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What's in a Name?

Maybe the better question to ask is: What isn't? Names are the identifiers by which we are known to the world. We are introduced by our names and remembered by them. They identify us and classify us. Try to do almost anything without giving your name; chances are you won't get very far. It's a basic element of human nature to want to know who and what we are dealing with, and we do so with names.

Alphabet Soup

Onomastics means the study of names and naming practices.


There's nothing wrong with honoring a favorite celebrity with the name you choose for your baby. But keep in mind that some of the more uncommon celeb names – like Orson, River, or Uma – are so closely linked to their famous bearers that it may be difficult for your child to shake the association as he or she gets older.

But there's a great deal more to the power of a name than this. Pair a name with how someone looks and sounds and you can often get a pretty good idea of where that person came from and what his or her origin is. Even in today's multicultural society, where names often cross back and forth between ethnic boundaries, names can be—and often are—a dead giveaway to a person's nationality and ethnic background. In some cases, they can even pinpoint where people are born and raised.

Naming is so important that there's even a scholarly discipline devoted to the study of it, onomastics. There are also a number of organizations around the world, such as the American Name Society, that study naming. Because having the right name for the right product can mean the difference between success and failure, there are companies that do nothing other than research and develop those perfect matches.

Movies are often renamed after their previews if the original titles didn't quite seem to grab the interest of the audience. Celebrities often adopt new names for the same reason. Would you have gone to see Caryn Johnson perform a stand-up comedy act? Probably not. But as Whoopie Goldberg, she played to packed houses for years and made a successful leap to movies and television.

Here are some more famous celebrity name changes. See if you think these individuals made the right move.

Name at Birth Professional Name
Alphonse D'Abruzzo Alan Alda
Allen Stewart Konigsberg Woody Allen
Camille Javal Brigitte Bardot
Antonio Dominick Benedetto Tony Bennett
David Robert Hayward-Jones David Bowie
Charles Buchinsky Charles Bronson
Vincent Furnier Alice Cooper
James George Janos Jesse "The Body" Ventura
Mary Cathleen Collins Bo Derek
Patsy Ann McClenny Morgan Fairchild
Ralph Lifshitz Ralph Lauren

Unless your child ends up having star ambitions, chances are pretty good that he or she will carry the name you bestow for a lifetime, changed only by the adoption of a new last name through marriage. That's reason enough to put some time and effort into your choice, but there's more to it than this.

More on: Choosing a Name

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Baby Names © 1999 by Sonia Weiss. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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