Remember the Johnny Cash song, "A Boy Named Sue"?
It’s the one about the guy who is saddled with a girl’s name by a father who deserted the family. The guy goes through life being picked on, but it teaches him how to survive by being a good fighter. In the end, he meets his father and realizes that dad might have had a good point in naming him Sue because it did indeed make him strong.
While the fictional father in that song might have had a purpose in providing his son with an unusual name, in real life the intent behind terrible baby names isn’t always so clear.
Take the French couple who named their infant girl Nutella in 2016 – and were prohibited by a judge from doing so on the grounds that being named after a popular hazelnut chocolate spread may doom the child to a lifetime of "mockery or disobliging remarks."
And then there was the New Jersey couple who named their infant boy Adolph Hitler in 2006 only to lose him to the state Division of Youth and Family Services four years later. (The court action was based on domestic abuse and not horrible naming, but should that sound surprising?)
What Happens When Your Child is Named After a Bot?
This brings us to Alexa.
As everyone knows, Alexa is the name given by Amazon to its extremely popular voice-controlled intelligent personal assistant that exists for the sole purpose of taking orders. Unlike "Nutella" or "Adolph Hitler," there’s nothing creepy about the name.
And, after all, Amazon’s Alexa is not a person.
But here’s the thing: There are plenty of Alexas walking around who are, and they don’t like being the butt of jokes.
It also seems that the youngest of the Alexas, the schoolchildren by that name, are being traumatized. At least that’s what the BBC recently reported.
One mother related the experience of her six-year-old daughter by that name: "Older children would say things like, ‘Alexa, play disco.’ Other boys picked up on it and shouted commands at her. We were at the park the other day and every single boy there was saying it to her constantly. She’s started clamming up. I think it’s affecting her confidence. Adults make fun of her too."
‘Alexa Is Human’
Another mother, Lauren Johnson of Massachusetts, has a nine-year-old Alexa who has been harassed and told the BBC: "The word Alexa has become synonymous with servant or slave. It gives people a license to treat people with the name Alexa in a subservient manner."
Johnson, for one, has decided to do something about it and has started a campaign called Alexa Is Human to raise the issue of harassment suffered by girls and women of that name.
It is true, of course, that the same could be said about people named Siri, another popular voice-operated assistant. But the harassment experienced by the world’s Alexas is far greater than that of the Siris because there are far more Alexas.
The Social Security Administration keeps tabs on popular baby names, and their statistics show that Alexa has been a high-ranking, top-1000 baby name for many years, while Siri has never cracked the top 1000.
An important point about Alexa’s name popularity, however, is that it has been plummeting since the introduction of the Alexa voice assistant in Echo speakers in 2015. According to the SSA, Alexa was the 32nd most popular baby name for girls that year. In the years since then, its rankings have declined every year to the point where it was ranked #230 in 2020.
Johnson, the Alexa Is Human founder, has done some math and says there are 130,000 people named Alexa in the U.S. and hundreds of thousands more around the world.
Taking Action, Changing Names
So, what is this unhappy population doing about their plight?
First, many are simply raising the issue, some through participation with Alexa Is Human. In doing so, they are calling on Amazon to change the default wake word for the voice assistant to a non-human one. Amazon has responded by saying it is "saddened" by the stories and points out that alternative names are available for users and (for what it’s worth) that users can change the name themselves by opening the app, clicking "device settings," and the changing the wake word.
That doesn’t really solve the problem of bullying, of course, so that is leading some parents to take the serious step of legally changing the names of their Alexas.
According to the website Family Education, the procedure varies from state to state. According to the website, many states allow name changes within the first six to 12 months without a court order by taking the birth certificate to a local office of vital records (typically part of the health department).
In other states, or when a child is older, a court order will be required. If both parents favor the name change, the process should be straightforward. But if one parent disagrees, they may contest the decision of the other and let the court decide.
Meanwhile, there is another option: Talk to your child about an agreeable nickname, make sure that teachers are informed of it, and stick with it.
That should shut the bullies up.
- How to Deal With School Bullying (FindLaw’s Injured)
- Bullying at School: Who Is Liable? (FindLaw’s Learn About the Law)
- Lawsuits Say Alexa Is Snooping on Kids (FindLaw’s Technologist)
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