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What Does Your Name Say About You?

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Published on Oct 30, 2013

Names are more than just words. Certain letters and phonetic sounds seem to carry a visual and conceptual weight to them. In a future where more interactions take place across social networking sites, names could become incredibly important. So as we learn more about the scientific effects of names, maybe we need a better science of naming.

We have a question for you. Have you ever wanted to change your own name, and if so, what name would you prefer to have? Let us know in the comments!

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[TRANSCRIPT]:
What's in a name? How about your next job?

Naming has always been something that we've done with our gut. But as we learn more about the scientific effects of names, maybe we need a better science of naming.

Ever since ancient times, people have suspected there's something spooky about names. Look at all those folktales where the heroine can defeat the villain, simply by guessing his name - everything from Rumpelstiltskin to Beetlejuice. And then there are the cultural taboos about speaking certain names out loud, whether it's of a particular god, or an exalted public figure, or even a dead friend or family member. But why do we ascribe so much power to names? I mean aren't names just words? Wouldn't a rose by any other name smell as sweet? You might be surprised.

Take these two random shapes. Now one of them is named "Kiki" and one of them is named "Bouba." But which one is which? Now if you said the more spiky shape is Kiki and the more rounded one is Bouba - congratulations you're in the 95% of people who feel the same way you do. But why is this such a strong trend?

Well, as it turns out names are not just these blank neutral words we use for communication. For reasons we don't fully understand, certain letters and phonetic sounds seem to carry a visual and even conceptual weight to them. In a world where more and more of our social interactions are in social networks, and we never meet face to face, names might be really important.

I can envision a future where people start to consult with name and username optimization experts, kind of the way businesses talk with branding consultants. But of course we're not just talking about naming human beings here. A small study found that two-thirds of Roomba vacuum cleaner owners are naming their Roombas. This means we're creating an emotional attachment with the things we own.

This history of naming has long been a seesaw battle between the scientific need for unique identifiers, and the more human need for something familiar that we can refer to in our day-to-day lives. Lets think about stars for a second. These days we have powerful telescopes hooked up to computers, discovering stars at an exponential rate. We have databases filled with more than a billion stars, most of which have names that are just based on their sky coordinates. For example, SDSSJ05552+0724 just rolls off the tongue doesn't it? Now we have given some stars some nicknames, including that one. You might know it better as "Beetlejuice." And here's a little trivia, if you say its name three times it collapses into a black hole!

Now if human beings ever settle distant star systems, we're gonna have to come up with some brand new familiar names. Hopefully we can avoid the same mistake the vikings made when they named their beautiful new settlement...Iceland.

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