“Dear Abby” And The Unusual Name Paradox [Updated]

The famous Hogg sisters, Ura and Ima.

Let’s begin with a related observation: The now widely accepted method of expressing disagreement with a point of view that varies from leftist (now, now, I use the term with love!) cant is to set out to destroy the point of view’s owner: after all, eliminate or intimidate all the dissenters and adversaries, and progressives no longer have to win  arguments on logic and merit. I know of what I speak: I am increasingly the target of social justice warriors (fascist division), who make formal complaints to my clients or administrative bodies when my ethical guidance doesn’t jibe with the world view their professors indoctrinated them with, thus precluding an open mind.

Thus I sympathize with “Dear Abby,” actually Daughter of Dear Abby Jeanne Phillips (also the niece of Ann Landers), who is now facing the progressive Twitter mob because she dared to opine that naming one’s baby Ifeoma, Bodhi or Laszlo might not be in the child’s long-term interests. “Not only can foreign names be difficult to pronounce and spell, but they can also cause a child to be teased unmercifully,” wrote Phillips. “Sometimes the name can be a problematic word in the English language. And one that sounds beautiful in a foreign language can be grating in English.”

The Horror. Now she is being called racist, and if her syndicate has the backbone and integrity of most organizations these days, which is to say none, she will probably be toast in a matter of weeks if not days. Writer Anand Giridharadas was among those interviewed for a Times story about Abby’s Outrage. “The reality is that a lot of this has to do not with names but with whiteness,” he said. “There are a lot of complicated names from Polish and Russian and Italian and German backgrounds that have become second nature to Americans.”

No, the issue is not “whiteness.” The questions in the ethical equation are…

Are you naming a child for your amusement, self-aggrandizement or political agenda, of for the child?

Is conduct consistent with cultural norms wise and respectful, or is it preferable to announce one’s defiance?

If data and experience shows that odd and unusual names create problems later in life, should responsible parents take that into consideration?

Is it fair and ethical to hang an unnecessary handicap on a child without that child’s approval?

What Phillips said is true. It’s that simple. People don’t like that it’s true, so they are condemning her.

Having an unusual name can have all sorts of unanticipated consequences, desirable as well as unfortunate. Parents who are tempted to choose such names for their children should mke the choice with their eyes open, understanding the factors involved. In Germany, it is illegal to name one’s son Hitler, whatever the motive. That’s a breach of individual rights here, but it is just an extreme example of parental naming arrogance, turning a child into a lifetime billboard or bumper sticker. One of the Kantian ethics principles I believe should always be considered is the philosopher’s absolutist condemnation of using other human beings as a means to an end. You want to celebrate your cultural origins? Fine: do it without interfering with your child’s life and making him or her cope with being seen and treated as “special” from the age of four.

Personally, I like unusual names, perhaps because my own name caused me to be harassed by teachers through most of elementary school. Not only was I the only “Jack,” I was told outright, more than once, that it wasn’t a “real name.” (Catholics. At least none of them tried to molest me….). Well, you know me; I was rather defiant about the matter, and refused to respond when I was called “John.” No, I don’t regret being named “Jack,” which has become a very popular name, starting with Jack Kennedy, though he was really a John.  My father was named Jack, and he was an ornery iconoclast too.

People with unusual names sometimes develop a sense of separation from the crowd which can make them leaders or send them into therapy. Five Presidents-to-be named Hiram, Stephen, Thomas, John and David deliberately switched their first and middle names to be more unusual, becoming Ulysses, Grover, Woodrow, Calvin and Dwight. [ Note: In the original post, I forgot about John Calvin Coolidge. Thanks to A.M Golden for the correction.] Other Presidents had less-than-common names like Millard, Rutherford, and Jimmy, or rarish names like Abraham, Zachary, Theodore and Calvin. It didn’t hurt them any. On the other side of the ledger, I had a college room mate whose creative father had  named “Worldman.” Worldman said that he had been teased and harassed over the name all of his life, and felt like it placed a crushing burden on him to achieve great things. He also felt that changing his name would insult his father.

Worldman committed suicide before he was 30. It wasn’t the name, of course, but I often wonder what might have happened if he were named “Bob.” Worldman’s problem came to mind when I wrote this post, about parents who decided to name their child “Messiah” and were blocked by an incompetent judge.

