A Name Interview with Helen Fisher

 

Helen Fisher on the Colbert Report

 

We’ve all met plenty of John Juniors in our lives. Maybe even a few “Thurston Howell the Thirds.” But can you recall a Kathryn the Second? It’s not often that women participate in successive naming and I wonder if the words of Mary Daly don’t ring true:  “Women have had the power of naming stolen from us.”

Or have we? I’ve met more women lately who tell me how they’re named after their mothers. The most notable of these was the subject of my recent name interview, Helen Fisher. When I asked her how her parents selected her name, she described how she was the eighth in a line of Helens.

Curioser and curioser! That’s Helen Fisher. She’s also a biological anthropologist, a research professor and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Internet dating site, Chemistry.com, a division of Match.com. She’s written multiple books based on her research which includes the evolution of love, gender, marriage and sex.

And she’s a TED talker! Yes, that’s right. She’s spoken at an actual TED conference…twice! That’s saying a lot in and of itself, but noting that only 20% of TED talkers are women adds even more weight to the honor.

What happens when you fall in love? This is a question that Helen Fisher addresses on a regular basis. But on this day, I was able to have a brief but though-provoking discussion about something I consider to be much more intriguing, her name.

Join our discussion, if you will, by reading the excerpts of her interview below.

Do you know the story of why your parents picked the name they did for you?

It was my mother’s name. In fact, I’m Helen the Eighth. That’s what they tell me. They say that I’m Helen the Eighth. I know I’m Helen the Third because my grandmother’s name was Helen and my mother’s name was Helen and I’m Helen. And the only reason that I’m Helen is that mother had identical twin girls and so she named my twin sister Lorna, which is a much nicer name. I like it much better. She got the good name. And then they discovered there was another baby. They thought we would be one big boy but as it turned our, or so they say, the nurse tapped the doctor on the shoulder and said there’s another one in there and they pulled me out by my ankles; I was way under my mother’s sternum. And here was another baby and so they called me Helen. I’ve hated the name most of my life until the day somebody told me what it meant. I still don’t like the sound. I still don’t like the name but I really like what it means. Apparently it means light. It comes from Helios in the Greek and for that I’m very glad. I mean I’m glad it’s a root name. If I’m going to have a name like Helen, I’m glad it’s a root name. I mean, in other words, I’m not Helena, I’m not Ellen. I’m not some of the spin-off names from Helen. I’m glad I’m the original name.

You’re not a spin-off.

Well, not in terms of names, but maybe in genetics.

Was there confusion in your family with so many Helens?

I was called Little Helen and my mother was Big Helen.

A female version of junior?

No, I don’t think so, it’s just what my family called me.

Why don’t you like the name Helen?

I always felt Helen was sort of starchy. There’s nothing you can do with Helen. You can’t have it be Heley. You’re really required to create a whole new name for me if you want to be endearing.  Men have always called me something other than Helen. In fact, my middle name is Elizabeth so I ask my close friends to call me Lizzie. Because that is a soft, approachable real name. Helen is so formal and starchy. Now I’ve certainly had men who have liked the name Helen. They think it’s soft and pretty, but I don’t know.

If I could change my name, I would do it.

What name would you choose?

I would probably change my name to something that was neither male nor female. Like Sydney. I like the name Sydney and I think it would have helped as a writer to be neither male nor female.

I’ve always liked the name Sam as a nickname for a woman.

Yes, Sam is a lovely name for a woman. I wouldn’t be Sam as a man. But as a woman it’s charming.

Actually, if I could really choose the name that I wanted, my second choice would be Sydney.  But my first choice would be Alexandra and I would have people call me Alex. I just love the name Alex. Alex is neither male nor female. It was the name of my first boyfriend. Now I’m not pining for my first boyfriend anymore but I’ve just always loved that name.

I read a book about the psychology of sound and there are parts that seem to agree with what you’ve written about. For example, in your book Anatomy of Love, you talk about facial poses and the impact they have on the beings around them. I’ve read that there can be similar reactions by people in the facial poses we use to create sounds. And as such, the sound of our names and the facial poses we use to sound out our names can impact the people around us and, as a result, impact our own lives.

That certainly makes sense. As you move the face in certain ways you move muscles, and as you move muscles, you trigger the nerves, and as you trigger the nerves you change certain brain circuitry.

I mean, it’s well known that when you’re around people who are smiling you sort of naturally mimic them and  smile too and it makes you feel better. That’s at least in part because you are moving your face in certain ways. I never thought about it with names, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised. When you put it that way, it actually makes me like Helen better. Because it has a breathy sound to it.

