Musician Mike Doughty has a song, titled “27 Jennifers,” in which he sings, “I went to school with 27 Jennifers // 16 Jenns, 10 Jennies, and then there’s her.” There was a period a few years back when it did seem like every other female student in my classes went by some version of Jennifer. Like all things, the popularity of various names is always changing. Currently, I’m being deluged with Paiges and Rebekahs. I’m not sure why, but I don’t notice as many runs on particular boys’ names. What I do know for certain is that names, first and last, matter, and new parents should think carefully before pinning one on their infant child.
I’m often asked the origins of my own name. Ty is unusual enough that many people assume that I’m named after or for someone. I’m not. My name is what it is because my parents needed a name with two letters to continue the pattern they’d begun with my older siblings as demonstrated below.
Kevin – The first three names are fairly typical.
Ty – I have no idea what they would have named me were I born female.
J – This is his legal name. He has often been forced to explain that his name is “Just J,” a regular act of self-belittlement that cannot be good for his ego.
Then, as my parents were obedient Catholics, they needed to return to the top when the babies kept coming.
Aaron – The only one with a biblical association.
Troy – Although unintentional, I love the Homeric connection.
Yon – This one they flat made up.
There is a great deal of debate in the psychological community regarding the amount of influence a person’s name has on their personality, but I sometimes wonder if mine would have been shaped differently had I been assigned a more conventional name. I do not nor cannot know the answer. For better and worse, however, I do believe its relative uniqueness – especially when I was a child – made me feel different from my male peers who possessed more traditional names, and it motivated me to develop a somewhat aloof and contrarian tendencies.
Sadly, most of us assign our personal prejudices to names and make a number of false assumptions based upon them. For example, upon learning my name in a letter from student housing (This was long before the internet.), my assigned roommate for our freshman year of college was convinced that I would be a large Black man with “Ty” being short for “Tyrone.” He could not have been more wrong. On the other hand, I thought his name, Charlie Lenway, was the whitest, Midwesternest name I’d ever heard, but he turned out to be Puerto Rican. Such prejudices are especially damaging when those in positions responsible for admission or hiring weed out applicants sight unseen because of names that may indicate the candidate’s ethnic, gender, religious, or racial identity.
For fear of such prejudice, many immigrants to this country have “Americanized” their names – both first and last – in the attempt to skirt past it. In a 2004 study, economists Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan “found that the ‘white-sounding’ candidates received fifty per cent more callbacks, and that the advantage a résumé with a ‘white-sounding name had over a résumé with a “black-sounding” name was roughly equivalent to eight more years of work experience. An average of one of every ten ‘white’ résumés received a callback, versus one of every fifteen ‘black’ résumés.” Similarly, when my son Taylor lived in New York City, based on the last name Roth, many people assumed him to be Jewish, for Roth and its variations (Rothstein, Rothberg, Rothman is a common surname found in the Jewish population, especially on the East Coast. There’s no need for me to outline the history of odious prejudice and utter persecution faced by Jews worldwide. I don’t believe my son was ever directly adversely impacted by the association of his name with anti-Semitism, but that’s the pernicious thing about prejudice: it doesn’t typically announce itself. So, who knows?
I’m especially dismayed when I hear whites belittle the names of African Americans that reject Eurocentric roots. Why should African Americans, whose ancestors were kidnapped and brought to this country, where they were enslaved, raped, and systemically-oppressed, be saddled with the names of their oppressors? That seems a bit like the addition of insult to injury. The choice by many African American parents to assign their children non-white sounding names should be viewed as an assertion of pride and independence. However, instead it’s not unusual to hear white folks make fun of the prevalence of vowel-endings, apostrophes, and unique spellings common among younger generations of Black Americans. Many of us have heard and even spread the ridiculous urban legends of the African American mothers who named their children “Shithead” (pronounced sha-THEAD), “Orangejello,” or “Fe’male” (pronounced like tamale”). Please, don’t be so naive as to believe or as racist as to spread such nonsense regardless of how much the friend of a friend who shared the story with you insists it’s true.
In the song “Say My Name,” Beyonce of Destiny’s Child gives voice to a woman who refuses to be objectified and treated disrespectfully by a male/player by insisting that he say her name and not call her “Baby.” During memorial services for 9/11, nearly three thousand victims’ names are read aloud for a reason. Protesters in the #SayHerName Movement demand that Black women who have been victimized by police violence be dignified by their names being publicly shared. At weddings, before pronouncing the name of our betrothed, we state our own name.
Clearly, as I began this post, names, first and last, matter.
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