»  National Review Online

January 20th, 2003

  Onomastic Diversity


Résumés with white-sounding first names elicited 50 percent more responses than ones with black-sounding names, according to a study by professors at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
                     — Reported on CNN.com, 1/14/03.
                        You can read the actual study for yourself here.

Many years ago I was working as a kitchen porter for a firm of kosher caterers in New Rochelle, New York. We used to go out to temples and private houses all around, catering weddings and bar mitzvahs, and the occasional bris or shivah. In between time we made up frozen kosher TV dinners on big metal preparation tables, a little assembly line process with eight or ten of us working together, this one putting in the brisket, that one the kasha, and so on. Most of the preparation for these TV dinners was done by middle-aged women making a minimum-wage buck while the kids were at school, but we heavy-lifters would be drafted in to help when there was nothing happening in the kitchen.

For a few days I worked at the preparation tables alongside a black lady from Louisiana whose name was Ada. She was around forty, and this was nearly thirty years ago, so I guess she had been born before WW2. Chatting together as we worked, we got to the point where we started exchanging life stories. Somewhere about here she mentioned in passing that "Ada" was only an abbreviation for her full given names. So what were the full names? I asked. She wouldn't tell me. I made a joke of this and passed it round. Pretty soon everyone was egging on Ada to tell us her full names. Ada was a lady of spirit, and put up a good resistance, but at last she cracked.

"My full names," she announced with great dignity, "are Adalee Idalee."

I thought, and still think, that there is poetry in those names. Adalee Idalee! Poetry? — there is music there. You could write a song about Adalee Idalee. If Chuck Berry had ever met this woman, I bet he would have done. "Adalee Idalee, oh! what you do to me …" And yet, of course, I would never even think of giving a child of my own a name anything like that.

Why not? Here you crash up against the imponderables of culture and tradition, of folkways. White people from England just don't call their kids "Adalee Idalee." It's not our style. Even in the United States, where conventions are looser, you only find names like that in the South. You only really find them at full stretch among Southern blacks. Southern whites go some way in the same direction, but nothing like as far. The black/white difference here is roughly the same as that between the Silly Party, whose candidate in the Monty Python Election Night sketch was Tarquin Fin-tim-lin-bin-whin-bim-lim Bus Stop F'tang F'tang Olé Biscuitbarrel, and the Slightly Silly Party, represented by Kevin Phillips Bong.

I have just been reading a photo-biography of Hank Williams, subtitled Snapshots from the Lost Highway. It includes a group photograph of his mother's family, poor whites in Garland, Alabama, around 1930. The given names are as follows: Hank, Ralph, Vollie Mae, Taft, Ollie Rae, J.C., Opal, Irene, Bernice, Marie, Lillie, Walter, Alice, Walter Jr., "Mrs. Ed," Ed, Eddie Lee, Letch, Bill, Zell, "Mrs. John," Bob and Grover. My own children's forenames, for the record, are Eleanor Muriel — "Nellie" — and Daniel Oliver — "Ollie."

These patterns go way back. In his book The American Language, H.L. Mencken reports that black Americans of his time (I am working from the 1936 edition) tended to extremes in awarding names to their children. Many — "the educated portion," says Mencken — stuck firmly to the plainest American-English names like Frederick, James, Wilbur and George. However, when black Americans departed from this norm, they did so very wildly.

Medical men making a malaria survey of Northampton County, North Carolina, staggered back to civilization with the news that they had found male Aframericans named Handbag Johnson, Squirrel Bowes, Prophet Ransom, Bootjack Webb and Solicitor Ransom, and females named Alimenta, Iodine, Zooa, Negolia, Abolena, Arginta and Dozine.

Not all the wacky names arose from free choice, if Mencken can be believed.

The young brethren who deliver colored mothers in the vicinity of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore sometimes induce the mothers to give their babies grandiose physiological and pathological names, but these are commonly expunged later on by watchful social workers and colored pastors. Placenta, Granuloma and Gonadia, however, seem to have survived in a few places.

In more recent times, those black Americans who want their kids to stand out from the general run of Michaels and Lindas (or, to be more up to date, Kyles and Ashleys) have developed a stock of names that either express ethnic pride in some way ("Ebony," for example, or "Tawnee"), or are derived from Swahili ("Barika," which means "successful") or Arabic ("Rasheed," which means "righteous"), or are just made up ("Davon,"  "Tashira," etc.) There is also a scattering of European names favored solely by blacks. If you find yourself on the phone with a Tyrone or a Clarence or a Letitia, you can be 99 percent sure it is a black person. (Though "Clarence" will be at least forty years old — this name seems to have dropped out of favor in the 1960s.)

