The building where I live has a pretty harmonious and classically Kreuzberg 61 mix of tenants – middle-aged lesbian couples with big shaggy dogs, Turkish-German extended families, a Wohngemeinschaft of flight attendants, a student with a nose ring and her adorable mohawked baby. And then there’s Kilian. Kilian is a ten-year-old German-German boy who comes here with his older sister during the summer school holidays to stay with their grandmother.
Many of my neighbors dread Kilian’s annual arrival. He has a lot of what would in my country be called behavioral issues. He picks up younger children against their will and carries them around the Hinterhof (back yard, pictured above) laughing as they shriek to be put down. He mutters to himself in an angry refrain of age-inappropriately sexual curses that suggest he has done a lot of unsupervised late-night TV watching. When he plays with his soccer ball in the yard he spends most of the time furiously bashing snails and plants with it. After an incident last summer when he dangled himself out the window ledge of his grandmother’s third-floor apartment, there was talk of calling the Jugendamt, the child welfare authorities.
When, after the window-dangling drama, I mentioned Kilian to some German friends, his name always elicited a knowing laugh. Of course the Jugendamt would be involved in the life of a boy named Kilian, people said. Of course the grandmother is very young. Of course his sister is named Michelle. Of course he lives with his single mother in a high-rise eastern suburb of Berlin. Surely the mother is on Hartz IV (welfare). The boy is straight from central casting.
Kilian, you see, is part of a group of first names to which Germans attach an intense class stigma. I’ve heard these names referred to as Hochhausnamen, HartzIV-Namen and – most bluntly – Unterschichtnamen. Many of the boys’ names in this group are anglophone – Justin, Kevin, Dustin – and many of the girls’ names are francophone – Chantal, Jacqueline. The stigma includes the perception that younger, less educated parents name their children after international pop stars and movie characters, and that they then Germanize the pronunciation of the names because they can’t really speak English or French.
Kevin, the most stigmatized of all these names, first swept Germany after the release here of the movie Home Alone, the German title of which is “Kevin allein zu Haus”. The prejudice against children with these names is such a widespread and well-studied phenomenon that there’s even a specific word for it: Kevinismus. In a country where children are sorted into university-bound and vocational tracks at a very young age, and in significant part on the basis of their teachers’ perception of their parents’ level of education, Kevinismus can have a serious negative impact on a child’s educational prospects.
The force of the Unterschichtnamen phenomenon is unlike anything I’ve ever seen – and, of course, the particular names Germans stigmatize don’t have the same connotations to me. In America, the names Kevin and Justin say nothing about a child’s odds of going to college vs. to prison. Yes, names can have socioeconomic connotations there, but class in America is always intertwined in complicated ways with region, race, and the culture wars. (As this NPR article mentions, the biggest baby-naming rift in the U.S. is the blue state-red state divide, with liberals preferring traditional names and conservatives going for creative names: Abigail is more likely to come from New England, and Braelynn from Nebraska, but the names don’t really say much about their parents’ socioeconomic status.)
My son has picked up on the talk about Kilian and told his preschool friends, who also speak English, “There’s a dangerous Kilian in my yard.” When his friends come to visit they peer nervously at the foliage in the yard. “Could the Kilian be hiding in the bushes?” they ask, and I try to explain that a Kilian isn’t like a lion or tiger, it’s just the name of an older boy with some harmful habits. But to no avail: in English the name has “kill” in it, it sounds sinister to them, and they are already, albeit in a very different way from the German adults Kilian encounters, imagining all sorts of terrible things about him.