My father used to tell me that the reason African Americans often had such mindblowingly original names was because many of them were materially poor, and so parents wanted to
He turns out to be exactly right. I picked up a book on African American baby names (I couldn’t resist!) and the introduction says that in African tribal culture, they believe that your name lives on after you , so folks, make it a good one. Also, we musn’t forget that there are dead people involved in the world as we . So in Malawi, the Yao language offers the name Chotsani — “take it away.” The author explains: “This type of name is used to trick the ancestors into thinking the child is not worthy, so they will not take it away.” I LOVE reverse psychology, and think it cannot be overused, especially with children, simple people and, it would seem, ghosts and other supernatural entities.
Now, the conventional wisdom that you always hear is that parents should not saddle their offspring with unusual names, because the poor kids will get made fun of on the playground and what not. Big deal! Think of the future! When you’re 5 and your name is Farley, yeah, you’re going to get ridiculed. But when you’re a sexy 20-year-old art student named Farley at RISD, that name will be like money in the bank.
(I kind of wish I had been given a name no one else I know has, such as Saturnino or Septimus. Or Sanity. You know, I’ve had white friends who had kids, and they make such a big production number out of “finding” the right name. Excuse me, that’s my whole point here. Make one up, it’s loads easier. By the way, did you know that in Germany you aren’t allowed — big surprise — to make up names? You must pick one from an official, government-controlled list.)
What’s the deal with these brand-name admirers who choose baby names such as Chevelle (“Probably influenced by the car of the same name,” writes the author) or even Charmin (“American. Contemporary.” Yeah, I think we know what this refers to). Are you ready to meet someone named Aquanetta (“Possibly inspired by the hairspray of the same name”)? We’ve all heard the urban myth about those little twins Lemonjello and Orangejello — which might even have some basis in truth, if this book is any indication.
Here are some choice suggestions: Asisya (“Hebrew. ‘Juice of Jehovah.'”); Avery (“English. Elf ruler.”); Cherika (“American. Contemporary.” Is it a tribute to theCher, or a fusion of Cherokee and AmeriKa? Beautiful originality.)
What about pronunciation? I’ve met some foreigners with some pretty annoying names, names our American tongues can’t really form. Should they adopt English-friendly substitutes? Well, yes, they should. I knew a person from Vietnam in college, who for some reason had decided to rename himself “Tom Cody.” This little guy could not speak intelligible English, and yet he had this rugged, out-West cowboy name. It’s just common courtesy to say, Okay, I’m in English-speaking America and I’m going to give people a break by having a local-sounding name. It’s easier for Tom Cody, too!
This book says that African Americans sometimes take a perfectly common name and jazz it up, so for instance Janet becomes J’annet. This creativity floods over into the unique names, too, to try to keep them unique: André becomes Aundray, Shante becomes Shontée, Shauntae or Chanté. Language is organic — give it some creativity-fertilizer and watch it grow, baby!
Then there is the phenomenon of autonymy: A name that means what it is: In The New York Times one time, I was reading about the Fresh Air Fund, which sends urban kids upstate for camping, etc., and the article referred to a girl whose name was Unique. I mean, the name Unique is probably unique, right? Only one person in the world has it. I fantasized that it was pronounced YOO-NEE-QUA. Maybe it is.
So parents, please: Think of the children! Nobody minds unusual names anymore, so get in the game. As usual, white America is “borrowing” from African America — so we see very vanilla families giving their kids crazy handles such as “Fondue Jane” and “Boy-Jack”. I say go for it, but do as the book says and case the joint before you decide: Do a Web search, ask around — whatever you have to do to make sure that name is one-of-a-kind and a little frightening, like maybe instead of “Caitlin” try “Fartlin.” You do not want the ancestors stealing your young ones from you.