While it may have used to be a rough indicator of ethnicity, country-of-origin, religion or class, with the Internet age and the 'cult of celebrity', you really cannot tell much about a person from their name.
A person's name is one of the most precious things to them, so it is important that it can't be a source of ridicule for the person.
Here are some of the issues I've noticed, with real-world examples (some names changed to protect the innocent):
Teasing at School
Name-calling kind of starts at school where children from a variety of backgrounds are brought together. If you've named your baby something that has an obvious contraction or contortion to something rude or famous/topical, your child is going to get teased about it. Sometimes this could be cool - I've met someone named 'James Bond' - but other times this could be the source of endless teasing such as for Harrison (Harry) Potter. Any fan of "The Simpsons" can attest to this stuff - "Hugh Jass", etc.
There are some cultures or religions that will leap to all sorts of conclusions based on a name as it is common to name a child according to a religious book/story or culture. For example, some latin-American boys will be named 'Jesus' (pronounced 'hay-soose') but some people might find this unusual. Similarly, the German name 'Adolf' was probably just fine until the 1920's. A guy I know is named "Wi" ('Wee') - which possibly amused some people until Nintendo brought out a popular games console and now nobody mentions it. Apple just released a feature named 'Siri' which seems pleasant - but not to Japanese people.
Parents' and Siblings' names
So if the parents names are Anna and Andrew Smith, should they think twice about naming their children Amy and Alex? So when a letter/card/parcel/present is addressed to 'A. Smith', who is it to? This may seem like a minor point, but consider the Health Centre that calls up "Mr A Smith" with blood test results and Mrs Smith leaps to the conclusion that her son is sick/dirty when in fact it was husband just getting a routine test for something that could most easily be detected through a blood test (e.g. insulin levels). Ooops.
I've met a 'Leila' (Irish version) and a 'Layla' (she was Afghani) so I understand there's variations in spelling due to culture or religion, but one mother recently tried to explain to me that "Cristle" was the correct spelling of 'Crystal', "like the champagne". I'm not sure whether it was a deliberate choice (this spelling already exists) or that she just could not spell properly, which is truly sad for her daughter who has to wait 16 years (UK) to get it corrected if that's the case.
Some cultures have a celebration each day of the year for people with a certain name, or derivation of it, rather than their actual birthday. This has benefits - nobody forgets your birthday as the calendars usually have the boy and girl name of the day on them.
I've noticed that a number of people feel that a persons' name will likely dictate their outcome in life. They may cite examples such as "Dave", "Bob" and "Mike" being popular names for carpenters, builders and electricians and that people named "St. John", "Tarquin" or "Lockhart" may be polo players or investment bankers. The book 'Freakonomics' discussed this theory in the chapter 'The Socioeconomic patterns of naming children'. IIRC, they concluded that people are more likely to name their child based on their own socio-economic situation and that the name had little or no bearing on the childs' future, QED past and present US Presidents.
The following is a list of names of real people I've discovered (in real life or on the news), as background to the above points:
- Ophelia Bowles. Nice classical first name but the parents clearly didn't think through how it would work with the surname. (If you're non-English speaking, this sounds like 'I feel your balls')
- In my home town, Mr & Mrs House named their daughter Wendy and son Maxwell. At first I thought this was a joke - and then I met them. I honestly think this was deliberate. If you're not from the UK, a 'Wendy House' is the popular name for a children's play house (often made from material) and 'Maxwell House' is a cheap brand of instant coffee.
- I met a Mr and Mrs Tickle and they told me they were deeply worried that their son Bob was going to marry the girl he'd been dating. Her name was 'Tess'.
- A court case in New Zealand ruled that a girl could change her name "Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii" as she hated it and wasn't old enough to change it herself yet. See the link for many more examples of unusual names, both humorous and hair-raising including twins named "Benson & Hedges" (a brand of cigarette).
- A UK cricketer is named 'Neville Neville' and a programmer in our office is named 'Long long'. I guess this makes form-filling easier.