I have written about namiung ethics a couple of times, notably about the man named Alkapone Cruz-Balles, who, amazingly enough, turned to a life of crime. Of his parents I wrote,

“There’s nothing like pointing your son toward the cell block when he’s barely out of the womb. I don’t know why any parents would name a child “Alkapone,” much less why they would voluntarily adopt the surname “Cruz-Balls,” which sounds like a weapon in a Sci-Fi porno film. I do know that any parent who would do so are a pare of unethical jerks”

I would not go so far as to similarly label parents who name babies less risible but equally unusual names to celebrate the culture they are no longer in. I do feel that such parents need to understand the potential consequences of their choices, which is all “Dear Abby” was trying to explain.

41 Comments

Filed under Around the World, Childhood and children, Family, History, U.S. Society

41 responses to ““Dear Abby” And The Unusual Name Paradox [Updated]

  1. Steve-O-in-NJ

    I thought Grant changed his name because he was originally Hiram Ulysses Grant, yielding the embarrassing initials H.U.G.

    • Indeed. But he changed it. (I am not sure UHG is any better.) But going to the more unusual first name did help his career, especially after the army erroneously replaced the H with an S that stood for nothing. U S Grant was a name the papers loved, and brought Grant positive attention. The cognitive dissonance scale strikes again!

  2. I once read an article that people with “black sounding” names are less likely to get called back for a job interview than people with normal names.

    Is it unethical to give children “black sounding” names?

  3. Here's Johnny

    In my 20 years of teaching high school, two of the more unusual names I came across were Marijuana Pepsi Jackson and Vickey Mouze.
    In an article written several years after she graduated, Marijuana said that she was teased regularly during middle school and her teachers had an awkward pause when they came to her name in their first roll-call of the year. (She was never in my class.) During high school, she says, kids thought her name was cool. As an adult, she faced difficulties and disbelief in placing orders on the phone or filling out paperwork. She has, despite this, achieved a good measure of success, earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree, and at last report from several years ago was progressing toward a doctorate. She said she embraces her name now as a symbol of the obstacles she has overcome in life.
    Vickey, who was my student, stated very clearly on the first day of class that her last name was pronounced MOO-zay, acknowledging that she had been teased regularly with a different pronunciation.
    I’m also aware of an adopted child whose birth mom wanted her to be named Massiah.
    I consider all three of these name choices to be unethical; parents are obliged to think through what will happen to their child who has a name that can easily serve for mockery. But, I also recognize that kids will make fun of whatever they can. My last name is not all that unusual, but, for some kids, as I was growing up, it became Gangrene and even Gangbanger, serving their desire to mock.
    On the other hand, I’ve encountered a number of other names that were unusual to me, mostly African, where the apparent intent was to recognize African heritage and culture. The only problem I had with those was learning the correct pronunciation.

  4. Jack Houghton

    I too am a Jack “Jack” and not a John “Jack.” Over the years I have come to know many “Jacks” who were mostly John “Jacks” and even one, my father-in-law, a Robert “Jack.” My wife is named “Jackie” and she is a real “Jackie” and not a Jacqueline “Jackie.” We like to keep it easy to remember. Don’t usually give it much thought one way or another.

    • My Dad and I also had a “Jack Marshall” Club. We found quite a few. One of my Mom’s Greek cousin liked my Dad’s name and wrestled professionally as “Jack Marshall.” But only real Jacks could be full members, so the most famous Jack Marshall, the Hollywood arranger who wrote the theme for “The Munsters,” wasn’t eligible. Fake Jack.

    • JutGory

      My son is a Jack-Jack, named obliquely for my mother, Jacquelyn, and my father-in-law, John.
      -Jut

  5. AC

    As a plea of understanding: It’s a cultural pride thing. I know quite a few hispanic that are named, well, as you’d expect, with hispanic names.

    One of the explained it to me like this
    “My grandma told me that there are people in this country who would tell me to be ashamed of my culture and throw it away, don’t dare let them win. My culture is something to be proud of and preserved, and part of that is in my name.” She plans to name her child in like fashion.

