First names matter, experimental research has shown. If job resumes are sent to employers or student profiles presented to teachers, identical except for racially-tinged first names–say, Greg vs. Jamal–“white” names more often get positive responses than do “black” names. If students evaluate presidential candidates on paper, identical except for the gender of the presumed candidate–say, Brian vs. Karen–the “male” candidate gets higher approval than the “female” one.
In a recent study of historical data, “From Patrick to John F.: Ethnic Names and Occupational Success in the Last Era of Mass Migration,” Joshua R. Goldstein and Guy Stecklov found that immigrants a century or so ago who gave their sons less ethnic-sounding and more mainstream-sounding names added, on average, a few percentage points a year to their sons’ incomes–although one immigrant group was an exception.
…Would Earn More Money
Goldstein and Stecklov use 1930 census records for tens of thousands of adult, American-born sons of foreign-born fathers to ask “whether immigrants who assimilated”–indicated by giving their sons more “American” names–”were better able to climb the economic ladder”– indicated by the jobs the grown sons had–”than those who retained their ethnic identity.” Giving “American” first names is one way immigrant parents revealed their degree of assimilation or at least their aspirations for assimilation.
The authors measured the American versus ethnic connotations of first names by simply calculating how typical different first names were for sons of immigrant fathers versus for sons of native-born fathers. For example, in 1930 it was very much likelier that a Patrick or Peter had a father born in Ireland than it was that he had a father born in the United States. So, Patrick and Peter get high scores as ethnic names–as does Vito for the Italian-origin, Fritz for the German-origin, Borgdan for the Polish-origin, and Abraham for the Russian (largely Jewish)-origin men. Conversely, first-generation men from those origins were not likely to be named Henry or George–though they may have benefited if they had.
Goldstein and Stecklov found a connection between name and fortune: Typically, the more ethnic a son’s name, the less remunerative the job he held in 1930. Irish-descendant men with names like Patrick or Peter ended up, on average, in less well-paying jobs than did similar men with names like Walter or Charles. A Tony or Angelo earned less than a Henry or Charles; an Otto or Emil less than a Harry or Charles; and an Anthony or Stanley less than an Albert or Charles. However, among the Russian-origin men, an Abraham or Morris did, on average, better than a George or Charles–more on this exception later.
Why? One simple explanation is that the immigrant fathers who gave their sons more Anglo-American names were already more economically successful than the immigrant fathers who named their sons Angelo, Herman, and the like. Goldstein and Stecklov were able to take fathers’ occupations into account and found that this explanation accounts for some but not most of the connection between American-ness of name and sons’ success.
Another explanation is that the ethnic names–the Dominicks and the Augusts–signaled to native-born Americans that the sons were of foreign origin and, just like black names still do today, led to discrimination in schooling and employment. To assess the effect of discrimination, the authors looked at sons with ethnically distinctive last names. If a son had a last name of O’Malley, Napoli, or the like, it would matter little to a discriminating employer what the first name was. Yet, when they looked just at sons with stereotypical ethnic names, Goldstein and Stecklov found that first names still mattered. On average, a Charles Kowalski did a bit better than a Stanley Kowalski (which is not to say that discrimination did not exist; it did).
Goldstein and Stecklov suggest that the first-name effect largely reflects the commitment some immigrant parents made to assimilating in the U.S.–a “cultural orientation, a kind of ‘acting mainstream’.” Parents conveyed that commitment to their sons by the first names they gave them and probably in other ways as well. Also, Anglo-American first names signaled to other people, the authors think, that family’s commitment to assimilation. By extension, the authors speculate, that the discrimination people with black names encounter may result both because the name reveals the race of an unseen applicant and also because it signals a counter-mainstream stance. (The authors didn’t but could have pointed to the hostility toward “Barak Hussein” as an example.)
But there was an exception to the pattern. An Americanized first name was an advantage, for whatever reasons, for the sons of Irish, Italian, German, and Polish immigrants. It was a bit of a disadvantage, however, for the sons of Russian-Jewish immigrants. The authors are taken aback by this result since conventional history has it that until recently upwardly mobile Jews often changed their names to dodge anti-Semitic discrimination. (In the first half of the 20th century, Izzy Demsky became actor Kirk Douglas; Hyman Arluck became composer Harold “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” Arlen; and Meyer Robert Schkolnick became esteemed sociologist Robert King Merton.) Goldstein and Stecklov speculate, post-hoc, that in the Jewish immigrant community–and it may have been true for some others, too, such as the Cubans–signaling loyalty to the in-group facilitated mutual assistance. “In a climate of discrimination, the use of ethnic networks are advantageous for occupational advancement, particularly for a minority group that tends toward entrepreneurship and self-employment.”
The general finding, nonetheless, is that the first names parents give their children not only reveal much about the backgrounds and tastes of parents (see the classic study here), but is connected to the futures of those children. Goldsteinand Stecklov think that’s because the name signals the cultural orientation of the family to the both the carrier of the name and to the wider world.