What Your Name Says About You

I have always fantasized about being with a woman named Joanna or Karla. I imagine them to be sensible but spontaneous, thoughtful without being dramatic, and obviously good looking. I have nothing to base any of these conclusions on. They are just beautiful names and I can’t imagine any Karla or Joanna being anyway else. I am also confident that never has a Joanna or Karla ever dreamed of being with a conceptual Robert. I’m probably right.

According to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, my name is just not sexy.

In 2004, these researchers determined that the sexes assess names as being either appealing or unappealing based upon certain factors. Most interestingly, names are subconsciously appealing based on how important the first vowel is to vocalizing them.

A two-syllable name can be stressed in the front or the back end. For men, sexy names were stressed in the front. For women, sexy names were in the back. Matthew is stressed at front and is perceived as sexy. Which might explains Matthew McConaughey’s enduring cinematic career.

The consequences for the rest of us? Well, sorry, Nina. Sorry, Judy. Feel free to join me and my friends Cindy and Paul in the club of kids jealous of our fre-name-ies with names like Craig and Sofia. If only we’d have gone to high school together, unsexy namers. We could have all sat and enjoyed our anti-prom, enlightened discussions on amine, and simply settled on gross first kisses with our unsexy selves.

This study came to my mind a few weeks ago. I was at a packed club in Chinatown, New York. For reasons I’m sure an evolutionary biologist could explain, I was undergoing the essential act of greeting all the men near the section I was standing (VIP. Holla.) In such a high-energy, sexualized environment, all male egos have to be neutralized by demonstrating to each other a spirit of respect and good faith.

Anyway, everyone was super friendly and I found myself talking to a pleasant, dark haired, Italian-looking gentleman. He told me his name, which I forgot, and then I told him my name. He leaned closer toward me, and almost as if he was making a confession, told me that he, too, was named Robert. He had told me his middle name; which he explained was the name that he went by as an adult. A soberness tainted his voice. It was if he was either ashamed to have abandoned the fraternity of Roberts or felt bad I had to be stuck with it. Either way I laughed and our interaction got me thinking.

Despite the feeling that everyone has an uncle Robert somewhere in their family tree, it isn’t a name I encounter often. Whenever I do, it often comes with a twist: Rob. Bob. Bobby. Robbie. Whatever. Somewhere, I missed the memo that Roberts aren’t supposed to stay Roberts. And then it gets worse.

I was cursed with potentially the most unsexy name since Frasier Crane. Robert Oswald Wohner. Three names. Three long Os. Together, it is a cacophony that celebrates a love for Mets baseball, unintended abstinence, and a permanent residence in the Friendzone.

This former Robert at the club had abandoned the life that could have been destined for him. He now was handsome enough to look like a member of One Direction and friendly enough to share details about himself with strangers. In every way, he was a cool person. He knew he deserved better than what his birth name would have demanded.

Yet I am that Robert, a name worthy of leading the Confederacy but dateless at prom; ready to be quarterback of the Washington Redskins or play your favorite Hufflepuffian vampire but never scribbled inside marble notebooks, adorned by hearts and kisses. It’s sobering.

I’m not alone. What transforms an Elizabeth into a Beth or Liz? A Zachary to a Zac? A Joshua to a Josh? Can we escape the limitations are names set for us? Do such limitations exist at all?

Growing up, I fully felt like a Robert, partially because my brother was named Ivan. Our names suited each our personalities. He was in every way an Ivan: master baker, computer programmer, songwriter, relationship therapist, thesbian, academic. I was Robert, the loner who played LEGO Racers on our home computer. In a way, his Ivan-ness illuminated my Robert-ness. And like most shy kids, you simply grow up conceding the family spotlight. I don’t know what would have changed if our names were reversed, but I don’t worry about that anymore.

For me, maturing involved determining the unintended influences on my life and reevaluating which would continue to define my thinking, values, and personality. A name is just a piece of the puzzle. So while I don’t love being Robert, I like being myself. And my name is a part of that. I do think there is something to our names sharping how we see ourselves. But the legacy is just one part of accepting our pasts in order to dictate our futures.

