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Kim Carney / msnbc.com
By Health writer
TODAY.com
updated 6/19/2009 8:11:52 AM ET 2009-06-19T12:11:52

When he was a kid, being Jose Martinez, Jr., was often a little annoying. He was always Little Jose to his dad's Big, and he could never tell which Jose callers wanted (especially after his voice changed).

But as this particular Junior's grown up, his name, once a source of annoyance and confusion, now makes him proud. “I look at my dad now and I can say with complete certainty that if I grow to be half the man that he is, I’ll have lived a good life,” Martinez says.

For dads who name their sons after themselves, it can be a very public way to let the world know: This is my son. This one belongs to me. It can also be a mother's way of honoring her hubby — or, in the case of some unwed parents, Mom's ploy to coax Daddy to stick around.

“When they’re giving their name to a child, they’re giving an endorsement," says behavioral psychologist Matt Wallaert. He's named after his dad and says he's closer to his namesake than his brother is. “It does provide the early chance for this strong bonding."

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But the American Junior — not to mention IIIs, IVs and Vs — is something of a dying breed, says Cleveland Evans, a psychology professor at Bellevue University in Nebraska who specializes in omnastics, or the study of names.

"The percentage of juniors has been going down in American culture in general over the last 40 years at least," says Evans, adding that in the Hispanic community it remains a popular naming trend.

"I think that it's become more of a value for people to have every child have an individual name," Evans continues. "There's more emphasis on individualism, there's less pressure to carry on family names than there used to be and there's much more worry about the inconvenience of what happens when you have two people of the same name in the same family."

In the latest inconvenience for 19-year-old Martinez, he arrived for his freshman year at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles only to discover that it was Jose Senior, not Junior, who was registered for all of his classes. (He knew because in this family, Jose Junior has a middle name; Jose Senior does not.) It was easy enough to change, he says, but he did spend half his freshman year with his dad's name on his ID card. This is the sort of thing that would never happen to Bronx Mowgli Wentz(the baby boy of rockers Ashlee Simpson and Pete Wentz).

“We now have a culture where a lot of young parents don't want their child to have the same name as any other child in the class at school,” Evans says. “You see posts on baby name discussion boards asking, ‘Gee, is it OK for me to name my child the same name as my second cousin who lives across the country?’ ... Nowadays parents feel your child has to have a name that differentiates him from everyone else in the population — including the parents.”

Uppercrust connotations
The limited research on the psychological effects of being named after Dad doesn't quite add up. In the 1940s, one study found that Juniors made up 76 percent of the permanent elected officers of the Harvard Class of 1945, compared to 21 percent in the entire class and 3 percent in the entire population at the time. On the other hand, a 1971 study found there were three times as many Juniors in psychiatric treatment as in the general population.

That study also found mental health problems didn't seem to affect as many IIIs, IVs and Vs, however, so Evans suggests it might be the word "Junior" itself that can do some damage. “I think probably if there's going to be a negative aspect, it's more likely to show up in the cases where the family uses 'Junior' itself as the nickname,” Evans says. “'Junior' sounds like you never quite grow up.”

And then there are the names that sound like American aristocracies — like the fictional Thurston Howell III, the condescending millionaire on "Gilligan's Island." There's something about a numeral after a name that has the ring of money. Today, the richest man in the world is Bill Gates III, who was called "Trey" growing up.

Carleton Warren Kendrick, Jr., cut the suffix from his name when he left his tiny Massachusetts town for Harvard at age 18. "It wasn't a slam against my dad," says Kendrick, now a Boston-area family therapist. “I was not only trying to be a young man with my own personal identity, but I was also the chip off the block and ... I then found myself not wanting to be anyone's chip — including my wonderful dad's, because I needed my own block. I needed to create more who I was apart from being my dad's son."

Of course, there have been other secret Juniors among us. Albert Gore, Jr., has said he dropped the suffix to differentiate himself from his politician father. For the first  half of his literary career, Kurt Vonnegut published under Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. And Tom Cruise was born Thomas Cruise Mapother IV.

For Kendrick, even though he ultimately ended his juniorship, he says that as a kid, sharing his dad's name helped forge a tight bond between the two.  "I wanted to be like him," he recalls.

A dad who names his child after himself might be more invested in that child's life, says Frank McAndrew, a professor of psychology at Knox College in Illinois who has researched namesaking. He points out one 1980 study found that sons who share their dads' first names had fewer behavioral problems. Makeover! Dads go from shaggy to stylish

As John Garcia III watches his 1-year-old son John Garcia IV ("Baby John") grow up, he hopes he can show him only the best examples of what being John Garcia means, as his father and grandfather did for him. Of course, most fathers are aware of the need to be a good example to their son — but that obligation is underscored when you're calling the kid by your own name, Garcia says. "You hope he gains your characteristics, your traits, over the years — the good ones, anyway," says Garcia, who lives in Cyprus, Calif. (as does John Garcia, Jr.).

Of course, for a few fathers, passing on their name might be an act of narcissism, as George Foreman Jr., George Foreman III, George Foreman IV, George Foreman V and George Foreman VI might tell you. George Foreman's daughters Freeda George and Georgetta might add that it doesn't help to force things — girls named after their dads just sometimes makes things awkward, as President Barack Obama's mother might have said. Named for her father, her full name was Stanley Ann Durham.

A girl named Sam
Growing up as a girl named Sam, 54-year-old Samuella Becker can relate. Her father, Samuel, died of cancer four months before she was born in 1954. Her mother decided to honor his memory by giving their girl a feminized version of his name. "Growing up in Akron, Ohio, it was a little bit different from today, when everyone wants a different, unique name,” says Becker, who lives in Manhattan. “Now there’s a lot of female versions of male names. But Samuella, of course, never caught on."

She remembers a childhood of being assigned to boy's gym classes, of being accused by a substitute teacher of sitting in the wrong seat on purpose and of desperately wishing for a glamorous, feminine name like Diana. But she's learned to love her name for its uniqueness, and for giving her a piece of a father she never met. 

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