African-American names

A link provided in this thread leads to a study about hiring practices in relation to a person’s name. The short version is that applicants with names that sound African-American, such as Tyrone and Latonya, are less likely to get an interview than someone with a white-sounding name.

This made me wonder, what is the history of “black names”? “White names” are predominantly those that were used back in western Europe. Are “black names” similarly common names from Africa?

Since the 1960s it became widespread amongst African-Americans to give their children novel given names, many of them based on modifying or combining current names often with French or Arabic elements. One common such particle is “La” or “Le” which can be used to create names such as “Latonya.” I have known African-Americans with names such as “LeSean” (modified “Sean”), “Tyree” (modified “Tyrus”), “Tawanda” (particle “Ta” + Wanda), “Britiesh” (modified “Brittany”), “TaKeisha” (modified “Keisha”).

I suppose this practice grew from a desire for originality and creativity.

It’s just a fad; as acsenray points out, this one in particular is partially based on the civi lrights movement and a sort of common desire for unique cultural monikers. Naming fads have been based on worse things; you’ll find a lot of white kids named after characters in popular movies, such as the flood of “Jennifers” after “Love Story,” or “Madisons” after “Splash!” The current white suburban name fads are to name girls after either LAST names or states. Look at all the poor little girls who have been saddled with horrible names like the aforementioned “Madison” or “Dakota.”

Around here (Ontario) it seems like everyone with a drop of Irish blood in them has decided to give their child a “Celtic” name with a weird spelling, like Siobhan. (They will then yell at you for not being Celtic or psychic enough to know how it’s pronounced in another language.) Where this fad started I have no idea, but man, it’s everywhere.

Fads in baby names that become popular in certain demographics are old hat. A recent innovation is the use of product names; last year some 350 little girls were named “Lexus” or a form thereof. I swear.

I think it’s more about African Americans choosing to discard their “slave” names in favor of names that declare their freedom from oppression. I could be wrong.

It would doubtless make for a better discussion if some African Americans contributed to this thread.

In the meantime, the Caucasian guy chimes in:

It has been a long time since I read it, but in The American Language H. L. Mencken observed that three classes of people in the United States could be counted on to come up with given names which are out of the main: Easten High Society types (e.g. Phoebe, Winthrop, Nelson…), “backwoods” white folks from places such as the Missouri Bootheel or parts of West Virginia (e.g. Jethro, Gomer, Billy Bob), and lower class black people.

One reason many African Americans give their children such distincive names, I expect, is that they don’t have much of a readily-available store of ethnic names to draw on, and so have to be creative when trying to give their child a name which seems appropriate for their ethnicity.

I’m of Irish descent, and should I ever have children, I expect to give them names such as Douglas, Neal, Nora, Eileen… There are black people who have my surname, and I expect a lot of them would think it sounded funny to name their child Patrick or Colleen. If they did, the kid would spend their life meeting people for the first time who said things such as: “oh: are you Colleen? I thought you were going to be…uh…taller–I mean older…” There is a kid named Michael Robinson in the class, and one named Demetrious Robinson. Guess which one is black?

Some distinctive black names are obscure Biblical names. Cleophus was one of the disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Oprah Winfrey got her name when the name of a character in The Book of Ruth was misspelled.

Some black names which sound like original coinages to many people are, in fact, authentic well-established names from other cultures. I used to work with a woman named Nathilla. I ignorantly assumed this one something her parents had invented; it turns out that in parts of North Africa every Tom, Dick and Harry is named Nathilla (well: you know what I mean). Similarly, in grade school I had a classmate named Makeda. It was not until years later that I learned that Makeda or Maketa is a rendering into English of the name of a historically significant African queen.

Finally, I suspect that at least a little of this is a legacy of slavery; many slave owners, it appears, made an effort to give their slaves rare or unusual names; before he freed them, Thomas Jefferson had a servant named Jupiter. The OP asked about the name Tyrone. This is an Irish name, although not one which is common among Irish-Americans. It means “towering”; hence the various actors named Tyrone Power. I suspect slave owners wanted to avoid confusion or embarassment; it might have been awkward to tell the overseer you wanted “John” to run an errand if you had nine slaves named John, and it might have been embarassing to be giving orders to “Edward” on how to serve dinner if Edward was also the name of the dinner guest you were trying to impress.

Finally, there is the issue of social class. It seems to me, all things be equal, that African Americans who are born poor are likelier to have more unusual names. It is the same with white people. Some people of the lower classes–black and white–make a failed attempt to give their child a “boost” in life by giving them a name they mistakenly believe sounds “classy”; hence the plethora of working class white girls named Madison and Tiffany, and their black counterparts.

