What’s In A Name? Parents, It May Be Your Child’s Diagnosis

If I had to pick a country to win the highly competitive ‘Unusual Connection to Its Own Ancient Language Award’ [a highly prestigious award, as I’m sure you’re all aware], hands down it would be Israel. [I would have voted for the Irish, but they don’t all actually speak Gaelic and use Gaelic names–the Israelis have got Hebrew, and that’s about it. My apologies to William Butler Yeats, who thought Gaelic was tops–just not tops enough to actually learn.]For many Israelis, the Bible is kind of like Shakespeare on steroids–a touchstone text that everyone knows, whose words have infiltrated their current language en masse and something all can quote large swaths of–but that doesn’t always demand the ethical codes of behaviors that, say, the vast majority of humanity might associate with it.The place where this connection to the Biblical text tickles me the most is in names. Of course you’ll find the classic Biblical names of Rachel and Leah, Adam and David in Israeli society. But the Israelis are more unique and innovative than that, and have a wider range of the Biblical narrative at their fingertips than most westerners. (For example, their kindergarten teachers read them Obadiah during snack time. Anyone else remember Obadiah? Thought not.]

So I’m no longer surprised to come across Israelis with names like Avishag [the woman who, in Kings II, is brought in to warm up the dying King David in bed], or Hagar, mother of the Arab nation, or Nimrod–a terribly trendy name right now, commemorating the first man who ‘made war’ against the Lord.

And a rather more ordinary pick, one of the names of the ten tribes, came out terribly here. A couple named their child ‘Gad,” after one of the sons of Jacob. But since that ‘a’ makes the ‘ah’ sound, the names comes out sounding like the Master of the Universe’s, and it seems odd picturing a teacher screaming it out to call a child on the carpet. In short, Israelis like their names unique.

And of course they wander outside the Bible, too, in search of the unusual and expressive. I’ve met my share of Baraks (thunder, as in, ‘Hello, Thunder, nice to meet you’), a few Sa’ar’s (that’s torn, or ripped violently, as in ‘Violently ripped, don’t tear up the green paper, only the purple one’), a number of Tals (dew), both male and female (dew is flexible that way), many Gals (waves)–and a few Galits (girl waves)–and an all-time favorite, Shacha, meaning–but of course!–to plunder.


That’s why, when one of my favorites on Twitter, Nueroskeptic (@Neuro_Skeptic) tweeted, “Children diagnosed with ADHD tend to have ‘hyperactive’ names in Hebrew eg ‘Gal (wave) or Saar (stormy),'” I knew I could not let this tidbit escape me.

Lead author on the study is one Gal Shoval, from the Child and Adolescent Department at the Geh Mental Center at Tel Aviv University, in Israel. Just to be sure about this fellow I checked up on some other of his publications, and found that he has published numerous papers, in several areas, and in a variety journals. At times his Israeli focus continues, as with his 2005 paper, “Effect of the Broadcast of a Television Documentary About a Teenager’s Suicide in Israel on Suicidal Behavior and Methods” in Crisis, but he has a 2012 paper, “Outcomes of compulsorily admitted schizophrenia patients who agreed or disagreed to prolong their hospitalization.” in Comprehensive Psychiatry which seemed eminently normal, a more scientifically showy-sounding one, “Late potentials in the signal-averaged electrocardiogram in pre-pubertal children with ADHD, before and after methylphenidate treatment,” in European and Child Adolescent Psychiatry, and was lead author on one last year on meds (“Effectiveness and safety of citalopram in hospitalized adolescents with major depression: a preliminary, 8-week, fixed-dose, open-label, prospective study”) in Clinical Neuropharmacology that had one of those dry, dull names that indicate you’re in the ‘researcher ‘in-group’–in short, there’s enough to show the guy’s not a joker.

So I was reassured–slightly–about this study, which I questioned because. . .well, you’ll see. Here’s the title coming now. . . .

(for real): “Are Names of Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder More ‘Hyperactive’?”

You may be coming to see why I needed some re-assurance.

The study’s purpose? Well, of course it’s

aimed to investigate the possible association between the nature of given names of children and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis.

I have to say, it still sounded like it had potential to be goofy. And that was before I got down into the heart of the matter.

The researchers studied and questioned 134 Israeli children diagnosed with ADHD, alongside a random selection of another 134 kids, with no attention deficit symptoms, as the control group.

