What’s in a name? Only everything we hope for our kids

Sean Moncrieff: Today is National Name Yourself Day. What would you choose?

Like me, you were probably mad keen to discover the name of the baby produced last February by the celebrity demi-gods Kylie Jenner and Travis Scott. Presumably, they'd given it a bit of thought beforehand, keen to distinguish themselves among the celeb baby-naming fashionistas. Spanner. Ear Plug. Chimney.

Instead, they opted for the slightly more prosaic Wolf. But here comes the curve ball: a few weeks later they changed their minds, announcing on Instagram that "we just really didn't feel like it was him". Perhaps, in the first few weeks of life, the baby wasn't displaying any wolf-like attributes. Or perhaps he was: perhaps he was already starting to worry sheep.

But here's some good news for the baby formerly known as Wolf: in the US, today is National Name Yourself Day. Really. The idea is that just for this Saturday, you can cast aside Assumpta or Malachy and call yourself DreamGod or Tony Holohan – through the act of renaming, you can remake yourself into the person you feel you deserve to be. According to Google, there is science behind this, specifically a thing called "the Dorian Grey effect". Call the baby James, and they are doomed to be Jamesy.

I have my doubts, though I have witnessed my kids having name-related issues. She’s only six, but Daughter Number Four is already spotting when people spell her surname incorrectly. Daughter Number Three’s middle name is Maggie, after the character in the Simpsons. Bit stuck for ideas. For a while, Daughter Number Two was a bit irked because she doesn’t have a middle name at all. Just forgot. And missed a trick. Could have gifted her a lifetime of being able to say: my middle name is Danger.


There would be the obvious concerns: that the name works in combination with the surname, that it won't be the kind of name that would attract a lifetime of ridicule

Back to the science: a study in Israel found that a lot of the time, people can guess someone's name just by looking at their face. Another in the US claimed that nominative determinism is a real thing: a disproportionate number of people named Dennis become dentists, or that if you're named George, you're more likely to become a geologist. It might also work in the reverse sense. If your name is Racist O'Doherty, a career in politics probably isn't for you.

But that’s common sense. And all the rest might be correlation rather than causation. I doubt if any parent looked at their newborn and declared that she looked like a Ciara. What does a Ciara look like?

Yet prospective parents do tend to spend a lot of time agonising – and occasionally arguing – over what to call their children. There would be the obvious concerns: that it works in combination with the surname, that it won’t be the kind of name that would attract a lifetime of ridicule. And there would also be an awareness – if not always acknowledged – that the choice of name says something about them and the family they are creating.

Whether the name influences the person or not, we act like it does. Otherwise, the naming wouldn’t matter so much. Naming is a leap of hope into the future, when Fiadh and Jack (the two most popular names for boys last year) become the sorts of people we imagine Fiadhs and Jacks to be. All parents hope that for their kids; by extension hoping that the world of the future will be a vastly better place. We want people to say that their children have lovely names. And that they are lovely kids. Creativity, independence, trustworthiness – we want the names to imply traits that somehow infuse themselves into the child.

This might be magical thinking, but there’s certainly no harm in it. Quite the reverse. And it might be why (at the time of writing) young Wolf doesn’t have a new name yet. So, if they’re still stuck, it might be worth pointing out that today is also National Unicorn Day.