Chris Uggen's Blog: name effects

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

name effects

according to the economists, teachers and employers use names as signaling devices for socioeconomic background. in fact, the effects of names on socioeconomic attainment is one of the most interesting issues levitt and dubner tackle in freakonomics. there is likely a long sociological literature on the topic, but i've seen more economic research recently. for example, audit studies typically find large name effects on employment call-backs. economist david figlio has a nice sibling-pair paper that finds name effects on educational outcomes. levitt and roland fryer, however, find little effect of "distinctively black names" on socioeconomic attainment, once the effects of basic socioeconomic background indicators are statistically controlled.

i tend to think more like a novelist than an economist on this issue. in icelandic sagas and other literary forms, names and the power to name things may determine life chances. in distinguishing "good" from "bad" fiction, heavy-handed character names are usually a dead giveaway. the most memorable characters i've encountered in books or film often have resonant names -- huck finn, norma desmond, travis bickle, blanche dubois, sam spade, nola darling, rabbit angstrom. shouldn't real life work the same way? to the unscientific side of me, it seems foreordained that a lad named joe montana would excel in the manly art of football. and he's gotta be the quarterback, right?

this brings me to jack swagger. mr. swagger, captain of the woodbury high school wrestling team, is introduced at home meets as captain jack swagger, which is cooler still. i watched him take first place in the all-conference meet on saturday and i'll be pulling for him in the state tournament. john updike wouldn't name a character "jack swagger" because it too perfectly connotes masculinity and success. think about it: johnny depp played captain jack sparrow in pirates of the caribbean. swagger would be too much, but sparrow takes it down a notch so that the audience can willingly suspend disbelief.

we chose tor and hope in naming our kids. tor is a variant of thor, the norse god of thunder. [in norway, thor is pronounced "tore" and tor is pronounced "tour;" in the states, tor is pronounced "tore"]. thor was a massive and mighty hammerin' man, but a well-liked protector against evil. sure enough, the lad grew into his name. we chose the name hope for its optimistic vibe. it was the 288th most popular name in 1993, but seems to have risen in the rankings recently. i love the spanish variant esperanza as well. It has a dramatic flair that might suit my daughter even better than hope.

of course, my kids are saddled with an unusual and difficult surname. we pronounce it "you-gun" but norwegians say "oo-gun." only strangers and sworn enemies say "ugh-un." what's a uggen? like other norwegian farm laborers, my ancestors took the name of the farm that employed them -- in this case, the uggen farm. sadly, i have it on good authority that uggen is now a norwegian euphemism for hangover (e.g., "i woke up feeling a little uggen this morning"). beautiful.

my colleague jeff broadbent, however, tells me that yugen has a much more respectable meaning in japanese aesthetics -- as mysterious, elegant, and graceful. here is one definition:

Yugen - The subtle and the profound. Yugen is at the core of the appreciation of beauty and art in Japan. It values the power to evoke, rather that the ability to state directly. The principle of Yugen shows that real beauty exists when, through its suggestiveness, only a few words, or few brush strokes, can suggest what has not been said or shown, and hence awaken many inner thoughts and feelings.

hmmm. it ain't jack swagger, but it sure beats a hangover.


At 3:35 PM, Anonymous Sara said...

This topic also came up at our house today (odd how your blog seems to follow our conversations 12-24 hours later) when yet another person assumed Riley was a boy. It used to be a boy's name, it is switching to become mostly a girl's name, and is currently gender-neutral -- so, there are age effects in the gender assumption in that anyone over 40 is sure she's a he (it doesn't help that her middle name is for her great-grandfather).

Sara Elizabeth Wakefield is about as benign as it can get though Randy has refused to consider spending any significant time in London, where he is convinced he would be known as 'Horney Wakefield' or 'Desparate for a Shag Wakefield'...

At 5:19 PM, Anonymous sarah said...

Names are tricky indeed. I chose, against my better judgment (in hindsight), to take the last name of my spouse - Shannon. And now I am forever cursed to have this conversation nearly every time I introduce myself to someone new:

Me: Hi, I'm Sarah Shannon.
Stranger: Hi, nice to meet you Shannon.
Me: Sarah, actually, my last name is Shannon.
Stranger: Oh, sorry Sharon.
And on it goes...