Other ethnic groups have a few trademark names, though nothing like to the extent black Americans do. I don't have much experience with Americans from the Indian subcontinent, but in the U.K., every other young man of that ancestry has the name "Neil." This is because "Anil" is a common Indian boy's name. (It's the Hindu God of Wind — not surprising so many babies get stuck with it.) On the other hand, in this area, my wife recently had a boss she used to talk about a lot over the dinner table, named Joanne. I didn't realize this person was from India until I took a phone call one day from a person with a thick subcontinental accent: "This is Joanne …"

Among my large circle of American acquaintances from China, half the little girls seem to have been awarded either "Amy" (sounds like "pretty" in Chinese) or "Anna" (sounds like "peace") as an American name. Another subset has weird, off the wall given names, usually self-selected: I know a Teley, a Hugy, a Jacoba and a Soff. One of the stars of the ten-pin bowling circuit in Hong Kong circa 1972 rejoiced in the name Hitler Wong.*  This striving for originality is understandable, though. Chinese has only a small stock of last names, with an even smaller number of them heavily over-used. There are supposed to be about 85 million Zhangs; if they all seceded and formed a nation of their own, it would have more citizens than Germany. If I say "Nixon," or "Churchill," you know, within context, who I am talking about. This can hardly ever be done in Chinese, so originality in forenames is important. This used to be widely appreciated**, but in recent years, with the rising fashion for one-syllable given names, things are getting very confusing, and the whole system has broken down badly. When the PA announcer at Beijing airport asks Mr. Zhang Li to report to the information desk, half the young men in the departure lounge head over there.

As Mencken shows, some groups have always been more willing than others to stamp their allegiance to Anglo-Saxon-Celtic culture on their name cards. Of nineteenth-century immigrants, he notes that Sephardic Jews were much more likely to hold on to Solomon, Nathan and Isaac than the Ashkenazi were to Yosel, Yankel and Ruven. Of the latter group, he says: "Presently their sons burst forth as Sidney, Irving, Milton, Stanley and Monroe. Their grandsons are John, Charles, Harold, James, Edward …" (Their great-grandchildren are of course Erin, Siobhan, and Conor, a very peculiar phenomenon much remarked on — the Hibernicization of American Jewry, perhaps deriving from a desire to sound goy without sounding WASP.) Similar differences can be seen today. It seems to me that Chinese and Indian immigrants are much readier to take up Anglo names than are, say, Hispanics, Haitians, or Muslim Arabs.

Or blacks. The persistence of "black names" is at least in part a side effect of the great multicultural project of this past thirty years, an outgrowth of ethnic pride and a declaration of ethnic separatism, of "diversity." For blacks who want to be upwardly mobile, the consequences are mildly negative, as the Chicago-MIT study shows. A lot of employers are reluctant to hire blacks. Possibly there is some "racism" here — an esthetic distaste for dark skin. A bigger factor, I am sure, is the affirmative action deficit — the suspicion that whatever references or qualifications a black applicant might present to an interviewer were obtained in part through racial favoritism or intimidation. And a much bigger factor is the simple fear of crippling lawsuits.

There is also the fact that black Americans in general, and very unfairly to the hard-working, law-abiding majority, have an image problem. It is considered "insensitive" for newspapers to tell us the race of criminals nowadays, but it's hard not to notice that when we read about some crack addict torturing his girlfriend's baby to death, or some 14-year-old cut down in a drive-by shooting, the names in the story are almost always something like Deshawn or Latonya. We think to ourselves: "Uh-huh." It would be nice if human beings were so close to the angels that they could put such things out of their minds altogether when reading through a stack of résumés. Unfortunately we are still creatures of the earth.

This is, as I said, unfair to a large number of Americans. The world, however, has a lot of petty unfairnesses of this kind built in to it. You can, if you choose, spend all your time seething about them or confronting them. If, on the other hand, you would prefer to just get on with life, you can dodge nimbly round most of these minor obstacles with very little effort. If I were a black American who wanted to get ahead in an honest career, I would trade in "Davon" for "David" as soon as I was legally competent to do so. That, of course, would be "acting white"; but at least I would be able to repent my act of racial treason from the comfort of a good job and a decent income.

* Not necessarily an endorsement of the Austrian corporal's policies. There was a spell in the 1930s when Chiang Kai-shek's government in China was getting a lot of military assistance and help from Germany, and some flattering biographies of Hitler were circulating in China. Chinese people who did not follow subsequent events very closely ended up with a vague feeling of warm admiration for Hitler.

** And generated its own problems. Chinese is, as everyone knows, not written alphabetically. To write Chinese, you use complicated little squiggles, and there are thousands of the darn things. Only about 4,000 are actually current, and I doubt any Chinese person carries more than 6,000 in his head. If you dig around in old books, however, you can turn up far more characters, some of them used just once in the entire 3,000-year history of the written Chinese language. Father Wieger, to whom I resort for information on this sort of thing (but who was writing eighty years ago) says the following: "The dictionary of Kangxi [compiled in A.D. 1716] contains 40,000 characters that may be plainly divided as follows: 4,000 characters in common use; 2,000 doubles and proper names of limited use; 34,000 monstrosities of no practical use." Those monstrosities are very tempting to a certain kind of mentality, though, and bookish Chinese people sometimes make a nuisance of themselves by giving their children really obscure characters as names. When you come across these in reading, or on business cards, you have to find a humonogous scholarly dictionary and look them up. Since the written language is not phonetic, unless you do this, you have no idea how to pronounce the name!

[Added July 2013] The Kangxi dictionary is now online, which helps. I just recently met a charming Chinese lady with one of these very obscure characters in her given name. Here it is in Kangxi. Try finding it anywhere else.