That night in Chinatown was everything I hope a Saturday night to be. I didn’t pay for my alcohol. The DJ played “Wild Ones.” In that space, being Robert only mattered as much as I let it matter. Which isn’t to say I suddenly assumed my suave alter ego, Roberto. I didn’t. Watching me dance makes it gloriously obvious that, Robert or no Robert, I can do unsexy all by myself. TC mark

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  • http://raymondthimmes.com/ Raymond Thimmes

    It seems that everyone I meet preferes to shorten my name to Ray upon first impression. This may have something to do with it. My dad is named Robert but goes by Rob and has a 12 inch beard and matching locks of hair. Actually he looks more like an Ivan. hah. 

    Also props on the Netscape resource. 

  • Anonymous

    This was super charming. One time, someone told me “Gabrielles are always mistresses and never wives.” It was weird.

  • blair dowis

    THESPIAN

  • Anonymous

    I’d love to be able to say I married a man whose middle name is Oswald. Seriously.

  • http://www.twitter.com/ellapalooza ella

    Somebody once told me I should go by “Isabella” instead of “Ella” because it sounded sexier. It took me a while — and a job as a nanny — to realize it was because “Ella” just sounded more juvenile and like the massive wave of babies recently given that name.

    Besides, “Ella” gets a theme song built right in, eh eh eh.

  • Tricia Taylor

    Be proud to be a Robert.

    Have you ever heard of Bobby Browning? Rob Redford? Bob Plant?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=612170317 Christina Carroll

     Isn’t the first syllable stressed in “Robert” as well? Am I missing something…

    • http://twitter.com/robwoh Robert Wohner

      I spent a good 10 minutes yesterday repeating “RoBERT” over and over trying to  naturally stress the second syllable. And I couldn’t. So I’m as confused as you. But who am I to question the brilliant minds of MIT? lol. 

      • Guest

         Linguistics major here. I read the article you cited and what they’re talking about are back and front vowels – linguistic terms for where the vowels are made in the mouth. So front vowels are the ones like ee, eh, aah (like in cat), etc. – the tongue is at the front of the mouth to make those sounds. Back vowels are formed with the tongue farther back in the mouth (oh, oo, ah as in father, etc.). Robert is a back vowel; it’s got nothing to do with syllabic stress.

  • http://twitter.com/Amphx AnnamariaPhilippeaux

    I’ve had a love/hate relationship with my name for most of my life. Anna-Maria Philippeaux is long and too difficult for most (all) people to pronounce and spell, and I have a weird middle name, too. I hear and see my name butchered almost everywhere it is used, which is no one’s fault, but it definitely can be irritating.  It also takes me a really long time to bubble in the letters on a scantron sheet. Sometimes I wonder if I would be happier if my name was simpler or more common, but it really is one of a kind, and I enjoy that. I think I’d be more upset with a very boring name. I like that it sounds a little bit musical when pronounced correctly, and I like that it makes me more memorable to others. I’ve definitely come to embrace it more now.

    • Guest

      your name sounds romantic and beautiful! shush, you’re like a protagonist in a novel :)

      • http://twitter.com/Amphx AnnamariaPhilippeaux

        Well thank you (: No one’s made that comment to me before, I like that!

  • http://robvincent.net Rob T Firefly

    I’m a Robert who has always gone by Rob.  I’ve never felt like a Robert even as a kid, but Rob always just fit.  Nobody in my life calls me Robert except my boss and, occasionally, my sister when she’s mad at me.

  • https://twitter.com/#!/BobbyHD Bobby Dixon

    The game isn’t over, ROW

  • What does Amy say about me

    I liked your overall message but some parts didn take much sense. According to the name-sexiness theory you cited, there should be no difference between Paul or Craig.. In fact you cited a theory about two-syllable names, then talked about one- and three- syllable names. What does that tell us? Maybe having someone read this before it was posted for content and proof reading for grammar would have helped in this case. Nice thought though!

    • http://twitter.com/robwoh Robert Wohner

      I’m not advocating the science or the results of the study.  It is just a study I remember reading about and it came to my mind recently. Feel free to either accept or reject their explanations.  I, for one, think Nina is a “sexy” name.

  • http://twitter.com/shawn_ch ShawnChapman

    I’m a girl with a man’s name; named for a man who was my father’s rodeo mentor. I spent a good part of my youth and a bit of my adulthood disliking my name. One day, my mother looked at me (utterly out of the blue) and said: “I just can’t imagine you as a Barbara Jean.” That was my mom’s choice for my name before I was born…Yeah, thanks mom, and I love you, but I’ll be Shawn. 

