Dear Bruce: Why Is the Impression a Name Makes So Important?

Q: Why is the impression a name makes so important?

A: When people read or hear a name, an image often pops into their heads. Some
names, like John, have been used by so many people that its dependable,
good-guy image is ubiquitous. Famous namesakes, however, can affect the images
of many names, for good or bad. Because people think of Adolf Hitler when they
hear the name Adolf, it’s not a good name to pick for your child. The most
notorious namesakes for some names may come from characters in books or movies.
Imagine the reaction of the pious woman sitting next to you at church when you
tell her your baby’s name is Damien, if she knows it’s the name of the
devil-like character in the popular horror flick The Omen. And don’t forget that
images can change: Former Mouseketeer Britney Spears’ recent escapades have
tarnished the image of her name.

Because your child’s name is the first thing that people will know about him or
her, it’s very important to choose a name that makes a good first impression.
I’ve analyzed hundreds of thousands of survey responses about the first
impressions names make to create a book on the subject (5-Star Baby Name

Dear Bruce, Are Bert and Ernie Names to Avoid?

Q. How about Bert and Ernie? My mother in law’s maiden name is Bertram and I wanted give that name to my son, but my husband protested, worried about Bert and Ernie jokes. Too bad, it’s a strong masculine name.

A. You’re right. Bertram is a solid name. Practically everyone will call him Bert. And the first thing that comes to mind when most people hear Bert is Ernie. So, it’s a perfect example of a famous comedy duo turning Bert into a joke rather than a good name for a “regular guy.”

What caused me to turn the Bert & Ernie comment into a Dear Bruce column is: it struck me that there are other paired comedy names that might also be awkward to use as names–because people will think of the second name as soon as they hear the first one. To avoid the obvious jokes that might follow, it’s easier to avoid the first name in these comedy pairs: Amos & Andy, Pat & Mike, Bob & Ray, Tom & Jerry, Izzy & Abie, Ole & Lena, Lucy & Desi, Sunny & Cher.

But if you reverse the order and name your first child Andy, that may relieve some of the “pair pressure.”  Amos may not come to mind (not only because this comedy duo was popular in the middle of the 20th century; but because Andy came first. Although Amos strongly reminds people of Andy–Andy doesn’t as strongly remind people of Amos. Come to think of it, I’ve never met or heard of siblings with comedy-duo  names. Probably, because most parents sense the twosome would be a bad joke waiting to happen.

Nameberry’s 13 “Hot” Names for 2013; Why My Name (Bruce) Is on That List

It isn’t easy to find out which names are “hot” in 2013. Our most authoritative source of popularity data is the Social Security Administration. SSA will publish 2012 popularity data around Mother’s Day, which means pundits referring to names that were popular “last year” are referring to names given in 2011.

Other resources like Pamela Redmond Satran’s blog can be very helpful to parents who want to know which names are hot and which names are not. In a recent post, Satran writes about 13 names whose “views” on her website are way up in 2013 versus 2012. (In other words, more parents have looked them up this year in comparison with last year.)

What’s harder to know is precisely why some names have become hot, and Satran does a good job of trying to figure that out and explain it (to the extent that’s possible). For example, the name Severine is newly popular because Severine is the latest Bond girl in the most recent James Bond movie, “Skyfall.” Satran also attributes the upsurge in the popularity of the name Marnie largely to the Marnie character on HBO’s popular “Girls” series.

What caught my eye were Satran’s comments about the name Bruce. Apparently, my name “is attracting new interest as the real name of both The Hulk and Batman.” I discovered there have been three Dark Knight (Batman) movies released over the past eight years. The most recent is “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012), starring Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, Batman.

The last Incredible Hulk movie was released in 2008, but “The Avengers” (2012) seems to be the movie that has put Bruce on the “hot names list.” It features four superheroes (plus two ordinary humans — Black Widow and Hawkeye — who have extraordinary fighting abilities) who team up to stop the Norse god Loki from gaining power over the human race. A big box-office hit, it features Mark Ruffalo as Dr. Bruce Banner and his alter ego, The Hulk. What convinced me that “The Avengers” is impacting name choices is that another character from the movie, Thor (played by Chris Helmsley), is also on Satran’s “hot 13” list.