Ready to hear who was in trouble?

Kids with:

  • Short (in Hebrew that’s basically 1-syllable) names–tended to be jumpier. Thus, write Shoval et al, children with “names like ‘Bar,’ ‘Ran’ and ‘Oz’ tend to be less calm and more “jumpy”.’
  • ‘Jumpy’ (back to that word) names, or names that express activity [he selected ‘Barak’ (lightning) and ‘Saar’ (‘storm’),] tend to have owners who are “less calm and concentrated.”

As Shoval et al put the results

The meaning of first names of children and adolescents with ADHD combined type were rated by referees as expressing significantly more activity and containing less syllables than the names of controls. [emphasis mine]

Interestingly they added, that, “In addition, the prevalence of their names was significantly lower than that of names used in the general population.” I’m not sure what to do with that piece of information (perhaps more original thinkers have more hyper children??)–but am open to suggestions.


And there you have it–name as predictor of disease.

Shoval believed he had some insight into how the name selection process wound us up in this mess. He wrote that parents who gave their children  ‘jumpy’ names were really expressing something about themselves. He explained:

We tend to think that the kids’ given names also say something about their parents. ADHD is known as hereditary, and a lot of the times parents with a relatively closed character give their kids short names because they don’t have enough patience themselves.

Now, if I was going along with the show up to now, I’ve got to take a commercial break here.

It’s a bit of a stretch for me to imagine that Israeli parents pick short names [which are extremely common in Israel, much more so than here, as the nouns just work that way] because they ‘don’t have enough patience’. . .for what? To say a name that’s two syllables? (“I’d have called him Micah but it takes so much time to get it out. . .I just don’t have the time to sit there. I’ve got places to go, you know.”) I’m not with the program.

Additionally, the premise of correlating short and jumpy doesn’t hold. There are so many short names that are the opposite in Hebrew–quite sedentary, in fact. The name Har (mountain), Yam (sea), and let’s return to the dewy Tal–all are short, one-syllabled, but none are jumpy. They are quite peaceful. They don’t seem to reflect a parent body that just throws out a quickie name because they don’t have patience to pronounce 2 syllables, and thus have a tendency towards hyperactivity. In fact, dew isn’t the least hyperactive; I’ll stake my ground on it. It’s focused, knows its mission and gets it done, is quickly responsive to appropriate stimli, stays put until the sun dismisses it–I’m just not having it. And dew appears utterly frenzied if you compare it to unmovable mountains, sure be an assert to any squirmy second-grade classroom.


But darned if the authors didn’t in fact find a signficant association.

Our findings demonstrate an intriguing relationship between children’s given names and ADHD diagnosis. Given names may serve as a possible predictor of later diagnosis of ADHD.


This is wild stuff to me–but at least now I truly know how lucky I am to have scraped by with two and three syllable names for my kids.

Looks like I survived the ‘Name Game’ this time round [although truthfully, had ADHD been invented in the days when my son was in school, he might have been a prime suspect].

But if I ever somehow, by some miraculous rejuvenation of the body and a new-born desire to live in Israel–a country I adore, yet lose my patience with when the banks and post offices open and close willy nilly, seeming to have put up the signs with the hours as an attempt at levity–preparing to name a second set of kids (Lord help us all), I’ve got my facts down–and I’m ready.

Kid 1? Zaphnathpaaneah. That’s right. That was Joseph’s Egyptian name, and it’s as far from 1-syllable as the eye can see, and since it means ‘the one to whom mysteries are revealed,’ it doesn’t strike me that it would inspire jumpiness or short attention at all.

Kid 2. Methuselah. Remember him, the grandfather of Noah that lived almost forever? It’s another long name, and it means–ready?–wine bottle holding the equivalent of eight normal bottles. Honest. The way I figure, a kid in charge of holding all that wine inside sure enough won’t be jumping around–he’ll just be sitting and sloshing.

There you have it–I could solve this ADHD problem in Israel post haste, now that I’ve got the facts behind me. Sometimes all it takes is one good study to change the world.


Shoval G, Manor I, Nahshoni E, Weizman A, Zalsman G. Are Names of Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder More ‘Hyperactive’? Psychopathology 2012; 45(4):215-219. [Epub ahead of print]

Tel Aviv University Researchers: There’s a Connection Between Kids’ Names and ADHD

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