Sitting minding my own business, drinking a cuppa, the general hubbub of Starbucks was occasionally perforated by the shrill call of a name: “Oscar!” then another, “Sherlock!” and finally, “Hugo!” I was, on one hand, glad that my own kids have grown up and left home, but on the other, I was perplexed. This group of excited and brattish youngsters, circa three or four years of age, had – in my aged opinion – a couple of things in common: curious names and a disregard for authority.
The latter observation was probably par for the course but the former got me thinking. How will these seemingly contemporary first names shape the identity and ultimate destiny of this flock of cherubs? Or had I got it wrong, and these given labels are actually antiques? As I finished my drink, I reflected on my own name – Ian.
Having been presented with this title by my doting parents, how have these three letters defined my character? And why should I necessarily accept the brand bestowed upon me at a time when I didn’t have much of a clue about anything? What exactly is in a name? It was time to investigate the concept of names; however, before I broadened the enquiry I felt compelled to do a little digging on my own trademark.
Ian – the history and the power
Within the discipline of linguistics, onomastics is the study of names. Tracing Ian back to the early part of the twentieth century, I discovered it doesn’t appear – on any meaningful statistical scale ─ in American birth records until circa 1926. Peaking in 2005 with 6,684 namings (or a notable 0.4372% of the population), it has remained reasonably buoyant. Meanwhile in the UK, things haven’t panned out particularly well for the name that means ‘God is gracious’. In 1964 it was the eighth most popular forename, yet in 2019 it languished at 628th; in the latest figures (2021) it has seen a spike to 551st in the hit parade.
Throwing the net wider, I conducted my fieldwork with a group of other folk who accepted my challenge to explore the power – or otherwise – of their given first names. The first startling statistic was that 19% of the respondents were called Ian.
The verdict from my fellow Ians was less than triumphant: “Ian was always a name that people would laugh at or make fun of when I was younger. It’s just not a very cool name and sounds a bit boring/weedy/nerdy. I’ve heard that the name Ian is at risk of becoming extinct and, to be honest, this is possibly a good thing! These days I see the funny side, but at the time I didn’t enjoy the fact that people laughed at my name and would tease me for being an Ian.” Blimey – could the next chap raise my spirits?
“Ian has been voted the UK’s most disliked name, and is often used as a comedic name; for example, in Lee and Herring’s “Ian News,” or for slightly pathetic characters such as Ian Beale in EastEnders.” Checking out the data on The Top Tens I was reassured that Ian ranked only twelfth in the worst names of all time, comfortably ahead of Adolf and Alexis. Another Ian glumly added, “Ian is not a trendy name; people always seem to have a negative idea of the name Ian. Having to fight against this has definitely shaped my identity!”
Stuck with it
Overall, 81% of the individuals questioned stated that they use their unadulterated names, although, much to their annoyance, a whopping 63% highlighted that their first names are nevertheless shortened by others. Lynne is unique in that her name is frequently shortened to “Lindy” and sometimes extended to “Lindyloo.” Similarly, Ria is often lengthened to “Riri.” Some of the Ians joined in this particular debate and in doing so crushed the notion that, according to my dad, my name can’t be abbreviated. “It is shortened to ‘E’!”
Nearly a third don’t like their primary names, with Paula setting the ominous tone, “It’s partly because my parents chose Paul for a boy, and when a girl arrived, they just stuck an ‘a’ on the end. It’s often accidentally changed to Paul in written communication. It’s dated.” Sarah lamented, “It’s boring,” whilst Doreen was more damning, “It’s beyond the scopes of old fashioned.” A healthy 80% are happy with their given names. Those that aren’t are pretty much championed by the Ian brigade.
Names shape identity
Fifty-six percent of the cohort are certain of one crucial aspect – that their names have shaped their identity. Being an ordinary Ian this fascinates me, since I have always believed that other drivers are more dominant in defining my personality. My time as a cop, being a dad and following one of the most unfashionable football teams on the planet (Notts County) are amongst the most influential, yet funnily enough my County heroes include Iain McCulloch, Ian Scanlon, and Ian McParland.
Alysse (what a fabulous name!) mused, “There is sometimes an expectation of being unique due to having a more unusual name.” Darren was more philosophical, “It’s also my dad’s name so I am often called little Darren ─ despite being 6ft and 20st ─ and it has often made me feel like I need to prove I am a capable man.” Michelle chipped in, “My name is not so common these days and I do try to be different.”
Research, contends that our names can shape the way society sees us. “In a world where people are disadvantaged by first impressions and implicit bias, names factor a lot into a person’s successes in life.” The somewhat chilling conclusion is: “Broadly, this can further be applied to explaining why certain people have more privilege than others. Just like how teachers can treat certain individuals differently based on their name, affecting how that individual receives education, societal stereotypes can similarly impose different attitudes due to how names are perceived.”
Reporting in The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova considered the work by Professors B.M Savage and F.L Wells in A Note on Singularity in Given Names in 1948. The academic exploits of over three thousand male graduates were analysed leading to the conclusion that: “The men with unusual names, the study found, were more likely to have flunked out or to have exhibited symptoms of psychological neurosis than those with more common names. The Mikes were doing just fine, but the Berriens were having trouble. A rare name, the professors surmised, had a negative psychological effect on its bearer.”
So where does this leave me? As I contemplated the evidence and took into account that, apparently, in 2016 no baby boy was bestowed my name, I am nonetheless content with my label. Indeed, I kind of like the rarity value, although it does annoy me when people spell it with an extra ‘I.’ According to social historians, Ian is the English spelling of the Scottish variation Iain, which is derived from the Gaelic name Eion. Between you and me, as a kid, I quite fancied the name Clint, but this would have made me sound more like a German firearm or adult film star.
According to some, length is very important, but in the name-stakes this may not be the case. According to research by Ladders – an online job matching service – shorter names draw larger renumerations, contending that an extra letter is equivalent to an average drop in salary of $3,600.
So how much am I worth?
According to my mum – I’m priceless!
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