientist at University Chicago, discovered individuals with less common names are more likely to seek higher-education and are more innovative. Additionally, families who give their youngster names that obscure cultural norms are often raised in a more progressive and artistic environment.

More than anything else, I admire the moxie that these parents are indirectly injecting into their offspring. So many of these paternities have themselves endured the agony associated with a rare name: Westerners acting as if your name is an arbitrary label void of significance, being overcharged because one thinks your foreignness makes your foreign to deceit, cops having no qualms of depriving you of the dignity afforded to literally every Tom, Dick, and Harry. And being told to “get over it” when the “it” is constantly being dehumanized.

Many of them have also endured the torturous sweaty palms experience — the time when you meet someone, they hold onto your hand until they pronounce your name correctly… and then subsequently walk away.

These parents who choose to ignore these experiences, are not acquiescing to this rubbish, but believe the importance and pride in family, ethnic, and national roots shall never be thwarted by willful ignorance. They’re well aware they are not responsible for the corporate and cultural imperfections in society, regardless of where they live, but are transferring their life experiences down to the next generation, knowing and hoping their kids will eventually, in their own journey, find gusto and not despair in their differences.

When I asked Cassie Pappadapoulous if she had kids, and if so, what she named them, she was quick to reply.

“We’re Greek. So I named my son Agamemnon and my daughter is Dedemona. Also, you can call me by my real name, Cassiopeia.”

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