By Sarah Springer, CNN
Francine Rosemary Davis comes from a family filled with traditional names. Her grandparents, Richard and Evelyn, named her mother Jill, who later named her children Kimberly, Lorrie and Francine. Her father? Charles.
But for years, she got strange looks from kids and adults when she was introduced. She went to school with girls named Star, Diamond and Magnificent — “perfectly acceptable names for black children,” in a way Francine or even Emily and Sarah weren’t, said Davis, who is black. When Davis moved to suburban Cleveland school, the comments kept coming.
“‘That’s an old lady’s name!'” she remembers her peers and their parents saying. “‘The only people left with that name are older ladies.'”
Perceptions about her based on her name followed her into adulthood, too — she’s 30, but people often assume she’s older, and maybe white, she said.
“Now that we’re older and looking to get a career, you’ll send out a resume and when you walk through the door you’ll get a strange look because you’re not the person they expected to see,” said Davis, who works as a chemical engineer.
Researchers say our names have long affected how people perceive us, but trends and traditions around names — and what they say about our gender, age, race and ethnicity — are changing.
Jessica Simpson announced yesterday the birth of her new little one, Maxwell Drew — a 9 pound 13 ounce girl. She’s not the first to grab headlines with a nontraditional name: Tom Cruise and Kate Holmes have a daughter, Suri, Jay Z and Beyonce have their Blue Ivy bundle of joy and there’s no forgetting Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter, Apple. Celeb chef Jamie Oliver has four little ones: Poppy Honey Rosie, Daisy Boo Pamela, Petal Blossom Rainbow and Buddy Bear Maurice.
During the last half-century, parents from all racial and ethnic backgrounds have turned to less popular or traditional names and more believe it’s important to find distinctive names for their children, said Hannah Emery, a sociology doctoral student at University of California Berkeley, who spent years researching naming practices.
“The parents I spoke to didn’t want an ‘Apple,’ but they didn’t want an Isabella or Jacob, either,” she said, referencing the most popular names for girls and boys in 2010. “In the few cases where parents I spoke to had inadvertently chosen a Top 10 name and found out about it after the fact, they were almost apologetic, as if they thought they had somehow done a disservice to their child by choosing a common name.”
Different race and ethnicity groups have different traditions, too. African-American parents are more likely to choose unique or invented names, Emery said, while Asian immigrant parents are likely to choose names already popular among white American parents.
In the last 40 years, parents stretched the boundaries of how names are tied to gender, especially by naming more little girls with what used to be the domain of boys, like little Maxwell Drew. (CNN’s Marquee blog reports that Maxwell is said to be father Eric Johnson’s middle name, and his grandmother’s maiden name. Drew is said to be maternal grandma Tina Simpson’s maiden name.)
Despite the naming shifts, people still make assumptions about others based on them, Emery said.
“People can make educated guesses about your gender, possibly your race or religion, maybe the era in which you were born and in some cases those educated guesses can lead to judgments being made about you, sight-unseen,” Emery said.
Davis said her traditional name only allowed for her personality to shine.
“A lot of people want to live with their name remembered, but who is the person behind the name?” Davis said. “I’d rather have people know me personally than remember me for what my name is.”