I think we are all really very interested in our names. I mean, it’s right out there, your name.

The “h” has hushed tones, whereas the “l” is more musical. The psychology of sound impacting a name provides an interesting perspective on names.

It’s a wonderful perspective and one is of course very inclined to look for those parts that appeal to them and it certainly appeals to me. I honestly do think that the way you use your mouth does have an impact.

So you’re interested in names.

I think we are all really very interested in our names. I mean, it’s right out there, your name. And I’d change mine. In fact, I do change mine. I always ask my friends to call me Lizzie. Various men have called me a million things other than Helen. I don’t know if I’ve had a boyfriend who ended up calling me Helen.

I’ve had some people say to me that the topic of names is really shallow. Like, “what do names matter?” I’m curious what your response is to that?

I guess, maybe they’re so shallow they can’t see the intricacies of this.

Oh, I see. It says more about them than it does about their comment on the topic of names?

I don’t know. I just think any window into personality and responses is an interesting window. You are starting out at the window by asking people about their names. Your name is very personal. It’s a very personal thing about you that you do not have the liberty of choosing yourself. And in my case, it has a real family connection and a long history and I don’t like it. I don’t mind the history, but I don’t like the name. I mean, I think people are quite involved with their names. I don’t see why anyone would think that is shallow.

It’s sort of like a Rorschach Test. It’s a way of asking people who they are. It’s a window into getting them to talk about who they are. I don’t know. I find it interesting.

Have you ever talked to people about names?

I always ask someone who’s named Helen what they think of their name. In fact, I asked somebody this week what she thought of her name and she wrote me back. I think she was from England. It was somebody from the press. She wrote me back and she said that she’d had the name for so long that she didn’t  really know what she thought about it. And I thought to myself, I think that’s strange. I mean, you have your face for your whole life and you have some opinion about that. When you called me I thought to myself, this is really interesting. I found it interesting.

I read about a friend describing her male friend out looking for a mate. He sees a beautiful friend, she’s smart, and then he heard her name, and he didn’t like her name.

I can understand that. There are all kinds of names I don’t like. We all have feelings about names the way we have feelings about people. Oddly enough, I really like the name Jane and that’s a pretty common name. I’m not big on the name Sue. It’s just so common. They’re both equally common and I like Jane and not Sue. Who knows why. I think names really often express background. Ethnic background.  Even socioeconomic background. Part of the country you live in. I mean, Brenda Lee is not going to grow up in New Canaan, CT. Tiffany is not going to grow up in Iowa. At least I don’t think you’re going to find a Tiffany in Iowa. Of course, today that might be different. But bottom line, I do think names say something about background. I mean, I went out for years with a man named Ray and he hated his name as much as I hated mine. I never once called him Ray and he never once called me Helen.

I may have called him Ray introducing him to somebody. You know. Instead of all my pet names. I probably had 25 pet names for him and vice versa.

We all have feelings about names the way we have feelings about people.

What do you think of this topic of pet names. That’s a sign of endearment?

It’s a sign of endearment. Sometimes it can be mean. Someone will call someone something that has an edge to it. But yes, I think that pet names are signs of endearment. They make someone special. No one else calls them that. I have one man that I’ve known for several years who calls me Ti [pronounced Tea]. Ti in ancient Sumerian word that meant life. And I love that name. When I write him an email I sign it Ti. And it’s a combination of sweet and endearing but also a private knowledge between us but also an ancient word that means something important to both of us.

Like code language?

Yes. And Ray who I hung around with for 30 years, he called me Fluffy.  It’s hilarious. Fluffy is hilarious. I’m not fluffy, although I can be silly. You know? And the way he would say it was funny too. He would say, “FLUH-fee.” And he would blink his eyes. It was all a play on airheads.

Which is not a mold that you fit!

Right. Which I’m not. And because I don’t, it made it funnier.

It’s like calling a fat man, Tiny.

There you go. That’s exactly right. And sure enough, my twin sister picked up Fluffy and calls me Fluffy in public. I finally had to say to her, “You can’t call me Fluffy in public.” It’s just not going to work. People are going to look at me and they’re going to say, “Fluffy?” It just doesn’t work.

But I didn’t want that one to go around. I mean, I don’t mind talking to you and having you print it because we’re talking about names. And she still calls me Fluffy. She’s called me Fluffy for I don’t know, 20 years. And I call her Spunky. Which is a name she chose for herself. Which she is.

What do you think about people who change their names?