    Thank the gods for my dad’s friend Shawn. ;)

    • Karen

      Lol. I’ve always been glad my dad helped picked my name. If my mom had her first choice my name would be Jean Marie. Yuck.

      • Karen

        *pick

    • http://twitter.com/robwoh Robert Wohner

      My mother had gone to the hospital intent on naming me Aaron. After I was delivered and she made her wish known, a nurse commented, “Isn’t Aaron a girl’s name?” Which, isn’t entirely wrong (Erin) but not correct. Anyway, my mother decided not make me go through that Q&A for a lifetime so she made the change. Which I appreciate now. 

      But I wonder. Would I be different if I was an Aaron? If I may be so bold and judge a photograph, your haircut, your vibe feel more suited for a Shawn than a Barbara Jean. Would you be different if your mother had gotten her wish!? Sigh. I over think such things lol. 

  • Sophia

    My boyfriend is named Robert and he goes by Robert. And I’ve definitely doodled his name in my school notebook surrounded by hearts and kisses… :P

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001079660479 Bilqis Ibrahim

    I really enjoyed reading this. It was amusing, but I totally feel you. My name is Bilqis (pronounced Bell-kiss) and people have to ask me two, three times to repeat myself and even then they find it hard to say my name, so I just say “You can call me Bee.” To this day, the majority of the people in my life all still have their own version of pronouncing my name.. so Bee seems to suffice. 

  • Bro

    Brolin is my (first) name. I go by Bro.

    Come at me regarding your unsexy names, bro. 

  • cheeseplatter

    Somewhat unrelated side note: my name is Emily. I am friends with another Emily. They refer to her as “sexy Emily” and me as “Emily.”

    So that’s nice.

    I should get new friends.

  • Cate M

    I’m a Catherine who got tired of being a Catherine and is becoming a Cate. It almost does require a lifestyle. 

  • meh

    “Can we escape the limitations are names set for us? Do such limitations exist at all?”…*our

  • Amber

    Well I have a stripper name because my parents thought it would be cute to match my name to my hair color. Do I win anything? 

    • http://robvincent.net Rob T Firefly

       You win a shiny lump of fossilized tree resin.

      • Amber

        Gothamist AND ThoughtCatalog, eh? The Internet—it’s a small world, after all. 

  • Rltodd07

    For the first twenty years of my life my name was “Becky,” which I hate. It has connotations of “yucky” and “blech” to me. Then I started going by “Rebecca,” which is is much better. I like my name now— it’s not my favorite name in the world, but at least it’s not “icky.” Funny thing is that my mother and siblings shorten it to “Becca” and I don’t mind at all!

  • Hannah

    Wow. I don’t believe your description of how Ivan fits the super-boy personality and Robert is a loner… It has been the exact opposite in most of my experiences. 
    Granted, I’ve only met 2 Ivans and a few Roberts- some of them stayed Roberts! But I’ve never met any as brothers, so maybe that’s the difference… ?Honestly, reading that shocked me and made me wonder if this was a joke… So, I dunno how you feel about that, but maybe you should give your name more credit, man…

  • Hannah

    Nina is the sexiest name ever. Joanna sounds like two half-names meshed up together. Like a car crash.

    • Janelle

       Because of Nina Dobrev?

      • Guest

        yep! Seriously unsexy first name, hot girl and killer last name

  • http://twitter.com/laurahtfraser Laura Fraser

    Robert: My grandfather’s first name, my brother’s middle name, and the name of my guinea pig in grade 2. Classic.

  • Karla

    I have never seen an article in the web or anywhere that praises my name, Karla. I want to fantasize about you now, Robert. 

    • Jessica

       my ex-best friend’s name is Karla so that name always brings up bad vibes. but i’m pretty sure you’re cool.  (kool)

  • Borisa

     well my  name is Lucia (I come from Slovakia) and it goes together with a very long (16 letters) last name which starts with Boris. so gues what my nickname for all my life has been? They call me Boris. all of them. I actually like it but Boris is a man´s name a when there ae people who dont know me and somebody yells Boris at me they always start asking questions… fortunately after some time some of the people changes it to Borisa (to make it sound female), but Boris is still much stronger.
    anyway, I am fine with both my name and nickname. My mother wanted Doris first but combined with the last name and  living in Slovakia, it would be just crazy!  (Doris Boris…. )

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