Sunday, February 08, 2009

What's in a name?

Any school teacher who has had a long stint would be able to provide some insights on the evolution of names of students over two or three generations.

Take Tam-Bram male names. In my father’s time, the popular names would have been Venkataraman, Ramamurthy, Krishnamurthy, Vishwanathan etc. My own classmates tended to have shorter names such as Ramesh, Suresh, Kumar, Shankar, etc. My daughters have classmates bearing names such as Bhargav, Aditya, Pranav, Jaidev, etc.

Female names have undergone a similar transformation, from the Visalakshis and Saraswathis of my mother’s generation, to the Geethas, Seethas and Ushas of mine, and the Ankitas, Sadhikas and Priyankas of my daughter’s.

In fact, a cousin of mine tricks any new, unsuspecting kid that he comes across, with the question, “ Do you know Lakshmi Miss who is a teacher in your school?”, or “ Is Aditya your classmate?”. Invariably the answer is “yes, how did you know?”.

In his book, “The Stuff of Thought”, Steven Pinker devotes an entire chapter to this subject. How do certain names suddenly become popular?. You may want to give a distinctive name to your son or daughter and go through a long process of choosing the name. Then when you go to enroll him or her in school, you discover to your dismay that there are two more kids bearing the same name. Pinker cites several reasons, but one important factor in some names springing up is phonesthesia, according to which vocal sounds have the capacity to convey definite meanings. This, in turn, can be influenced by several social factors, unique to that region and to a specific era. It is therefore a shared cultural response.

Pinker points out that his own first name, Steven, was rarely used in the early part of the twentieth century, but suddenly became popular around the ‘50s.

Samuel Goldwyn, film producer, was supposed to have told a couple who were about to name their child William, “Don’t call him William. Today, every Tom, Dick and Harry is named that.”.

If any of the readers know more about this interesting subject, please do share.


rajeev said...

Freakonomics has chapter on what the author calls "the socioeconomic patterns of naming children"

Usha said...

Vocal sounds definitely have a definite meaning for me - for example I somehow expect the konkans, ananyas, manjaris and kadambaris and shalinis to be poetic and sensitive. I'd be terribly disappointed if they woke me up from my afternoon nap to sell me insurance or mutual funds. I would hate for a Madhavi, Roshni or anushka to be specialising in anything other than fine arts. An investment banker or lawyer named Jhanvi would shatter me.
The worls of mundane activity and rat race is for the preetis, neetis, nehas , priyas , sumas and Pallavis.

On another note are you aware that when people lose many children they pray that they would name and call the child Pichai or kuppan if the child survives? We have a couple of uncles in the house stuck with those names.

Anonymous said...

I had few colleagues in Pondicherry who had their Tamil names spelt in French way written in English. Jayaram would turn out to be "Djearame" and so on (No offense meant). Half of the crowd I'm interacting these days cant get my surname, and they insist on calling me with that.

Jayan Parameswaran

Raj said...

Rajeev, thanks. Will look it up

Usha, that was interesting. What I was wondering about was how names tend to go out of fashion, and new ones suddenly spring in their place. Today, I doubt you will find a single Pichai or Kuppan in the new generation.

Jayan, exactly. At what point did Parameswarans give way to Jayans?

Parul said...

Brilliant! I only wish I'd read this before I named my son Aditya. I'd still call him that but at least the decision would be well-informed.