It’s hard on the rest of us. But I understand it why they do it. I have a friend whose name is Bob. In middle age – like in his mid-50s – he changed his name to Bailey. It’s a family name and he has every reason to be called Bailey, but it’s hard not to get over the pretension of someone who changes their name. You’ve got to do it when you’re young before everyone is hooked on the real name. Now, if you make up your own name for somebody, that’s different. That’s a pet name. It’s not a shared name with the universe. But when you change your name and you ask everybody to please call you by a different name, I think it’s hard on the people around you. The first response is, “Oh, that’s silly. You know? Your name’s Bob.” But I do understand why people do it. I do think there’s something legitimate about someone named Bob changing his name to Bailey. Bailey is a much nicer name. Bob is very common.

Well, and going back to the psychology of sound, I’ve studied Bob because I’ve known some Bobs. The sound in the name Bob is very abrasive. The two B’s together like that – very intimidating (Like big bass drum). They’re known for being assertive, and they tend to struggle in very artistic endeavors. They’re known for hot hotheadedness.

That’s interesting! You are describing my brother. And oddly enough I call him Roberto.

Well, see now that “R” brings out the more romantic side: it can be the same traits, but from a more passionate perspective. There’s a lot to the sounds in a name.

We come from a varied background so he’s not Italian or anything. As a child I called him Bobby. And I still call him Bobby or Roberto. He’s in his mid 70s now.

From what I’ve read, every time you add the “ee” to the end of a name, like Bobby, you bring the smile back to the face to enunciate it. It softens the name.

That’s probably why I use Lizzie for my name. I refuse to respond to Liz. The only name is Lizzie. I say to my friends, this is an alternate name. Use it any time you want. Or don’t use it. But when you do use it, you have to use it in an endearing way. It is for me an endearing name. So I’ve had some friends who instantly called me Lizzie and have never called me anything but Lizzie since then. And I have other friends who use it as a gift. One man who when he’s trying to let me know that he’s really liking me at the moment, in an email or something he’ll say,  Dear Lizzie, but then regularly he’ll call me Helen. So I give people the alternative. Here’s another name; use it when you can. It makes me feel better. But never use it if you’re mad at me.

You don’t want it used in vain?

No! This is a “nice” name. Lizzie is a nice name. It’s endearing. It’s soft. It’s a “please like me” name.

What do you think of the concept of people who change their name when they get married, like women who change their name?

I’m very practical about that. I married a man very briefly and then divorced him. I wish I would have kept his name because it was a better name than Fisher.

So you did change your name?

I did and I changed it back. But I got married in the early 1960s. I didn’t think about it. I can’t remember why changed my name to be perfectly honest with you. I really honestly can’t remember. It was a Swedish name and it was beautiful. When I got rid of the man I realized I had to get rid of the name and go back to Fisher. But now, all these years later, I wish I would have kept the name. It’s just a prettier name.

Names are aesthetic. Aesthetic joy. They’re also for the presentation of who you are.

So you’re not necessarily against changing a name when you get married.

If it were me, I’d pick the prettier of the two names and if they went together nicely I would combine. It’s an utterly shallow thing. It’s an aesthetics thing.  Names are aesthetic. Aesthetic joy. They’re also for the presentation of who you are. And also if you’re madly in love with somebody you might want to take his name. What is strange is where you find these households where each child has a different name. That’s a little bit discombobulating. I think there’s something to be said for some continuity.

Now at this point if I were to marry again, I would not change my name, alas, because the name I’ve got is the name I use on my books and it wouldn’t make sense for me to change it. It’s too late. Of course, if I got a name like Rockefeller, I’d probably do it anyway. But that’s not likely to happen. Actually, the name Montgomery is a beautiful name. My mother’s name was Greeff; it’s Dutch. I would have loved to have been Helen Greeff. She was Helen Greeff. Now, it’s a little hard to pronounce. Most people would say grief. But I like the name Greeff. Two es, Two fs. It’s very unusual. And it’s very Dutch. My twin sister has a beautiful name now. Lorna is a beautiful name and it’s an unusual name. She got the good name. But she married a French man and her last name is VanPayris. Lorna VanPayris. I think that’s a beautiful name. And I think that Helen Fisher is very mundane.

You make the most of it though!

Thank you very much. I think of all of it, the middle name, I like the name Elizabeth. I had an aunt named Elizabeth and they gave me that name. My mother’s first name and my mother’s sister’s (great aunt) middle name. My grandmother’s first name was Helen, but they called her Lilly.

Where did they get Lilly?
I don’t know, but I like Lilly. I would prefer to be Lilly than Helen. That Lilly is a very feminine name. I suppose Helen is feminine too.

What do you think of Helen? I mean, what do you think most people think of Helen? Do you think most people dislike it as much as I do?

