What's in a name?


I am starting to rethink the name I chose for my daughter.

It is long. Very long in fact, thanks to my husband's impossible-topronounce surname of Polish origin starting with the letter "Z" and my insistence on bestowing her with a double-barrelled last name.

The unwieldy mouthful of a four-syllable hyphenated handle, paired with both a Chinese and English name, has landed her a 27-letter title.

It has already caused more trouble than I imagined possible.

Since her birth 14 months ago, her name has gotten lost in computer systems, cannot fit on the allotted space on immigration forms or plane tickets and has caused at least one teacher at her future pre-school to give us a blank stare and refer to my daughter as "your child" instead of using her name.


One receptionist took the liberty of shortening her last name to Limz, and having her full name spelt correctly is like striking 4D.

And what if she decides to marry someone with a double-barrelled surname? I can see that getting out of hand pretty quickly. It's hardly a viable long-term strategy.

Granted, my daughter's name isn't as long as some others out there.

Thai ones are known to be lengthy - a well-known singer there is Kejmanee Pichaironnarongsongkram.

And my daughter's name isn't as impossible as Ms Janice Keihanaikukauakahihuliheekahaunaele's, the Hawaiian woman who made news headlines after fighting to get her county to print her full name on her driver's licence.

But in Singapore where names tend to be short, I do see my daughter having to spell out, repeat and explain her name - over and over again.

Practicality aside, I also wonder: What's in a name?

For many years, researchers have tried to determine the effect on an individual of having an unusual name. It is thought that our sense of self grows out of the way we are treated and perceived by others - a concept that psychologists call the "looking-glass self" - and names have the potential to change how society interacts with us.

Disturbingly, several early studies found that people with uncommon first names were more likely to become school drop-outs.

Well, I am glad that we had the sense to choose a conventional first name for her.

Another interesting paper found that an individual's own perception of the initials of his name could become a stumbling block. Researchers Leif Nelson and Joseph Simmons studied close to a century of baseball strike-outs and discovered that hitters with the initial K had a higher strike-out rate ("K" denotes a strike-out in baseball).

Maybe the double-whammy surname was a good move after all. She won't always be the last on the roll-call list (like her father).

Another bright spot: Sociologists think that children with unusual names may learn better impulse control because they may be teased or have to get used to people asking about their names.

And in March, a British poll found that more than a quarter of young Brits believe it is easier to land a job placement if you have a doublebarrelled surname. It is apparently seen as "posh" in some circles.

None of these findings was why I insisted on inserting the haughty hyphen.

The reason is a bit more personal than that.

I didn't want to give up my maiden name after I got married because my father died when I was 22 - leaving behind my mother, my two younger sisters and me - and I wanted to keep that piece of him with me and continue to carry the Lim torch.

There was also a part of me that felt that changing my name would be akin to giving up a part of my identity. I had been a Lim all my life; why should being married suddenly change that, I questioned.

It was the byline that appeared on my first newspaper article. It was what was written on my degree certificate. It was what was engraved on my father's gravestone.

How could I disconnect from all that and still remain me?

When my daughter was born, I decided that I wanted a bit of her grandfather to be with her always.

Sadly, they never had the chance to meet, but I see a bit of him in her - the cheekiness, the determination, the signature Lim "da tou" (big head).

I wanted her name to reflect that.

There was even a short discussion about her taking only my name, but my husband worried that this might cause trouble if he ever travelled with her alone. With their last names being different, he would become an instant childtrafficking suspect.

The move to double-barrel also seemed a bit more egalitarian. He is after all her father.

I used to think that a name was just a bunch of letters strung together, a label for easy identification.

But I've come to realise that it is way more than that.

A name tells a story, of a person's past history - even if it is not always a happy one.

My daughter's name will cause her some pain in the future.

But when she asks me why she has the name she does, I hope that she will understand that who she is is an important thing to remember.

I also hope that she will not let it define or restrict her, but realise that it is unique, just like she is.

And, eventually, embrace it as her very own.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 19, 2015, with the headline 'What's in a name?'. Print Edition | Subscribe