It doesn’t really matter if a name like Bruce or Severine or Marnie is “hot” because of some movie, TV show or rock star. It’s more important to consider what it will do for your son or daughter. Apart from the Bond flick, Severine is a little-known French name that may be difficult for some people to spell or pronounce properly (which your child is unlikely to find amusing). Marnie is a cute, feminine name, but it has a diminutive “ie” ending. The macro trend for girls’ names is this: Parents increasingly choose girls’ names that have “a” endings or neutral-consonant endings (like Ava or Madison) because they tend to come across as more “adult” than names that end in “y,” “i” or “ie.”

What will the name Bruce do for your child? It gave me a famous namesake who became a role model for me: not Bruce Wayne or Dr. Bruce Banner; not Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Jenner, Bruce Willis or Bruce Lee; but Robert the Bruce, the hero king of Scotland. If you know anything about his bio, you know he never gave up — even when his situation went from bleak to hopeless. He has played a big role in my life because I “started over” when I changed my name to Bruce. I also “started over” at four different jobs. And I started a company to publish a baby food cookbook in my back porch.

I bounced back from a divorce and the “Great Recession” (and several lesser recessions), which upset my financial well-being and dramatically changed the book business. Two years ago, I “started over” in a new business location with a tiny staff. Just a few months ago, I “started over” with a brand new blog: It seems that starting over and bouncing back are huge themes in my life, and for that reason, Robert the Bruce is a constant source of inspiration.

I hope you enjoy reading Pamela Redmond Satran’s article about thirteen names that are “hot” in 2013 because of what’s happening in the media. I also hope you go beyond what’s hot and dig much deeper into the short list of names you are considering, especially if you need to find just the right name for a baby you are waiting for and are hoping and praying will soon join your family.

13 Celebrity-Driven Names Gaining New Heights

I’m not a pop culture maven, so it helps to find articles that explain why girls’ names like Gemma, Mila, Giuliana and Bentley are soaring to new heights of popularity. Otherwise, I wouldn’t know. If you’d like to see the actors, starlets, and TV personalites behind the recent rise in popularity of these and other hot names, check out this article in Madame Noire. For what it’s worth, Giuliana is the name that calls to me. Reminds me of chewy al dente pasta. Forget Maria, I’ll never stop saying Giuliana–very slowly so I can enjoy all five syllables.

The Morning After a Wild and Crazy Baby-Naming Brainstorming Session

Maybe you and your partner went out last night and one (or both) of you imbibed something that’s a no-no for a pregnant mother. Or maybe you were out with friends who were flying high. Either way, you felt like the sun revolved around you and you could do no wrong, and you came up with some, like, totally awesome names—which cracked everyone up. (Come to think of it, that’s probably how the celebrities who came up with names like Apple, Dweezil and Pilot Inspektor felt when they inked those names onto their babies’ birth certificates.)

The morning after one of those wild and crazy baby-naming sessions is when you need to get a grip. If you think like an adolescent (or a drunken sailor) who’s going to take care of the baby? If you have one of those entertaining soirees, here’s what you should do the next day: Write the words “instead of” in front of all the names you came up with while under the influence (of either alcohol or friends), and see if you can come up with some “sober” options.

To put that idea into practice, I have listed some silly, self-indulgent celebrity baby names along with some sober (morning-after) alternatives:

Instead of Apple (daughter of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin), a food name like Brie, Syrah, Pepper, Coco, Ginger or Sherry

Instead of Banjo (son of Rachel Griffiths and Andrew Taylor), the name of a famous banjo picker like Lonnie (Donegan), Jerry (Garcia), Tommy (Makem), Earl (Scruggs), Pete (Seeger) or Steve (Martin)

Instead of Moxie CrimeFighter (daughter of Penn and Emily Jillette), the name of a famous female detective like Nancy (Drew), Dana (Scully), Stephanie (Plum) or Mary Beth (Lacey)

Instead of Nakoa-Wolf Manakauapo Namakeapa (son of Lisa Bonet and Jason Momoa), one, more pronounceable Hawaiian name like: Kahana, Kalan, or Kalani