For me, its reminiscent of a Greek goddess. You know, Helen of Troy.

People always say that to me, Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world. But I’m not beautiful. And it sort of flips me out when people say that. I think, “Oh my god, I’m not living up to my name here.”

Well, I don’t think of the beauty side of it. But I think of the strength. I mean, I see this statue in my mind when I think of the name Helen. The strength that’s involved with that.

That’s interesting. That’s good, I’m glad to hear you think of it as strength. Certainly she was a femme fatal. I mean, she started a war between the Greeks and the Persians so she’s famous in history. Almost everyone knows about Helen of Troy.

Conclusion

According to the Baby Name Wizard, the name Helen reached it’s peak in popularity for baby names in the early 1900s. In fact, it ranked second on the 200 most popular baby names of the 1900s, falling between Mary and Margaret. However, for being such a popular name, it can leave its bearer with a heavy load because the original name dates back to Greek mythology and was given to someone whose face could launch a thousand ships. Helen of Troy is the woman for whom the infamous Trojan War was fought. But does that leave today’s Helen only known for a legacy of beauty? In fact, Helen of Troy is remembered for her beauty, but she had other characteristics that were important such as her strength in fighting.

Roy Feinson in his book, The Secret Universe of Names, points to how Helens have a “profound sense of destiny, who believe their lives are meant for some specific purpose.” What greater purpose is there than love? Helen Fisher has devoted much of her career to the subject of love. Her research has focused on marriage and divorce, adultery,  monogamy, and gender differences in the brain and behavior. She has written the books listed below as a result of her research. You can learn more about each of her books on Helen’s website.

Helen Fisher is also the expert behind the personality survey that matches couples on Chemistry.com. This survey has been featured in 20/20 and Good Morning America. She explains, “I was curious to know what romantic love really was and so I and my colleagues put 32 people who were madly in love into a functional MRI brain scanner to find out.” She describes as a result of her research how very primitive parts of our brains become active when we’re in love. This part of the brain that is involved with euphoria and obsessive thinking is a basic brain system that evolved millions of years ago. The same brain system at play when Homer wrote about Helen of Troy.

It’s almost as if Helen Fisher is out to solve the age-old mystery of love, and who is to say that her name hasn’t been part of that inspiration? Feinson tells how the name Helen describes people with “sharp-minded individualism” who desire to help people overcome difficulties. But he warns that Helens are definitely unpredictable.  And this brings me back to Helen of Troy. Have you seen statues of her? They don’t seem to represent anything strikingly beautiful and from that I’ve come to a conclusion.  It must be the more enigmatic features of Helen of Troy, combined with her physical beauty, that made her so remarkable.  And after speaking with Helen Fisher, I believe it is these same features that make her just as remarkable. Helen Fisher is a charming, entertaining, and highly intelligent person. It was my honor to speak with her about her name and I hope you’ve considered it your honor as well to have spent this time reading about her.

Updated by Marly · Permalink

9 Responses to A Name Interview with Helen Fisher

  1. Hey Marly! Hi Lizzie! You know, the first half of this post probably helped me to realize more than anything else has thus far how names can really affect how people see eachother. I suppose all the brain chemistry in reference to sounds and other stimuli just made sense to me… Gotta love Anthropology.
    Lizzie, in reference to the name “Helen”, it is a bit starchy (smile). However, it’s also powerful sounding-a beautiful, smart & sexy woman could easily be named ‘Helen’ without messing things up too much!
    Thanks for another super interesting post, Marly.
    Stella

  2. Fascinating. It is an interesting commentary on society that women do not carry on their mother’s names nearly as much as men…but such a different case in Helen’s family! My grandmother’s name is Helen, and I’ve always had a fond association with the name. I enjoyed hearing Helen’s comments about changing your name upon marriage…the idea of names being about aesthetic joy resonated with me…and was one of the reason’s I decided to keep my own last name. Thanks Marly!

  3. I just love this! Ele would be how I’d shorten/change Helen. Bo for Bob. Honoring the original name, with a twist. :o)

  4. Oops…that was to be a smiley face! 🙂

  5. Pingback: Goodnight Summer « Namely Life « Namely Marly

  6. Pingback: Love Doctor Helen Fisher, evolutionary psychologist, expert on romance who got divorced after 6 months | Uncommon Descent

  7. I heard Dr. Fisher speak yesterday. Your column was just as entertaining as her presentation on gender differences. Thank you both for letting us listen in.

    • Hi Kristen. I spoke with Helen on the phone, and have heard her speak on TED talks, but would love to hear her speak in person.