The Economic Significance of Having a Traditional Name


Names have always held a lot of significance – especially to Africans – but what exactly makes names so important? As Laham, Koval, Alter (2011) put it, ‘names are rich sources of information. They can signal gender, ethnicity, or class; they may connote personality characteristics ranging from warmth and cheerfulness to morality.’ So, do names act simply as signals or do they have a greater effect? In a country like Nigeria with a plethora of unique names from approximately 250 ethnic groups, what effect does one’s name have?

 In an ethnically charged nation such as Nigeria, names hold a significant level of power. Your name decides whom you can get married to, what church you belong to, what job you get, if and where you can be elected (heck, it’s part of what got our current president elected). Traditional names are also chosen for the (mostly religious) meanings they hold: unlike in the West where one can be called ‘Table’! Lastly, the importance of names in Nigeria emanates from one of our most popular questions: “Do you know who I am?!”

Let’s leave Nigeria for a minute to get some empirical research on the effect of a name. In the US, studies have shown that racial names do affect the likelihood of getting a job. A study showed that job applicants with white names are 50% more likely to get a callback compared to those with African-American names. And yes, several other studies such as these have been conducted with similar results. Moral is, a name does have power: economic power in this case.

So, what sort of name guarantees one the highest likelihood of a callback in Nigeria? Given the level of ethnic discrimination in Nigeria, perhaps an ethnically-agnostic name could be more likely to get a callback on a job compared to an ethnic name: Rowlanda Fredricks or Nneka Chukwudifu? Maybe the inability to place the ethnic group makes one less likely to be discriminated against. However, wouldn’t this also annul any positive discrimination an ethnic name might afford one? A Yoruba man might be more likely to skip past a potential hire’s name if it isn’t clearly Yoruba.

I’d wager that one’s name could be a liability outside of the geographical location of one’s ethnic group. Tunde, a Yoruba man is more likely to be discriminated against in Kaduna than he is in Ekiti. Inversely, is a name that’s indigenous to its location more likely to land one a job? Obviously, Musa would have a higher chance of landing a job in Kaduna or even Abuja given the ethnic composition of the North.

So what happens with cosmopolitan areas? Is a Hausa lad more likely to be discriminated against in Port Harcourt or Lagos? Maybe the cosmopolitan nature of these places increases the probability of diversity and thus reduces the likelihood of an Hausa job seeker running into a prejudiced employer.

Within Nigeria, do popular names like Chinedu, Mohammed or Seun make one more likely to be remembered? Or does the generic nature of such names make one more forgettable? Also, what makes a name likable?I know many that would argue that some names belong to ‘Houseboys’ (Monday?) or ‘Housegirls’ (Ekaette?), while other names signal a person from an influential family. Do these names then affect how the person is treated and what opportunities are open to the person?

Now let’s get outside of Nigeria again: how does it affect one’s chances at success abroad? Is an ethnic name more likely to make one stand out? Definitely. Standing out through one’s name confers a (certainly undeserved) initial advantage of being remembered, as opposed to the poor chaps whose names are easily forgotten. For example, fellow students in my school were more likely to know my name than I knew theirs simply cause my name was different. This could be an important advantage, depending on how well one uses it.

Inversely, the uniqueness and difficulty of pronouncing an ethnic name might be detrimental to one’s future. Five studies provide evidence for the name-pronunciation effect: easy-to-pronounce names (and their bearers) are judged more positively than difficult-to-pronounce names. Consequently, the easier one’s name is to pronounce, the more likely one is to be favored. Unsurprisingly, this also applies to promotion at work. Laham, Koval, & Alter (2011) find that those with more easily pronounceable names occupied superior positions within their firm hierarchy. (Good luck with names like Oluwakanyinsola).

Furthermore, bearing a traditional name abroad might make life at young age difficult. A student could be bullied for his/her ‘funny sounding’ name, and as trivial as it sounds, bullying does have a significant effect on the academics of a student. Back in Primary School in Lagos, Aguda, a classmate’s name was ‘Amala’. Her name might have been innocuous where she was from, but in a Yoruba populated area like that, it surely put her at the wrong end of numerous jokes.

Perhaps the difficulties that come with traditional names partly explain why a number of Nigerians (majorly Christians) have English names besides their ethnic names or have shortened versions of their traditional names. ‘Chidera’ becomes ‘Chi’, ‘Obiageli becomes Oby’, ‘Adetokunbo’ becomes ‘Tee-K’. Likewise, many Asians adopt Western names once they find themselves in the West: it simply makes life a lot easier (imagine having to pronounce ‘He Zhou’). Who knew names could be so complicated?