Instead of Kal-El (son of Nicholas Cage and Alice Kim), the name of a cartoon superhero’s alter ego like Clark (Kent), Bruce (Wayne), Billy (Batson) or Peter (Parker)

Instead of Sistine (daughter of Sylvester Stallone and Jennifer Flavin), a religious/spiritual name like Grace, Faith or Cielo

Instead of Jesse James (son of Jon and Dorothea Bon Jovi), the name of a famous historical or fictional detective like
Elliott (Ness), Joe (Friday), Fox (Mulder) or Sam (Spade)

Instead of Seven (son of Andre 3000 and Erykah Bodu, the name Lucky or a numerical name like Ace, Deuce, Trey, or Quentin

It’s fun (and funny) to come up with a list of wild and crazy names for your baby. However, if you actually list any of those names on your baby’s birth certificate, you’re thinking like a kid—not a parent.

More Baby Names to Avoid

In a previous post, I wrote about names that could give bullies and teasers ammunition to use against your child. But there are other naming categories to avoid, those that can create negative impressions or call to mind unflattering associations—for children or adults.

Let’s consider cartoon names, which often feature characters you wouldn’t want associated with your child–like Homer (Simpson), which calls to mind a pathetic (but lovable) bumbling loser; Elmer (Fudd), who was no match for a wascally wabbitt; and Donald (Duck), a short-tempered, bad-humored, halfwit.

Most ethnic groups have stereotypical characters often featured in jokes. While this category of humor is most often not meant to be mean-spirited, the characters are not exactly imagined as Rhodes scholars. Examples include Ole and Lena, an amusing but dimwitted Norwegian couple, and Homer and Jethro, two less-than-bright country bumpkins. Names associated with this type of humor are not likely to be taken seriously by college admissions officers and high-tech headhunters.

Sexy names (pseudonyms associated with strippers and prostitutes) like Candy, Cherry and Lola tend not to be deemed acceptable in “polite company” or church. And they can create the impression of women with “easy virtue.” I suppose they also could drive women into hardcore prudery to create a chaste impression. But prudish names like Chastity and Madonna demonstrate how easily a name can backfire. During adolescence, girls rebel just like boys.

Nerdy names like Dexter, Egbert and Waldo encourage teasing. (Hey, where’s Waldo?) Wimpy-sounding names like Archibald, Percival or Rupert may invite bullying as well. (I wonder how Rupert Murdoch became such a tough old bird? Perhaps he got more than his fair share of teasing as a kid.)

Finally, it doesn’t take a genius to know it’s not a good idea to give your child a name associated with an “evil” historical character like Adolf (Hitler), Saddam (Hussein) or Ivan (The Terrible). Several years ago I found a story in the newspaper about an American Nazi who named his child Adolf. As I recall, things didn’t go well either for the child or the father. (You can find this story in the Unusual Names in the News section of this blog.)

Here’s a list of names to be very skeptical about—if you consider them at all.

1. Cartoon names: (Fat) Albert, Alvin (and the Chipmunks), Boris (Badenov), Donald (Duck), Elmer (Fudd), Fred (Flintstone), Hagar (the Horrible), Homer (Simpson), Mickey (Mouse)

2. Ethnic humor names: Ole and Lena (Swedish); Homer and Jethro (Appalachian); Amos and Andy, (Aunt) Jemima (African-American)

3. Sexy names: Bambi, Candy, Cherry, Kitty, Lola, Madonna

4. Nerdy names: Clarence, Dexter, Egbert, Mortimer, Waldo

5. Wimpy names: Archibald, Cecil, Horton, Percival, Rupert

6. Prudish names: Chastity, Madonna

7. Evil famous namesake names: Adolph (Hitler), Ivan (the terrible), Saddam (Hussein)

Yes, I am fully aware of the fact that I have listed Madonna as “sexy” and “prudish.” It’s one of those names that could go either way. Initially a minister might name a daughter Madonna to provide a “pure” role model. But the name could boomerang and produce a rebellious reaction—in the opposite direction, if you get my drift. (Think of Madonna performing “Like a Virgin.” Like a virgin, but not exactly.)

This is fun. I’ll keep thinking about more names to avoid and write another post about it.

© 2013 Bruce Lansky
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