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.