Finally, particularly among the ill-educated–white or black–ignorance is a factor. I used to work with a black woman named “Demeterious”. Her parents had thought (1) that “Demetrious” was a woman’s name and (2) that they knew how to spell it. I also worked at the same time with a white woman who always signed her name as “Shari”. In fact, her mother, a fan of actress Cyd Charisse, had named her “Charisse”, mistakenly supposing it was named “Shu-ree-suh”. Similarly, Bette Midler’s mother was a fan of Bette Davis, but didn’t know how she pronounced her name.

Mencken wrote that young interns used to make a game of trying to convince poor and ill-informed women to give their children unforturnate names. The story of the little black girl named “femily” (spelled “f-e-m-a-l-e”) is a very old urban legend, but according to Mencken, there were a number of children named Positive Wasserman. The “Wasserman” was a test for VD.

There’s a persistent urban legend that the custom of odd-sounding black names originally came from black new mothers in the maternity ward overhearing medical terms such as “urethra” and “eczema.” In one variant, the whole thing was started deliberately by a mischievous white intern at an inner-city hospital, whom a new mother asked for advice in choosing a name. Apparently the UL goes back at least to 1917. Snopes has covered this – click on

Especially the last names of rock stars. How many Dylans do we need, America?

There was a New York Times Magazine piece within the last few months that did demonstrate black children are much more likely to have “unique” names (i.e. no one with the same name and the same gender was born the same year). My experience, which I admit isn’t worth much, is that some names that are Islamic are thought of as “black,” for example: there may be nothing particularly African-American about a name, but if white parents just don’t use it, it becomes “black.”

I was going to suggest that black parents may be more likely to dip into other ethnic groups for names, but maybe that’d be stupid given how insanely popular Celtic/Irish names are in the US right now.

You’re probably right in that there are many factors depending on circumstance - especially geographic and economic. Just when I’m convinced I’m not a racist, there I go generalizing again.

I have a friend whose white 6 yr old daughter is named “Jaylin”. My friend saw the name “Jayleen” in a baby book, liked it but didn’t love it so altered it to her own invention, feeling that she had given her daughter a unique name.
A few years ago this friend started teaching in a primarily black school district and found that “Jaylen” has in the past few years become a very popular boy’s name among the black students, named by parents who are fans of Jalen Rose.
Now at community and school events she will call her daughter and be answered by about a dozen little boys.

Just wondering, are the black twin sisters named Orangejello and Lemonjello just a myth or real?

I met an EMT who claimed to be responsible for several children of immigrants being named ‘Placenta’. Lower-class Hispanic women who would wait until they were about to give birth then call an ambulance (to avoid hospital bills) would ask him his name after the baby was delivered, so they could name the baby after him. His stock answer was ‘Placenta’.

Highly doubtful, since all they do is mine the same culture that imposed the slave status in the first place. A re-scrambled set of slave name particles is just a re-scrambled set of slave name particles.

Welsh poet Dylan Thomas predates Bob Dylan by 25 years. In fact, Bob Dylan took his last name (he was born Zimmerman) from Dylan Thomas’s first name.

So all those little Dylans running around are actually named after Dylan Thomas.

It seems to me that people with the lowest social and economic standings tend to inflict the most overblown and bombastic names upon their children.

Thus, somebody on top of the heap is happy with “Robert” or “Susan”, since they already are confident of their place in the world and feel no need to overcompensate by being “fancy”. The result is that bombastic names become associated with low status.

The word placentia is Spanish for “pleasant place”, as in Placentia, California.

I teach in a predominantly black school district. According to the adults in this area, the unusual names (often not easy to pronounce) are simply made up. The mothers play with sounds until they hit a combination they like.
The assistant principle ( a African-American lady w/ much education) once made the following announcement over the PA system: “I’ll be calling all the underclassmen down to my office in alphabetical order. If I should mispronounce your name, you are to tell your momma she spelled it wrong.”

Since when is Tyrone a “black” name?

In recent decades, the name “Tyrone” has become far more common for African Americans than for white Americans. I’m usually slightly surprised when an American Tyrone turns out to be white.

Kinda off topic, but would you say “Cherisse” is a black name?

It does along with the following:


Yes, I’ve heard all used as names (for girls). One guess regarding their ethnic background.

I did meet a black couple from africa, who seeking to give their children more “western” name, named them “Bambi” and “Thumper”. “Bambi” isn’t too bad as a girls name (although the cartoon deer was a stag, you know).

Note, that one can be “african-american” and be blond & blue-eyed. Many South Africans are “whiter” than I am.