    Also unrelated, but I dropped by Windypundit to see how he’s doing, and found a semi gross mini hit piece on you, particularly fun in the comments where someone blatantly accuses you of saying someone shouldn’t be held accountable for trying to rape someone when they were 17.

    https://windypundit.com/2018/10/jack-marshall-watch-special-ethics-abdication-edition/#comment-33761

  6. Alex

    Stop me if I’ve told this story before… Or scroll, or whatever. 🙂

    My wife and I, both Mexicans living in the US have had our three children here. And the process for finding names was more or less this after we settled on using Spanish names.
    -Come up with a long list both boys and girl from the list of Catholic Saints
    -Scratch out the names of my exes (happened twice, moot point at the end as we only have boys)
    -Eliminate the ones with no reasonable English equivalent.
    -Out go the ones that are very difficult to pronounce.
    -Ensure that there’s an easy and straightforward nickname that works in the US.
    -Throw the ones left into the Thunderdome where they fight on spelling, aesthetics, musicality, etc.

    One comes out for a boy, one for a girl and nature makes the final decision.

  7. “Contrary to popular belief, Ima did not have a sister named Ura. Texas legend insists that when Jim Hogg ran for re-election as Texas governor in 1892 he often travelled with Ima and a friend of hers and introduced them as his daughters Ima and Ura.”

    The Freakonomics guys have an opinion, several actually, on the subject.

    http://freakonomics.com/podcast/how-much-does-your-name-matter-a-new-freakonomics-radio-podcast/

    The most…um…interesting name I ever encountered was was at a summer job training session for Northrup King/Retail Packet Seed Division.

    The guy’s name was Owen Owen Owen; I assume he was pretty proud of it because he printed out all three on his Hi, My Name Is: lapel sticker.

    ‘Course, that was 1974; we were all wearing bell-bottoms with some pretty wild shirts, and had long hair, so there were weirder things afoot.

    And he was from Minnesota…

  8. I was talking to someone in a business setting, and she admitted her name was a problem for her. People had trouble saying it when they met her, there was an extra syllable put in that didn’t match any of common similar names. She admitted with a bit of embarrassment that she went by a simpler nickname.

    I always feel sorry for people who were saddled with very unusual names by parents. They should have gotten vanity plates or some flashy cosmetic surgery and left their child alone. The trend seemed to have really gotten underway in the later 70s when books started using very obscure and made up problem names for story purposes, but then started popping up in baby lists.

    The real-life consequences are a very unkind thing to hang on a baby. (now if Thrawton is a hereditary family name, that means they know the costs already) I won’t even give really weird names to characters because I want readers to be able to absorb and be able to say them to others without stumbling and lingering annoyance. It really isn’t that hard to make something original and still pronouncable/spellable. Names are important, as that usually starts how people are defined.

  9. PennAgain

    My name as it is used today lacks the middle name I was given by my dad in a fit of funny while mom was still out cold (they used to overdo the anesthesia like that, the idiots — killed a lot of babies that way). The combination of those first and last names used together would have made my life a misery. Lucky for me, it got legally erased before I was registered for school.

  10. John R Billingsley

    How about Bill Lear, Lear Jet, who named a daughter Shanda? My wife had a student named Female pronounced Fee-mah-lay. I once knew a little boy named Love Hawaii.

    On a different topic, been out of touch here due to living in Bay county FL and meeting Michael. Family all safe and I’m glad to be here.

  11. JutGory

    These comments would not be complete without mention of three comedic references:

    1. Monty Python’s, Mr. Luxury Yacht skit, pronounced “Throatwobbler Mangrove”;

    2. SNL’s skit about Mr. Asswipe skit, prounounced “Ass-WEE-pay”; and

    3. Dave Chappelle’s skit about the ‘50’s white family with the surname, “Nigger.”

    -Jut

  12. My grandfather was named ‘Bowers’ (good luck finding it in any records, though, as he changed it before entering the Army for WWII) which must have been a very old family name: everyone called him by his second name.

    Then his wife, who bore my dad nine months after a leave whereupon they got married, named my father after his new name. My grandfather refused to have a junior (thought it pretentious?) so everyone called my father by his middle name as well… in the family. I still have issues in his hometown expressing who my father is: everywhere else in the world he is one name, and for half that town he is another. Ran into this problem just last week picking up a prescription for him: someone knew him by his second name, and it took me a minute to unravel why.

    Names are strange.

    Try going through life with ‘willy’ in your screen name!

    • PennAgain

      Try going through life with ‘willy’ in your screen name!

      Then why have a scr– uh, urm, oh, got it. That is a very funny line; I’m going to steal it. … and leave your “willy” behind

      • Ooohhhhh Daaayum, you fed me SUCH a straight line…

        Must…resist…urge…to…snark……..

        Okay, this writes itself… you used the phrase ‘leave your willy’ and ‘behind’ in the same sentence… come on, restraining myself is killin’ me!

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