Watch CBS News

What's in a name? Plenty

Entertaining and artful are two words that definitely apply to some of the unusual entries we're seeing on birth certificates these days. WHAT'S IN A NAME is our Cover Story, reported by Susan Spencer: 

New York businessman Michael Ayer never had trouble making decisions. But picking a name for his only son was a tough one.

"Traditional WASP-y names -- you know, George and Beatrice -- that's what we have in our family," he said. "My grandfather on my mother's side was John Milton Michael."

Bored with his conventional family tree, he went out on a limb … way out.

"We're really straying from the original WASP-y names," he said.

Ready for it?  The Ayers named their son Billion (as in Billion Ayer).

"We came up with Billion because all the others -- Bad Ayer, Hot Ayer, Million Ayer, Gazillion Ayer – at least you could always run with Bill."

Spencer asked Billion, "Do you like your name?"

"I like it. I mean, it's all right," he replied.

"Wait a minute -- there's a difference between, 'I like it,' and, 'It's all right.' Did you have any qualms about this?"

"A little bit," Michael said. "You never know what's going to evolve. I mean, he may have come home every day with a black eye. And we'd probably reconsider that."

But why reconsider? These days, there is nothing unusual about unusual names.

Today's parents, says Julia Wang, head of digital content for The Bump, a baby-themed website, "definitely value uniqueness over conformity. They are naming children after colors, after fruit."

Take Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. They named their daughter North West.

Wang says that between 1985 and 2004, "the number of names in circulation doubled."

New parents watching babies in hospital nursery
In 2016 more U.S. babies were named Liam than William, and there were more Emmas than Emilys.  Blend Images/Alamy

The 2016 Social Security register shows that plain-Jane names like Mary, Michael and John have slipped, but you'll find Messiah and Maximiliano, Royalty and Royce, Aitana and Itzayana, to name a few.

Spencer noted that "No one is named Susan anymore."

"Unfortunately," laughed Wang. "Names that start with consonants are not popular right now. You won't see any Susans, and you won't see any Davids or Dianes. Those were mid-century names, and those were popular."

"Oh, my God. Don't say that!"

"But mid-century furniture has come back, so why not baby names?"

Wang helps expectant parents choose the perfect name, whatever that is. "We like to say there's no bad names," she said.

"Oh, okay, granted there are no bad names; what's the closest to a bad name you've ever heard?" Spencer asked.

"You're putting me on the spot, Susan. I would say Moxie Crimefighter is a tough one."

That would be Moxie Crimefighter Jilette, daughter of magician Penn Jilette.  Yes, that IS her given name.

If Moxie Crimefighter is by chance not on your list, you can always drop by your local bookstore to find volumes of alternatives. Baby naming has become its own little industry. But why? Does having a unique name somehow guarantee a unique life? 

What exactly IS in a name?

"You'd think it should just be a label, an idle label that doesn't affect anything. But that's not how the world works. It turns out it matters a huge amount," said New York University professor Adam Alter, who has analyzed and written about the impact of names.

So, what's a "good" name? "There's evidence that a good name is a simple name," Alter said. "A name that's easy to pronounce is judged more positively."

In law firms, Alter says, people with simple names tend to make partner faster. In politics, with the notable exception of former President Barack Obama, fewer syllables generally mean more votes.

"People vote more for people with simpler names," he said. "We've got some results showing that."

"It's been written that centuries ago Donald Trump's ancestors were the Drumpfs," said Spencer.

"Could we have had a President Drumpf?"

"It's less likely," he replied.

Alter says experiments designed to rule out ethnic and racial bias even show "simple works better."

Do names dictate our fates? "To an extent, it seems that way," Alter said.

Which brings us to something called Nominative Determinism -- the idea that names play a role in determining our careers.

Alter says the classic example of this is Usain Bolt: "Fastest man on Earth, of all time, happens to have the surname Bolt. Now maybe that's a coincidence. We don't really know, but certainly there's a strong association between the things he was good at and his name."

Proven or not, there are countless entertaining examples: William Wordsworth was a poet. Jules Angst, a psychiatrist. 

Sara Blizzard, Amy Freeze, Larry Sprinkle and Dallas Raines -- you guessed it, all meteorologists. Thomas Crapper, a sanitary engineer. 

And Anthony Weiner, well, you get the idea.

"It's possible that you are drawn to what your name keeps reminding you about," said Alter. "We know that we pay a lot of attention to our names. There's an effect known as the cocktail party effect. And it's this idea that if you're at a cocktail party, there could be 100 people in a room. You could be at one corner of the room. There's a lot of noise. But if someone at the other corner of the room says your first name, you will hear it.

"A lot of it is about ego-centrism, about being self-centered and focused on who we are."

Sixteen years after his parents named him Billion, 11th-grader Billion Ayer seems just fine, playing on the school golf team and in the band.

"Being named Billion Ayer, you stand out more," he said. "And so, people I've never met know me. But I don't even know their name,"

And Michael Ayer says, wherever he goes, "if I see high school kids and say, 'Hey, do you know my son?' And they'll say, 'I don't know. Who is it?' And I'll say, 'It's Billion Ayer,' and they're like, 'Yeah, of course, Billion Ayer!'"

That little bit of celebrity seems to have erased any regrets Dad might have.

Looking back over the last 16 years, Ayer says, the reaction for the most part has been "Positive and disbelief. When I tell people, 'His real name's Billion,' they're like, 'Oh, that's funny!' I say, 'No, seriously.' They're like, 'Really?'"

When Spencer told Julia Wang she was interviewing Billion Ayer, Wang laughed.

"Your first reaction is to laugh. I mean, is that what you want?" Spencer asked.

"Well, it's a bold name, and it certainly is a conversation starter," Wang said.

Perhaps Billion Ayer will grow up to become a billionaire. If so, we'll finally know what's really in a name.

As for Susan Spencer, she has been told that her name is good for television.

"Yes, I think that's right," said Alter. "It's pronounceable. It's independent. I'd say it's a good name for this job!"

With that, I'm Susan Spencer in New York.

For more info:

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.