What I should have done was keep my pre-marital name, Stertz. Nice and German, a bit tricky for some to pronouce, but never, ever confused for a first name. Also, "Stertz" was the only true nickname I ever had. A last name cool enough to be a nickname, now that's tight.

At 5:44 PM, Anonymous uggens said...

sara: lieberson, dumais, and baumann have a nice ajs piece on the "instability of androgynous names" -- and riley makes the list of "new" names. [i almost cheekily spelled your name "sarah," b/c i know how much you like that particular common error].

sarah, strange how people make the same error repeatedly, huh? for some reason, people make "uggen" plural. so, i'm often introduced as chris uggens, or worse, chris ugh-uns.

At 5:51 PM, Anonymous d said...

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father, and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.


’Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself though, not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O! be some other name:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.

- shakespeare

I thought this to be a fitting quote given the topic and the day.

At 11:37 PM, Anonymous chris said...

nice, d. my favorite allusion to the capulets and montagues is semisonic's (somewhat antiquated, pre-ipod) ode to the mix tape:

Singing in My Sleep

Got your tape and it changed my mind
Heard your voice in between the lines
Come around from another time
Where nobody ever goes

All alone on the overpass
Wired and phoned to a heart of glass
Now I'm falling in love too fast
With you or the songs you chose

And all the stars
Play for me
Say the promise you long to keep

I can hear you sing it to me in my sleep...

I've been living in your cassette
It's the modern equivalent
Singing up to a Capulet
On a balcony in your mind

In the City the lion sleeps
Pray to Sony my soul to keep
Were you ever so bright and sweet
Did you ever look so nice

And all the sounds
Dream for me
Dive me down in a soul so deep

I can hear you sing it to me in my sleep...

At 2:24 PM, Blogger Woz said...

Names and nicknames are a tricky subject. Take Wozniak, for instance. If one thinks Uggen is hard to pronounce, they would be amazed to hear various teaching professionals throughout the years attempt to call role. I've hear everything from "Warnick" to "Wohznick" to "Wozniki" which I must admit confused me the most.

However, it did garner me the all-around cool nickname of "Woz." Simple, elegant, even a little mysterious. Except for when I went to the highschool where my father taught and I was known as "Baby Woz." Having "baby" attched to the front of your name is quite a stumbling block when one is trying to discover/assert their masculinity.

Even more interesting, though, is that the name Wozniak (roughly meaning "driver", though more synonymous with the English surname "Carter") was actually derived from the Polish word "Woz" meaning a type of cart.

So, unwittingly of course, the nickname given for brevity and pronunciation-enhancement, turns out to be the original word from whence my name was derived. A little tale of life coming full circle.

At 11:04 PM, Anonymous chris said...

nice, woz. for me, woz dates back to steve wozniak, who invented apple computer with the better-known steve jobs. if you are curious about this less-sung visionary tryin' to steal your good name, check out:

At 12:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is a bit tangental, but do felons tend to have different sets of names than non-felons? that might be a way to test the uggen hypothesis that felon is simply a status vs. class issue.

At 2:31 AM, Anonymous rachel said...

that must be why the chief economist of MBG Information Services is named McMillion? its interesting that many people end up becoming their namesakes.

oh, by the way, i'm a sociology undergraduate from malaysia who found your blog.

At 9:38 AM, Blogger Benjamin said...


It's not just names that affect call-backs. As you may know, perceived ethnicity affects the return rate for people who leave telephone inquiries about apartments (at least, that was true in the Bay Area in the late '90s). The relevant article is in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology in 1999. A sociolinguist (John Baugh) left textually identical messages in different ethnic 'guises' (i.e., he was acting), and got a higher rate of return calls in his 'Caucasian' guise than in his 'Black' or 'Latin' guises. Subsequent perception experiments showed that listeners could identify his intended ethnicity from his production of a single word (hello) excised from his messages. (He recorded himself leaving the messages.)

And, I have to say that as much as I know the intended pronunciation of your name, I always want to say Ugh-Gun because it sounds like the great theatrical actress Leslie Uggams.

At 10:15 AM, Blogger christopher uggen said...

thanks ben. i'm conducting a somewhat similar study now, though i can't blog about it until we're out of the field...


Post a Comment

<< Home