This article was first published in U of T Magazine in December 2016 and is re-posted here with full permission.
Why are some first names such as Michael and Olivia popular year after year, but you never meet anyone named “Seven” or “Soda”? What we call ourselves – and why – fascinates Mavis Himes (MA 1973, PhD 1978), a psychoanalyst in Toronto who has written a book all about the culture and practice of naming. She spoke recently with Scott Anderson.
What inspired your interest in names?
It came from two different directions. My own surname has been abbreviated from Heimovitch to Himes. In Montreal in the 1950s, my father and his six brothers decided, for business reasons, to anglicize their name – to make it less Jewish sounding. I often thought how very different it would be to go through life with my Hebrew name Malkah Heimovitch.
The other reason came from my clinical practice as a psychoanalyst. I’m a Lacanian analyst [a practice based on the theories of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan] and Lacanians place a lot of importance on language and its effects. There’s something very psychologically significant and permanent about the inscription of our names in our inner world. One of my patients had a parent who was British and one who was Persian. When he pronounced his name, he would anglicize it. It turned out his dual heritage was very much a part of his psychological conflict.
How do you think your own name has affected you?
Mavis Himes is a name that conceals. At different stages of my life, people have asked me, “What’s your background?” I always had the feeling they were trying to figure out my ethnic identity – perhaps because my appearance doesn’t reveal much either. I liked that people didn’t know that I was Jewish.
Often without our conscious awareness, we tend to make huge assumptions about a person’s background based on their name. Recent studies have found, for example, that people with ethnic-sounding names have less chance of being hired. It’s 2016, and this kind of prejudice and racism still goes on.
Let’s break this down. What does our first name tell people about us?
It reflects the wishes, hopes, aspirations and desires of our parents. And it can carry a lot of weight. I see this when a patient casually remarks, “My mother named me Marilyn because she wanted me to be as beautiful as Marilyn Monroe. But look at me. I’m not exactly a beauty queen.” That may be said in jest, but there is a sense of not living up to expectations. I am an analyst, I work with these unconscious effects.
And our surname?
Our surname reflects tradition, heritage and lineage.
The first name is a mark of unique identification, and the surname signals membership within a family. In a sense, you could say we’re always fighting between those two – the need to be our own person and the need to affiliate with others.
If you’re a Benedict Cumberbatch, does your personality have to live up to your outlandish name in a way that it doesn’t if you’re a Jane Smith?
I’ll be frank: I think that’s bullshit. It’s pop psychology.
Do you think our names exert any influence over who we are?
I hear examples in my practice from time to time where Mr. Molar becomes a dentist or Mr. Steele becomes an engineer. We laugh at these, but for some people names do seem to end up influencing their profession or interests. It’s a curious phenomenon that has to do with the unconscious effects of language that I mentioned earlier.
In the movie Spy, Melissa McCarthy’s character keeps getting assigned bland code names, such as Carol Jenkins, when she really wants go undercover as a Scarlett Pendergast. Is it a romantic idea that having an exotic-sounding name could make life more exciting?
You may feel that a new name carries with it a new identity, which gives you permission to start acting in new and exciting ways. But ultimately it’s a fantasy. It’s only temporary. You still carry the “old you” unless you’ve worked it through psychologically.
If there’s a real power in names, as your book title suggests, then does something important happen when you change your name?
There are many people, such as new immigrants, who change their name to make it sound less ethnic or foreign sounding. Yet the original name always leaves a permanent trace in the psyche that can’t be erased. Sometimes this can lead to psychological conflict or tension.
It is not uncommon to mark a significant passage with a new name. People who undergo a spiritual conversion often acquire a new name. Women going through divorce may change their name to give themselves a new identity – or the identity they had before they got married.
What do you think of the trend today of less traditional first names, such as Riley and Peyton for girls and Mason or Jayden for boys.
I think that comes from celebrities, who often choose unusual names for their kids.
Who bears your favourite name?
My husband has a very beautiful name. His full name is Bertram David Lawlor Rochester. He goes by Lawlor Rochester. People say it’s such an elegant-sounding name.
That’s such an interesting name, especially compared with Scott Michael Anderson!
But yours has nice resonance and rhythm to it. Michael happens to be a name I love – and Anderson. It’s a very Anglo name.
Mavis Himes is the author of The Power of Names: Uncovering the Mystery of What We Are Called (2016).