A Boy Named Sue

by Translation Guy on March 9, 2012

Ask yourself: Does your name help you or hurt you?

“Life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue”, Johny Cash once sang. Surely it’s true, names like “Sue” spell trouble. An obvious naming malfunction, but are there more subtle signs in our handles that can hang us up?

In the social marketplace, our names are our brands. They instantly reveal to all clues to race, ethnicity, gender and social class, all in just a few syllables. Our names leave impressions about our success, warmth, morality, popularity, cheerfulness and even how manly or feminine others judge us to be.

And those judgments reflect a harsh reality… name connotations matter. Researchers have found that boys with girls’ names (Sue, how-d’ye do?) are more likely to get suspended for discipline issues in school, while kids with popular names are less likely to be juvenile delinquents.

Scientists have also demonstrated that one’s Christian name can be used to predict income and education. And surely it is no surprise to learn that in the U.S., job candidates with African-American-sounding name are less-likely to get called for job interviews. Talk about loaded terms. It’s easy to appreciate the importance of names in triggering memories and the social expectations and assumptions so important to us –a lot of emotional baggage.

Simon Laham, in The Name-Pronounciation Effect, just out in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, has found a whole new category of name discrimination previously unknown.  “Easy-to-pronounce names (and the bearers of those names) are judged more positively than difficult-to-pronounce names.”

The reason is because humans unconsciously prefer easier mental processing tasks over more difficult ones. It’s just nature’s way of keeping us from thinking too much and burning up calories that could be re-purposed to add to your waistline.

Scientists call this the “hedonic marking hypothesis for processing fluency.” I call it “being a dumb-ass.” Think of it this way: Difficult-to-pronounce names are like, too hard to say, and so you have to stop and think about it, and that’s a drag, you know, like having to think about it, so it’s only natural that you would, like, focus on easy names, and people with easy names, and stuff.

Gentle readers, I ask you. Is that the best we humans can do? Are we so stupid and lazy that we would treat our friends and neighbors  that unfairly?

Yup. You saw that coming. That’s what Latham and his team are saying. And not only that. Because we don’t like people with hard names, they get less money and have like, bad sex and stuff happens to them.  Well, he didn’t actually say they had bad sex. We’ll just call it a less-satisfactory outcome.”

So I guess this means that a name that will get you ahead in one language will set you back in another. Multiglots, we await your stories of tragedy and triumph. As you furiously compose your replies, some inspiration  music just for you by the Man in Black himself. Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Johnny Cash…


  1. The boy named “Sue” should have become a lawyer. What better name could he then have?

  2. David Kaatz says:

    When I was a teacher, I had a student named Adolf. I admit that everytime I saw him or said his name or graded his work, I thought of Hitler. Also, certain names were completely ruined by students I couldn’t stand.

  3. Tom Haiden says:

    I’m from the south, and I’m white. In no way am I racist, but I do admit that when I hear some names down here I know exactly what color the person is. I also wonder what the parents were thinking!

  4. Mac says:

    Names are important in job marketing. When I hired for a former firm I always looked closely at the names and wondered why certain people used middle names or not. I don’t think it ever influeced my decision to hire, but I know that I always noticed names.

    • Ken says:

      Like Major Major in Catch 22? I don’t think he ever made it to Colonel.

  5. Mike Kranz says:

    I was sitting on the comode in Europe and in front of me was a calendar for names. I asked about it later and found that many families choose names by what they mean, rather than by what they like the sound of. Kind of the opposite from where I grew up.

  6. Is the name Barack Obama considered a hard name or an easy name? It’s not difficult to pronounce, but it certainly isn’t common.

    • Ken says:

      As I understand the test, I’d say it’s easy. But I wonder about that strangeness quotient too and its affect on social interactions.

  7. I can listen to that song over and over.

  8. Lester Riggs says:

    Wow. Did you get a load of the audience watching Cash on the video? Times have changed. If he were singing that song today the crowd would have been at least singing along. Those people may have well been a bunch of cardboard cutouts!

  9. Hard to think a name could influence your financial (or other) future, unless your name was Hitler or something.

  10. I’m just wondering what your name was before you started calling yourself Ken.

    • Ken says:

      My birth certificate says Kenneth, but I’ve always suspected it was forged.

  11. I spent 40 years in the states and names were never a problem for me. I recently relocated to Toronto and I can’t pronounce over half of the names that come across my desk.

  12. My wife and I spent our first vacation in Sydney. Afterwards we decided that because we loved our time together in that beautiful city, we would name our first child Sydney. Seemed like a good idea, but lately I must admit that I wonder if naming our first born Sydney, who by the way is a boy. The reason is that Sydney is a very poplular name where we are from, but its use is primarily for girls.

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