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Bad Initials Can Be Hazardous to Health

A friend tells the story of how, before her birth, her parents suddenly realized that her middle name shouldn’t be Stockton after all.

“Oh, honey,” her mom fretted, “think of the initials on her luggage when she goes away to college.”

Her monogram would have read ASS. So her parents opted for another middle name.

A wise move, and perhaps not just for the obvious reason. A study of California death certificates by UC San Diego researchers recently found that people cursed with “bad” initials, such as ASS, BUM, RAT and BAD itself, died an average of 2.8 years earlier than those with “good” initials, such as JOY, LOV and WOW. And those with good initials were found to be less likely to commit suicide or even die in accidents than those with bad or neutral initials, such as SDH, which happen to be mine.

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Psychologist Nicholas Christenfeld presented his findings at a meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine in New Orleans.

“The argument,” he says, “is that there’s some psychological symbolic factor that can exert its impact cumulatively over the years. You get teased at school, wonder what your parents thought of you--maybe fate is out to get you--but at every stage it’s a little tiny depressant to be called PIG, or a little tiny boost to your esteem to be called ACE or WOW.”

Intriguing, yes, but not completely surprising. I’m pleased to add Christenfeld’s empirical data to my Unified Theory of Names, which until now has been built completely on anecdotal evidence.

My theory is simply this: Names are more important than most people realize. If initials can have that much an effect, then what about entire names?

Now, of course, most names, like most acronyms, seem to be neutral--or ambiguous. Names may provide a clue to race or ethnicity. Some carry literal meanings, which can be good or bad. And some may make subtle allusions to the famous or infamous. (“I’d like you to meet Oswald Kennedy.”) And, I’m sorry, but points must be taken off for names that are difficult to pronounce or simply sound funny, such as, oh, Flinkelberger.

Myself, I’ve always wondered about Harris. In my youth, it just seemed a little bit hairy. Lately, however, I’ve grown concerned with the way people pronounce the word harass. Please, the accent is on the second syllable, ha-RASS. I’m sure I speak for all Harrises in objecting to news readers who refer to allegations of sexual Harrisment.

But Harris isn’t so bad. Indeed, it’s impossible for me to explore this subject without once again referring to my man Schmuck, a sportswriter by trade. My old friend has one of the most wonderfully terrible last names of all time. And since Schmuck’s first name is Peter, readers familiar with Yiddish and modern American slang may understand why an editor once complained that his byline is redundant.

He has milked Schmuckhood for all it’s worth. Years ago, after the DMV refused to give him a SCHMUCK vanity plate, saying it was obscene, Schmuck happily went on talk radio with threats to sue the DMV. He got his plate. His older brother, meanwhile, had endured more than 30 years of teasing before legally trading in Schmuck for his mother’s family name. A fine gesture, but I still think Gilray sounds like some sort of fish.

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But enough Schmuckianna. No, wait--one more thing. When Schmuck’s dad retired from the Marine Corps, he was, in fact, Major Schmuck.

So clearly some people triumph over the adversity of their names. One must wonder why any list of names that relate to professions includes so many doctors and dentists named Payne or Hurts. Cal State Northridge, meanwhile, has recently hired a new fund-raiser from Arkansas--one William Outhouse. Valley old-timers may recall a successful car dealer by the name Worthy Butts.

Now all of this relates to my Unified Theory of Names. Christenfeld found more clearly bad initials than clearly good ones, and I suspect it’s easier to identify bad names (like Schmuck, Crum, Lipschitz) than good ones. Some positive-sounding last names may all sound like a bit much, such as Champion or Diamond. No, names are more subtle than acronyms.

Then again, consider the lineups of the Lakers and Dodgers. Wouldn’t you rather be named Fox (or Van Exel or Bryant or Jones or O’Neal) than Horry? (Please remember, the H is silent.) And Young seems more desirable than, say, Dreifort or Konerko or Zeile. Well, maybe Zeile, pronounced zeal, is ambiguous. But certainly there’s pizazz in Piazza. And as Vince Scully has observed, no battery in baseball may sound more pleasant than Park and Piazza.

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The Unified Theory of Names does not argue that names are destiny. We may never elect a President Lipschitz, but we may well elect a President Gore. (Let’s hope history is kind.) Names, however, may well be subtly decisive.

Many years ago, for example, some people argued that NBC would not have anointed Tom Brokaw as anchor if his chief rival’s name hadn’t literally been Mudd. And remember how, six years ago, Barbara Boxer rose up through the Democratic primary and then won that down-to-the-wire race against Bruce Herschensohn for U.S. Senate?

Gender politics were a big factor, but I suspect her distinctive, tough-sounding name helped in subliminal ways, if only to get attention. As a name, Herschensohn is a meaningless mouthful of phonetic slush. (Being caught in the nudie bar, though, probably hurt more than his name.)

And consider also the Nobel Prizes, the ultimate meritocracy. Never mind if the inventor of dynamite had been named Alfred Bernhard Crummy. Let’s say he was named Alfred B. Miller.

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Certainly the Miller Prizes would be prestigious. But would the Miller Prizes have the same mystique as the Nobels? (Would we even call them the Millers?) A rose by any name may smell as sweet. But would a Nobel?

Years ago, I wrote a story that concerned the politics of the Nobels. I quoted a science writer who shared my opinion that part of the Nobel mystique derives from the name itself--that Nobel sounds noble, or better yet, sounds like a French pronunciation of the word.

So I noted this in my story. Two editors wanted to take this out. I argued the point, saying that it seemed interesting that a boss named Baron and another named King would profess disbelief in the power of a good name. (I won that one.)

I did not bother to mention that my middle name is Duke. Sometimes I still wonder what might have been, if only I’d dropped Scott from my byline and gone with the distinctive Duke. Like John “Duke” Wayne, Duke Ellington, Duke Snider . . .

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Duke Harris’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to him at The Times’ Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth 91311, or via e-mail at scott.harris@latimes.com Please include a phone number.


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