Boys With Unpopular Names Go Bad

Boys with uncommon names are more likely to commit crimes, a new study concludes.

Boys in the United States with common names like Michael and David are less likely to commit crimes than those named Ernest or Ivan.

David E. Kalist and Daniel Y. Lee of Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania compared the first names of male juvenile delinquents to the first names of male juveniles in the population. The researchers constructed a popularity-name index (PNI) for each name. For example, the PNI for Michael is 100, the most frequently given name during the period. The PNI for David is 50, a name given half as frequently as Michael. The PNI is approximately 1 for names such as Alec, Ernest, Ivan, Kareem, and Malcolm.

Results show that, regardless of race, juveniles with unpopular names are more likely to engage in criminal activity. The least popular names were associated with juvenile delinquency among both blacks and whites.

The findings, announced today, are detailed in the journal Social Science Quarterly.

While the names are likely not the cause of crime, the researchers argue that “they are connected to factors that increase the tendency to commit crime, such as a disadvantaged home environment, residence in a county with low socioeconomic status, and households run by one parent.”  “Also, adolescents with unpopular names may be more prone to crime because they are treated differently by their peers, making it more difficult for them to form relationships,” according to a statement released by the journal’s publisher. “Juveniles with unpopular names may also act out because they consciously or unconsciously dislike their names.”

I would not dismiss out of hand the causal relationship, which was anecdotally suggested decades ago by Shel Silverstein’s story song about a “Boy Named Sue” who, because of said appellation, “grew up quick” and “grew up mean” and whose “fist got hard” and “wits got keen.” Indeed, he even vowed to “kill that man who gave me that awful name.”   Ironically, Johnny Cash recorded the song in his famous concert for the inmates at San Quentin prison.

Regardless of the generalizability of the causality, the concluding advice of that song, it seems, was apt: “If I ever have a son, I think I’m gonna name him… Bill or George! Anything but Sue!”

For those looking to more contemporary pop culture references for their social science, in the movie “Mean Girls,” the Tim Meadows character, Mr. Duvall, says, “I  have a nephew named Anferny, and I know how much he hates it when I call him Anthony. Almost as much as I hate the fact that my sister named him Anferny.”

And, come to think of it, almost all of the criminals on “The Wire” had unusual names (Avon, Stringer, Wee-Bey Brice, Poot, Bodie, Marlow, Omar, etc. ).

FILED UNDER: Humor, Popular Culture, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Boy Named Sue verified by Social Science: http://tinyurl.com/dm76rp

  2. Move over Hilary Duff. Looks like @wh1skeylover & I are destined to be the next Bonnie & Clyde. http://tinyurl.com/dm76rp

  3. I’m glad I didn’t name any kids Ivan. http://bit.ly/10Msr

  4. just me says:

    This is kind of interesting. Makes me curious to see what all they controlled for.

    I wonder where the drive to give your child a “unique” name fits with parenting style and SES. Almost everyone I know who gave their child something other than the more common names wanted their child to be unique and not be at school with fifteen other kids with the same name.

    I picked two very boring and common names for my boys-guess I won’t have to worry about them engaging in a life of crime. I wonder if a study of girls names would get similar results?

  5. Ezra Butler says:

    It is interesting that the quote notes “regardless of race”, where 4/5’s of the names chosen as examples are not ethnically white, and the last is an extremely rural white name.
    I guess that with a name like Ezra, I am destined for a life of crime.

  6. Steven Levitt did work on that topic, right? I read Freakonomics a while ago. But I seem to remember that his conclusion was that the parents that would give such names had low IQs and/or EQs, and that those would get passed on.

  7. Radley Balko says:

    And, come to think of it, almost all of the criminals on “The Wire” had unusual names (Avon, Stringer, Wee-Bey Brice, Poot, Bodie, Marlow, Omar, etc. )

    You’re being tongue in cheek here, right?

    Four of those seven are nicknames. And I don’t know that Omar is all that unusual.

    Of course, this is coming from a guy named “Radley.”

