As we’ve argued in Freakonomics and in a recent podcast, a child’s first name isn’t nearly as influential on that child’s outcome as many people would like to think.
That said, it would be a mistake to say that a name is unimportant — especially because even the belief that a name is important can make it, on some level, actually important.
Also: a name can carry far greater significance than as a mere label for an individual person; it can say something about you as a member of a tribe, a community, a nation.
A noteworthy (if often overlooked) part of Jewish history is the renaming, in the Bible, of Abram as Abraham and Sarai as Sarah. Along those lines, it was interesting to read this blog post from the Israel State Archives about how David Ben-Gurion wanted Israelis to swap out their European names for Hebrew ones. He thought it was a good idea to pass a law to that effect rather than use (as someone had suggested) a small financial incentive:
On April 30, 1961, Prof. Allon Talmi (a good Hebrew name, that) wrote to Ben Gurion (previous name: Gryn) with a suggestion that the government pay 10 Lira to each individual who gets rid of their non-Hebrew name for a Hebrew one.
The sum, the rough equivalent of a day’s wages for many people, wouldn’t entice the well-off, but might be a consideration for many. When he, Talmi, used to be the manager of a large section in a chemical company and he offered an unofficial day off for anyone who changed their name, you’d be surprised how many did so. The government could explain that the sum is to cover the hassle of the name-changing. How many people would likely accept? 100,000 at most? Isn’t the investment of 1,000,000 Lira in promoting national unity worth it?
Ben Gurion replied on May 7:
I liked your idea. Indeed, all these German and Slavic names detract from the Jewishness of the nation. It was also a fine thing you did at that factory. But a government can’t do things like that. The government should pass a law that everyone should have Hebrew names.
To which Talmi then replied:
Thank you for answering.
I don’t think the government can force people to change their names. It would be unpopular, and give credence to the claim that you’ve got dictatorial tendencies. The government needs to force people to do things that are essential for the economy and security, but in spite of my dislike of foreign names, I don’t think they affect the national security.
And here is the original correspondence.
(HT: Martin Beifield)