How else do we think our names affect our chances at success: academically, socially or financially? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

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  • tega phoenix

    I find your analysis quite interesting and true in my case.
    While in university (I’m frm d south-south with a clearly ethnic name & happened to attend a university in d core west of Nigeria), I had this feeling that I was being victimized by my lecturers when they were marking my exam and test scripts,can’t say I was justified or it was paranoia though.
    As a result, I stopped writing my name on my answer scripts and started writing just my mariculation number instead,in hopes that I’d get fairer marking points. Was I right, I’m not sure I’d ever find out.

    • That’s fascinating. I also wonder if it did have an effect. I’ll put this down as a a research experiment for the future. Cheers!

  • Very nice peice Chuba.

    In affirmation of the five studies which provide evidence for the name-pronunciation effect,
    a much older friend once told me how her daughter who she had and was raising in the U.S was initially answering her native name (Anaecheri) and she felt the poor girl was being passed on simply because the teacher couldn’t pronounce her name or shorten it. Both parents decided she would be better off answering Angel (her English name). The mum says that the trasformation was almost magical. She was cast in a prominent role in the school play and suddenly seemed to be having a much more fun experience at school relative to the almost non existent identity previously. In her view, that decision literally made the difference and you cannot convince her differently

    Thanks for putting this all together. Was an insightful read.

    I enjoy reading your posts.

    • Wow. What a fascinating story! It’s why I’ve always encouraged foreigners to make nicknames out of my name if it helps them. Thanks a lot! 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Great! Now I can just forward this post to my dad as part of my proposal to change my last name (Jamgbadi) to his first name. Whether we like it or not, our names depending on the circumstance could be of help or an obstacle. Try applying to university of Abuja with a yoruba name.

  • Fagbola

    On the economic side of it ,shorter names are more economical in terms of space and time (both scarce and economic resources) .They are therefore economically preferred.Watch the length of your name the e-world in a hurry may not have patience for long name.OBJ,GEJ, MKO,

  • I agree. Still I love pronouncing the core native names. Probably due to me working in the media and the possibility that I might have to pronounce these names in public at the risk of murdering them. So I try to get it right. Let’s imagine a Pyatov from Russia living in England – same effect really.

    I have a friend who changed his surname from Daramola to his middle name Benson because he constantly relates with foreigners in his Job as an IT person. Now people living in Lagos mistake him for being a lagosian from the Benson family (they warm up to him too) and he’s from Ondo. Very insightful read overall.

    I also had to use my middle name Dennis when I served in Akwa Ibom and since I looked like a northerner and largely spoke English or pidgin in the manner a person from the. East or South would, the natives mostly thought I was Ibo or from the middle belt. Even some of my yoruba colleagues were mistaken – till I dropped a deep yoruba proverb at random.

  • Hmmm. Nice piece chuba.
    The name issue has always been a major factor in Nigerian society. I feel its more of an ethnic classification tool in judging characters when hearing the names for the 1st time. I remember when i was in basic/secondary school my last name was my Publicity, unforgettable till date even to people i can’t remember at all(heck, even my primary school mates!)
    So i found it a useful tool in immortalising my identity, introduce my full names then let it sink in, & i could say it has been more of a positive economic consequence than fodder for crude jokes.

  • I have noticed there is also a strong economic significance in branding a business name with a traditional name. For example, during a visit, i asked a friend of mine if he had bought a Space in an estate close to his house & he replied “why would i want to be living in HAYYATU GWADABE estate?” and went further to berate the Owners for giving the estate an ‘odd’ name. Most people would rather buy houses in ‘Modern branded’ estates so they could give their address as ‘Sunny Vale’ ‘Sun City’ ‘HollyWood’, be seen shopping in ‘Amigos’ ‘Razor Sharp’, than in a locally named business establishment.

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  • Obinna Udeh

    Nice one Chuba.
    I think i too have an experience. My surname means more than one thing, and as such people easily remembered it, for the funny meaning of body oil, although that’s not really its meaning. Also, the fact that we use alphabetically arranged lists in school, made that i was always at the back of the class. So, now, when i tell you my name, and you are Igbo, i’ll quickly add the funny meaning. That way, many people remembered my name, even though we met for the first time.
    Nice work guy.

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