What’s in an Americanized Name?

(Photo: Marlon E)

(Photo: Marlon E)

What’s in a name?  Steve Levitt and economists following on his work have examined how racial differences in given names generate (or don’t) differences in economic outcomes.  A new paper (PDF) by Costanza Biavaschi, Corrado Giulietti and Zahra Siddique shows that first names mattered for immigrants to the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century: people who Americanized their given names did better economically thereafter. 

But how to get around the possibility that those with more energy/ambition were more likely to change names—going from Giovanni to John or Zbigniew to Charles?  Answer:  use the complexity of the pre-change name to predict whether a person changes names; and this is a good predictor.  Thus the authors show clearly that name change was the cause of the better performance of those migrants who took “American” names.  I wonder if this kind of name change is as common among today’s immigrants?

(HT to CG)

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  1. Angelynn Cerridwen says:

    Lived in China on and off for a total of 7 years and over time, I noticed a definite Decrease in the number of (Chinese) people who took on Western names. Of course many factors were in play, but I had the strong sense that , overall, (a) Westerners became less “helio-centric” – ie, Qi Lin is as valid a name as Joe, and they stopped automatically assigning English names to Chinese collegues, and at the same time (b) the Chinese realised that Westerners actually COULD pronounce words spoken in a foreign tongue and they didn’t feel as much the need to make things easier for Western associates. It promoted a much more equitable atmosphere – BUT – here’s where culture created a small awkwardness: The Chinese traditionally restrict the use of the given name to family members and very close friends, so I called everyone, even those I considered friends, “Mr” _____ or “Ms” _____ . As an American, however, I felt strange being called Ms. ____by my peers. Hey, we all coped.

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    • Lassie says:

      I read somewhere Chinese women’s “Western names” were notable because they weren’t ‘trendy’ but very old-fashioned. Mabel, Eunice, Edna, Bernice. Is there an element of truth in that?

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      • KH says:

        Definitely the ethnic Chinese in Malaysia at least tend to take “old-fashioned” names– I had never met a Eunice in my life, now I know 3….

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  2. Hershey says:

    My name us Hershey, which is a variant of the Yiddish Herschel. I’m not sure why, but in business email correspondence people assume I’m female. I find that I get more easily my way with this misconception, so I don’t feel like putting them straight.

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  3. LIBERATUS GONDO says:

    Its not true that name can determine how somebody is,this depend much on effort made by the one on makes sure that emprovement to him can occur. nowdays these names have caused classes and discrimination in societ especially in africa such as tanzania where classes and discriminatiom arise due to names which separate us beween muslim and christian that influence classes and discrimination in the societ

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  4. Brian Gulino says:

    In Southern California, Latino immigrants are encouraged to keep their names as others seem to make a serious effort to pronounce their names as they are pronounced in Latin countries, ie. trilling the “r” in Maria for example. I don’t know if this results in less name changing among Latinos. The Chinese, perhaps despairing of Western ears remembering their native names, routinely rename themselves upon coming to the United States. The Chinese usually keep their old name among themselves so Meng-yei among family members will be Jennifer at work.

    The amount of effort involved in pronouncing people’s name with the correct ethnic inflection varies with the importance of ethnicity in the institution. Nobody bothers to trill the r’s when speaking to Alec Rodriguez, the baseball player, but Alec Rodriguez, the guidance counselor will have his r’s dutifully trilled by the school’s Anglos.

    I’m not sure what to make of any of this other than teasing out a correlation between success and naming conventions strikes me as very difficult.

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