What's in a Name? A Lot, Actually

On las week's episode of Castle, Beckett and Castle had to find and question a witness named Bram Stoker. Yes, as in "Bram Stoker's Dracula." Once they found Mr. Stoker, this was the exchange:

Becket: Excuse me? Bram Stoker?
Bram: Yeah.
Beckett: Det. Kate Beckett, NYPD
Castle: And might I say how youthful you look.
Bram: [sarcastically] Witty! Never heard that before.
Castle: I've never heard anyone named Bram Stoker before. Except... Bram Stoker.
Bram: Apparently, he's a distant relative, and both my parents were English scholars. They thought it'd be cute. It wasn't. So what's this about?

As someone with... er... an unusual first name (and middle name, for that matter), I totally get this "not cute" sentiment. I'm sure back in 1977, my normal-named parents thought that giving me such an odd name would make me stand out in a crowd. While they were right, that standing out wasn't always a good thing.

Although my name makes perfect phonetic sense, it is almost always mispronounced. In fact, it is so commonly mispronounced that I am always shocked when someone says it correctly the first time. For one thing, people are always adding letters to and/or subtracting letters from my name in order to make it conform to a more common or known name or at least something that makes some sense. Although I always find this a little lazy (especially when people are pronouncing letters that are clearly not present and not even close to the actual letters in my name), I totally get why the human brain does that.

Reading is partly phonetics and partly memorization. There's a reason why preschoolers are taught "sight words." These are the words that you will just know upon sight, without your brain actually parsing out the individual components. However, we also have to learn phonetics, otherwise you would never know how to actually read a word that you have never encountered. So when you see a name that you've never seen before, one part of your brain focuses on phonetics while another (or the same part. I dunno. I'm a lawyer, not a scientist) tries to conjure up memories of a similar name you may have seen and pronounced before. So when you see an unusual name like mine, which has components of real names [since my parents creatively and tragically put their names together to derive mine], whether or not you stand a chance of pronouncing it correctly depends on if memorization or phonetics reigned dominant.

In addition to the pronunciation issue, one thing my parents clearly didn't think of when naming me was the Playground Test—ya know, that test that tells you how easy it would be for hateful, taunting children (which is pretty much all of them at a certain age) to come up with jeers for your child based solely on what rhymes or is easily associated with his or her name. For example, naming your non-German kid Adolf. My name easily lends itself to rhyming-based teasing. In fact, it is so easy to come up with a tease, that on a recent job interview, one of the interviewers asked me if I got teased a lot in elementary and middle school... and then she quickly guessed what three of the common taunts were.

Another issue my parents didn't think of when naming me? The resumé test. As many black professionals born in the 70s and 80s will tell you, many of our parents, completely high and giddy on the fruits of the black power movement did not really think about the fact that some day, two decades in the future, their children would have to compete in a world where we are submitting resumés along with caucasian and others whose parents weren't so creative (or kr8tv) in naming them. So, yes, while it isn't fair, there was definitely a huge period of time (and in some industries is is still the case) where a Laqueeshya, Tenequia, or Dramé would not stand the chance of having his or her resumé viewed alongside a Susan, Debbie, or John. The funny thing is, most of the parents who gave their children these awful names (my own included) have perfectly, generically normal names. These days, things have evened out. White and non-white people alike are just as likely to give their children crazy, unusual names (Pilot Inspektor, anyone?) or otherwise perfectly normal names with kr8tv spellings (How does one pronounce "Asthyleigh," exactly?). But does that make it any better?

Quite honestly, unless you're wealthy and/or famous... or if you simply don't plan on having a white-collar type career, names actually do matter. I know people who love unusual names or kr8v spellings will disagree with me, but as someone who has lived it and knows many others who have, most of us unusually named children didn't find our parents' kr8vitee remotely cute. We have always had to overcome that initial shock when someone sees or hears our name for the first time ["Well... um... that's... um... interesting! Is it a family name?"]. Instead of our first impression being created by the energy or personality we bring into the room, we are instead first judged on a crazy decision our parents made decades before. Sure, many (heck, probably even most) kids—even those with the most normal names—may dislike or hate their names, but there's a big difference between hating your name and being forced to overcome your name.

I'm not saying don't name your kids what you want. That's only something you and your significant other (if any) can decide. I'm saying just give it some thought beyond what you think is "cute" or "fun" at a given moment in time. Because that name you give (on average) less than nine months of contemplation is going to stay with another human being for the rest of his or her life. And if, in the end, you decide your desire for quirky and funny outweighs any angst your child may have over that name in the future, at least give them the option my parents deprived me: a normal middle name or nickname (even if tacked on as an afterthought after another unusual middle name) s/he can use in the alternative!

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