On the fascination with names and dealing with them across categories

by Katrine Kehlet Bechsgaard

It is a well-known fact that many people find names fascinating. And it seems that the socio-onomastic dimension is particularly interesting to the public – that the relationship between names and trends in society is what interests people the most, in particular when related to themselves and their own lives. This is, of course, why names continue to be of great interest to, for instance, new parents, people going through a name change, and business owners trying to come up with the perfect commercial name.

My PhD project focused on one of the topics that continue to be of interest to the public: contemporary parents’ name choices and the motives behind them. And when I was asked by Danish publisher Gyldendal if I was interested in writing a book about names, belonging to the popular science category, I knew that personal name trends and names for newborns would become an important part of the book in progress. Partly because this has been my research area and partly because of the general interest in this topic. For example, at least in Denmark, you can be sure to encounter news stories about the latest name lists every six months, when they are released by Statistics Denmark. Whether Ida or Emma has conquered first place, and how Liam managed to all of a sudden jump all the way to sixth place, continue to spark curiosity.

Inspiration from research and media

However, when I started working on the book, it led me to a new approach for thinking about names – compared to the approach I had previously taken. Researching for the book made me think about many other angles on names that I imagined would seem interesting and relevant to people not studying names or any related subjects for a living. Whereas previously, I had mostly been alert to any research or anecdote about topics such as personal names, name fashions, and social categories, I now became very alert to any fascinating research, news story, or anecdote about all types of names and in any context. Soon, I had a large collection of links and notes about all kinds of name related points. 

Some ideas came from research publications and some from news stories, as I found it natural to combine research on names with different kinds of name stories that had found their way to the media. Because, as I figured, no place can give us better insight into which aspects of names interest the public than the stories that the media choose to publish. As a supplement to these points, I interviewed people about their personal experience with names, such as an author who uses his characters’ names as a very conscious tool and a woman who was adopted as a child and later decided to change her name.

In other words, I decided not to limit myself to certain name categories or certain time periods. Instead, I wanted to focus on the many ways in which names are interesting and relevant – in my own personal opinion and with consideration of the audience of the book. This way, I stumbled upon many angles, stories, and anecdotes about names, which broadened my view of why this is such an interesting research field.

A combination of socio-onomastics and sociology of names

Most of the topics that I chose for the book are about names’ relation to social factors. To name a few examples: What are the unofficial rules for when we are supposed to remember another person’s name? Why are grandparents often sceptical of their grandchildren’s names? How can the right names help a fictional universe along – and the opposite? What does it mean for transgender people to change their names? How can a name help create group identity – both for people who already share a name and for people actively deciding to take the same name? What happens if your name is associated with another ethnicity than your own? How can companies get in trouble when choosing product names that have to work in every language? And what role did names play in the age of slavery?

As Gunnstein Akselberg argued in the latest blog post on this website, socio-onomastics and sociology of names are two different approaches. Whereas in socio-onomastics, social variables are used to gain knowledge about names, in sociology of names, names are used as a tool to study society. In my book, I have used both approaches, however mostly the latter, and I think there is great further potential in not only studying names by considering social variables, but also in studying society by using names as a tool.

An attempt to show how names are relevant to society

My book was published in April 2020 and has the very simple title “Navne” (“Names”) with the subtitle “Hvordan vi får dem, vælger dem, bruger dem, elsker dem, glemmer dem, ændrer dem, vænner os til dem, hader dem, fortryder dem, opfinder dem og bliver påduttet dem” (“How we get them, choose them, use them, love them, forget them, change them, get used to them, hate them, regret them, invent them, and have them forced upon us”).

The book is by no means an attempt to uncover the entire Danish name landscape. Rather, it is a subjective attempt to go for a tour in the Danish – and international – name landscape and make stops along the way, introducing the reader to what I consider some of the most relevant and thought provoking aspects of names and naming – and to seek out and discuss the ways in which names are important to us all and how names are relevant to society. Even though the book’s emphasis is on personal names, it is an attempt to not be restricted by name categories such as personal names and place names. For instance, a chapter called “Kunsten at vælge det rigtige navn” (“The art of choosing the right name”) discusses and compares choices of names for babies, streets, and IKEA furniture.

I hope that a book of this kind will spark curiosity in people of many different backgrounds and play a small part in justifying why research in names should continue to be a priority.

Updated 24-07-2020

One thought on “On the fascination with names and dealing with them across categories”

  1. Katrine, this book sounds so fascinating. I wish it existed in English. I’m the creator of Nameberry and the author of ten books about names, some of which you may have come across in your research. Our Beyond Jennifer & Jason changed the way English-speaking people named their babies and paved the way for the contemporary consideration of names as sociological and cultural artifacts.

    I’m very excited to find you and your work and I’d love to talk further!

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