  8. Eneils Bailey says:

    And, come to think of it, almost all of the criminals on “The Wire” had unusual names (Avon, Stringer, Wee-Bey Brice, Poot, Bodie, Marlow, Omar, etc. ).

    You are straining the soup here, a little too thin, to the point of absurdity.

    When I was a child; I had friends called “Nig, Mac-a-Tater, Butter Bean, Balls, Rich-the-bitch” etc, etc.”

    All of them are still around, paying taxes and trying to get ahead.

  9. James Joyner says:

    You’re being tongue in cheek here, right?

    Yes.

  10. Richard Gardner says:

    This reminds me of the listing in News of the Weird implying there is an abnormal number of criminals with the middle name of Wayne.

  11. steve s says:

    Of course, this is coming from a guy named “Radley.”
    Posted by Radley Balko | January 28, 2009 | 06:06 pm | Permalink

    A fine, literary name, to those who know their Harper Lee.

    And, come to think of it, almost all of the criminals on “The Wire” had unusual names (Avon, Stringer, Wee-Bey Brice, Poot, Bodie, Marlow, Omar, etc. ).

    course, Bunk and Herc were cops….

  12. steve s says:

    Steven Levitt did work on that topic, right? I read Freakonomics a while ago. But I seem to remember that his conclusion was that the parents that would give such names had low IQs and/or EQs, and that those would get passed on.
    Posted by Big Bag of Wind .Com | January 28, 2009 | 05:57 pm | Permalink

    There’s probably something to that. Those parents in the news last month for naming their kid Adolph Hitler, I don’t run into them at the local Mensa meetings. 🙂

  13. steve s says:

    And, come to think of it, almost all of the criminals on “The Wire” had unusual names (Avon, Stringer, Wee-Bey Brice, Poot, Bodie, Marlow, Omar, etc.

    Like a lot of southerners, I used to roll my eyes at black people inventing some unusual name. But now I actually kind of like it. How many million more Johns and Jennifers do we really need? Does every third Mexican girl really need to be named Maria? So let the creativity fly. Delonte’. Penzoil. Charmalade. Let’s get some new stuff out there. Why not? Let a thousand flowers bloom.

  14. Boyd says:

    As one might imagine, I disagree with the hypothesis. Of course, my experience is anecdotal and not empirical. That notwithstanding…this sounds like BS to me.

  15. Joe R. says:

    I’ve long said that boy’s names should be simple. Preferably one syllable, or a name with a one syllable version (Michael -> Mike, David -> Dave). The shorter, the better. Therefore, the best male names are obviously Ed and Al, personified by Ed O’Neill playing Al Bundy.

  16. Franklin says:

    And you know what happens to girls named Cookie?

  17. just me says:

    But now I actually kind of like it. How many million more Johns and Jennifers do we really need?

    I am the mother of a 15 year old Jennifer. She is the only one in her grade and one of two in her high school. The name just isn’t that common anymore.

    Personally I prefer normal names with common spellings-must be the conservative in me.

  18. James Joyner says:

    course, Bunk and Herc were cops….

    Most of the cops were crooks, too.

  19. jwk says:

    Actually, News of the Weird is correct about the middle name of Wayne. As a Criminal Justice major – we studied criminology. One of the identifying factors (and there were only a couple) was that criminals have a higher occurrence of the middle name of Wayne. It was in a book by Roy Hazelwood who started criminal profiling at the FBI. It may have been called “The Evil That Men Do”.

  20. Jay C. says:

    James, a look at the list of American serial killers on Wikipedia seems to yield a hefty bag of normal names. Of course that tidbit does nothing to discount the conclusion. My real name was a target of ridicule among the mean kids growing up and remains a source for confusion today.

  21. Jonah Kyle says:

    So let me get this straight:

    If you have a name like “Barack” or “Rush”, then you will most likely be a serial killer or, at most, be a 40 year old unemployed blogger living in your mother’s basement.

    Perhaps we all need to lighten up. Google Johnny Cash and “A Boy Named Sue” for better context.