Friday, August 8, 2008

What's in a Name? Part Two

Now that I am once again out of the hospital and able to sleep in my own bed without being wakened several times a night to be weighed or have my vital signs taken, I have the opportunity to think about other things every once in a while, or at least to return to thoughts over which I've been mulling for a while. Thus I present part two of my musings on names and naming.

The name Reginald has very different connotations for white people and for black people. For white people, the name sounds very English, and my Anglo accent, though one that I can’t hear, often makes them inquire as to whether I am English, or perhaps West Indian. I just reply that I got my accent from my Barbadian father (whom I met once) and my Jamaican stepfather (who abused my mother and me). But almost the only people in America nowadays with the name Reginald are black. It’s become an almost quintessentially black name, like Antoine (often spelled Antwan, or Antuan) or Leroy/Leroi (“the king”).

Mine is one of a set of categories of black names. There are the names that white Americans don’t use anymore, like Cedric or Tyrone, names that have been handed over to black people (though in the hospital I did have a white physical therapist named Tyrus—but then, the South has always been a bit backward). There are also names like Reginald, Maurice, or Roderick (this last one is on the edge) which have become predominantly black names but aren’t yet perceived so by white people. There are the made-up names, like Materia, Tawanna (a cousin of mine—she was meant to be named after the Mexican border city), or Chicalaundra (pronounced “Shalandra”). There are the Frenchified names, like LaQuan or LeVante or LeBron or LaToya (also LeToya), or the (male) driver of the Greyhound bus I used to take to work when I lived in Chicago, LaHarry. I remember joking once with a black friend that you can make any name black just by adding “La” or “Le” to it; then I realized it was true. (“De” will also work, as in DeWayne, DeMarcus or, my favorite, Da’Sean, pronounced “DAY-Shawn”—the apostrophe makes all the difference.) Then there are the faux-African names, like Kechia/Keshia/Keisha, Kena (another cousin of mine), Kima, and Kwame (this last a genuineWest African name appropriated by black Americans). There is an overlap between Frenchified black names and faux-African names, as in Lakeisha or Deshondra, and between the made-up names and the faux-African names, like Tawanna or Kima or Ebony/Eboni. There are also the Arab names, like Jamal and Malik, Omar and Raheem/Raheim. I’ve always found black Americans' tendency to give their children Muslim names odd, since Muslim Arabs were major slave traders for over a thousand years. A category which seems to have dwindled are names taken from words of rank and position, so that a white person calling a black person by (usually) his first name would still have to show respect, even if the act was meant disrespectfully. The singer Prince a/k/a “Symbol Thing” (born Prince Rogers Nelson) and poet Major Jackson would be examples. Mine is also an example of such a name, since, as I wrote earlier, my mother always told me that it meant “Great King.”

When I was a kid, and up until my mid-twenties, I went by “Reggie.” The only other two Reggies I knew of in my childhood were the baseball player Reggie Jackson and the Archie comic books laughingstock rich bad boy Reggie Mantle. He once went into an office and, unsatisfied by the secretary’s refusal to be impressed by him, announced “Someday my name will be a household word,” to which her response was, “Like dirt?”

A few months before my twenty-fifth birthday, I decided that I was too old to be called “Reggie.” That was a child’s name, and it was time for me to put aside childish things. Since then I have gone by my full name, though people still insist on calling me “Reggie” and “Reg.” But even when I went by Reggie, already a shortened version of my name, many people insisted on calling me “Reg." Besides the obvious fact that it wasn’t my name (if I wanted to be called Reg, I would introduce myself that way), as my oldest friend Merav’s mother put it, “Reg” has the air of a hale fellow well met, a football player perhaps, and that's never been me or anyone I wanted to be. I've never understood why people would need to nick a nickname, anyway. Some people still call me Reg, and I always correct them, except for my editor at the University of Pittsburgh Press, Ed Ochester. He has loyally published me for many years, so if he wanted to call me “Joe,” that would be alright with me.


Anonymous said...

Reginald, I love these blogs on your name and names in general. Thanks for the opportunity to get close to your origins and to think about the subject in a larger context.

Names not only pin one down as to race or ethnicity, but also date one. My mother named me Diane after the 40s song that went "Smile for me, my Diane." My sisters were also named for songs; my brother for someone who lent my parents money for their house.

You skipped the whole Black Power naming thing, didn't you? My friend and hairdresser Rafiki was born Henry (in the South).

I could go on and on with anecdotes because this subject is so interesting. We (my husband of French-Canadian/Irish parentage) and I (Bronx Jewish) named our son Nathaniel. Both sets of in-laws hated it. We thought it would allow him to be a baseball player (Nat) or president. As it turns out, he is an engineer and his wife calls him Nate (which I don't like at all!) Go figure.

Alfred Corn said...

Glad to hear recovery is well underway, Reginald. I enjoyed your comments about forenames but wanted to point out that new-minted monickers are not solely African American. Consider Oona, Zelda, Delmore, Cheryl (a combo of Cherie and Beryl?), Darlene, Kayla, Britney, LaVerne (one of the Andrews sisters), and Moon Unit (Zappa).

