By Jean Cambareri
Soon-to-be parents all around the world spend months agonizing over what to name their children, going over all of the possibilities. A lot of people treat naming their children as if it has the power to cultivate who they will become. But do our names actually have any effect on who we are, or are they just arbitrary, random reflections of what our parents could come up with at the time?
When I think of my name, Jean, and how it has played a role in my life, my first thought is that names absolutely do have an impact on who we are.
From the seemingly thousands of times I have been told “hey Jean, I like your jeans,” to the mispronunciations by substitute teachers (they always seem to think I am French), my name shapes both others’ conceptions of me and how I see myself.
Besides the “gene” jokes in AP Biology and the confusion that spelling my name causes my Italian family (spoiler alert: there is no J in the Italian alphabet), my name also has meaning, because I, like a lot of people, was named after someone.
I was named after my mom’s sister who passed away unexpectedly at the age of 28. Knowing this has also molded how I perceive myself.
From a very young age, I was continuously compared to my beloved namesake. I strived to live up to all that the name meant in my family. My Aunt Jean loved books so I loved books. My Aunt Jean was funny so I tried to make people laugh. I was always reaching to be someone that was merely an amalgamation of stories I had been told and pictures I had been shown.
When I think of this idea of living up to the potential of your name, and of that name helping to define your fate, the story of brothers Winner and Loser Lane always comes to mind.
Winner Lane was born in 1958 in a housing project in Harlem and his brother, Loser, was born three years later into that same overcrowded family. Today, one brother is a respected former student-athlete and detective in New York City while the other has been in and out of prison for most of his adult life. I bet you can’t guess which brother is which.
“It’s just some situations I got in,” Winner told the Chicago Tribune about his trouble with the law. In the same interview, Loser (or Lou, as most call him) said that he doesn’t see his brother very often and that as a cop, he has a hard time tolerating Winner’s criminal behavior.
Why their father, Robert Lane, would choose to name his sons Winner and Loser is still a bit of a mystery to most. Winner told the Chicago Tribune in 2002 that it probably had something to do with baseball, given that his dad was a baseball fanatic, but he couldn’t pinpoint a specific reason. Loser, on the other hand, said the story was relatively simple. When Loser was born, Robert asked his oldest daughter what to name the baby, and she responded by saying, “well, we’ve got a Winner, why don’t we have a Loser?” And thus, one of the most peculiar, baby-naming stories was born.
Did their father jinx his sons by giving them these strange names, thus turning them into a makeshift social experiment? Do our names actually have any effect on us—on how we act and who we turn out to be? In the case of the Lane family, would things have turned out differently had the roles been reversed? Or are our names simply arbitrary and completely separate from the path that our lives take?
Names do have an impact on our lives, because they have an impact on the way that others perceive us, on the way we perceive ourselves, and the actions we take that ultimately make up who we really are. And yet, we are independent from our names as well.
As I have grown up, I have realized that I am different from the woman I was named after, when I used to feel like I could never live up to our shared name. Even if we share some similarities, we are different people with completely separate fates. I don’t use her legacy as a template for who I want to become anymore, and I have realized that while my name holds special meaning, in a lot of ways it is just a name.
In the same way, Loser realized that his name was not a roadmap for who he was going to become, but rather an arbitrary reflection of the circumstances he was given.
It is hard to pinpoint whether our names can jinx who we become or not. On one hand, it is true that a name can hold special meaning, and can help people shape their perception of who you are, thus affecting the way they treat you, and ultimately the way your life turns out. But on the other hand, like for Winner and Loser, names are simply random reflections of your circumstances, and whatever was on your parents’ brain at the time.
Like Loser (Lou) Lane said matter-of-factly in his interview with the Chicago Tribune, his and his brother’s unique names did not seal their fate: “I went a totally separate route right from the start.”
It is difficult to separate which events in our lives are significant, which ones actually have an effect, from those that don’t change anything. It is hard to know if I would have been the same person had I not endured years of “Jean’s jeans” jokes or had I not been named after my Aunt. Just the same as it is difficult to determine if Winner and Loser’s lives would have turned out the same had they been named differently.
Maybe, people are who they are meant to be from the start, regardless of the names they are given, but it takes time for us to separate who we truly are from our names and the perceptions and expectations that come with them.