Saturday, December 19, 2009


Last August I posted an article about names, especially strange names. So I read with interest something on the subject in Time Magazine's December 7th issue. According to that, if you want to keep your kid out of prison, name him Michael, not Maxwell. In a study reported in Social Science Quarterly, people with unpopular names have a higher risk of criminality than people with popular ones.

This was not only news to me, but surprising news at that. In fact, I would have thought just the opposite might be true. But no. The researchers took records of over 15,000 boys and their names and tracked the crimes committed when the boys were adolescents. Boys with popular names, like Michael, committed the fewest crimes. Those with less popular names, like Preston or Alec. committed the most. The theory is that a familiar name leads to greater social acceptance, which leads to greater self-acceptance, and that leads to better behavior.

Hey, don't shoot the messenger. I'm just reporting this and, obviously, there are exceptions by the dozens of people with unusual names becoming famous for their good behavior, like, say, Barak Obama.

But, leaving the names of real people, let's talk about names of occupations. Remember when a janitor was a janitor and not a "building custodian"? Or a secretary was not an "administrative assistant?" Not that I object to people getting their self-esteem anyway they can. The one that really bugs me, though, is "Human Resources Department" instead of the old-fashioned "Personnel." Personnel was certainly shorter, and I don't think anyone was confused about what it meant. However, as I stated in one of my yet-to-be-published novels:

"Human Resources is rather scary. It makes me feel that, if I were to work for that company and somehow fail to perform adequately, I could end up on the cafeteria menu as 'Burger of the Month.'"

And then there's the word "zest." How did lemon or orange peel morph into zest? According to the dictionary, it hasn't, but every TV cooking show host talks about adding "zest" to a recipe, when really all she's doing is grating lemon or orange peel. I felt relieved that not everyone has fallen for this "uppity" name when I read in the November issue of Sunset Magazine a recipe that called for "grated orange peel."

And as a cooking magazine, Sunset is high on the list of food experts. They have their own kitchens where every recipe is tested before it's printed in the magazine. In fact, years ago, when I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, I knew the people who owned the magazine, went through their kitchens myself, and got to taste the results of their testing. I remember it well. Yummy!

So don't call it zest - call it by its real name: grated lemon (or orange) peel - and strike a blow for truth in labeling.