Actually, I like nicknames and am aware, too, that Richard Wilbur is known to his friends as "Dick." It's also interesting to reflect on the rise in popularity of poets' use of nicknames as their nom de plume, beginning with the great precursor Walt. Later examples include Thom Gunn, Reg Saner, Tony Harrison, Al Young, Dave Smith, Tess Gallagher, Marge Piercy, Ron Padgett, Ron Silliman, Molly Peacock, Annie Finch, Al Young, Dick Davis, Billy Collins, Don Paterson, Kay Ryan, Nick Flynn, Bob Hicok, and lots of others.

Best wishes,


JKA said...

This may be a stretch, but I wonder of America’s love of nicknames parallels America’s suspicion of anything intellectual, or “elitist.” Do you see a connection? Fascinating Post.

Alfred Corn said...

Well, Jarod, I'm not convinced America is really anti-elitist. Even poets tend simply to redefine the elite, pledging allegiance to the figures perceived as "in." As for the traditional elite, they were/are just as ready as anyone else to address each other by nicknames. In Proust's depiction of the European aristocracy, for example, you find the use of nicknames like Me'me' (for the Baron de Charlus). And it's known that to family members Elizabeth II was/is known as Lilibet. Fun to think of. Further thoughts, Reginald?

Reginald Shepherd said...

Hi everyone, thanks for your comments and your good wishes.

Jarod's comment is very intriguing, and I think that there's a lot to it. Though America obviously has social, economic, and political elites, it also has a strongly anti-elitist ideology, and the public use of nicknames is part of that. The difference between what Jarod and I are talking about and what Alfred is referring to is that Alfred is referring to the use of nicknames among families, friends, and intimates, whereas Jarod and were talking about the public use of nicknames (even politicians use them), and the way that strangers will refer to and address others by nicknames. Alfred touched on this in his earlier comment on poets' use of nicknames as their noms de plum, as if to undercut the pretentiousness of being a poet.

Lunch is ready and I must go now. Thanks again to everyone for your comments.

all best,


John Gallaher said...

Maybe I could start going by my middle name: Jerome. I've kind of always wanted a nick name. Jack. I kind of wish that one would come back. But NOT Jerry. Too many Jerry Lewis nightmares.

Welcome back home. Stay there this time, OK?

Ms Baroque said...

Hi Reginald. De-lurking myself here. Great post on names. Of course, the public nickname thing is happening here in the UK now, too, thanks to "Tony" Blair.

I too names one of my kids Nathaniel, and was fascinated by the responses: American relatives LOVED it - so traditional, Biblical, fine - & my elderly English mother-in-law said, "It sounds like a Hebrew name." Ah, bless. And then most people hearing us call him Nat ASSUMED his name was "Nathan." And we met several Nates at his first school, all black. Nate is seemingly a black name in North London!

The noticeable Black Names here would be headed by Winston. And then Tyrone. Loads of Keishas, LaTishas, etc, in my kids' school. I find it sort of sad, in a way, like the now-endless (white) Jades and Kylies and Britneys. Antwan I find depressing, it has so much sort of yearning in it, & then spelled wrong... Tawanna the same - though it is very pretty.

My mother, when I was a kid, had a race-nonspecific story about someone whose parents had named her after a word on the birth registration form. It was pronounced "Femmaly." Guess how it was spelled...

I hope you recover very quickly from your operation!

Ms Baroque said...

Pressed send too quickly, I wanted to say and let it be the last one! You must be possessed of superhuman strength & I hope this will be it now.

Reginald Harris said...

Very glad to hear that you are back home!

As I may have mentioned to you at some point, I've never been particularly crazy about my (our shared) name. How much of that is based on being a 'Jr' and my relationship with my father is one for my therapist and I to work out. However, I think part of it must stem from my not knowing anyone (other than my father) who had the same name as me. I was floored that, when you and I met in Chicago, the young black man at the desk in the hotel where we both were staying was also named Reginald -- Three on one place at the same time!

Unlike you, I don't mind being shortened to Reg (although that sounds odd to me) or Reggie -- Except in print, where it's always the full first name (and sometimes the middle initial thrown in as well). I also know someone at work who ALWAYS calls me by my full first name, the last syllable ringing off her tongue like a bell.

I also remember how 'cool' it was to be sitting in a Medieval History class in High School and hearing the name 'Ragnold'. I thought it fascinating that my name had a history.

Thanks again for a thought provoking post! Wishing you increasing health and much success.

(your fellow) Reginald

Radish King said...

Anyone who calls me Becky loses a body part. Like you, I outgrew the diminution, but I outgrew it when I was around 3 years old. I named my son a name that is basically impossible to shorten, though he has become The Surfer through my blog. He doesn't mind.

Glad to read you're on the mend and doing well.

Radish King said...

ps. In all honesty, I was named after Becky Thatcher, Tom Sawyer's friend. It was the only book my young father had read all the way through when I was born, but Rebecca is on my birth certificate.

Jim K. said...

Reg seems very UK and preppy. Some of the names like Moesha seem to have a twined purpose of individual uniqueness, like some country names (Shania, etc). My oldest was Katherine after Kate Hepburn and Ketherine Janeway (star Trek), two really strong individuals.

T. said...

I have a French name pronounced in the French fashion (accents and all), yet I am constantly being "corrected" and Americanized. That anyone believes that they can fuck with someone else's name is just beyond me. To simplify things, my name has been edited (by me) to a single letter (T.), which often requires spelling-out and explanation. Can't win.

Wonderful posts. Thanks!

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Unknown said...

after a word on the birth registration form. It was pronounced "Femmaly." Guess how it was spelled...
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