Silver Threads: So what's in a name?
When I was 6 or 7 years old, my family had an elderly neighbor whom I called “Mister D.R.C.” That his given name actually was D’Arcy I didn’t learn until 30 or 40 years later.
The grownups in our small Texas town probably called him Darcy, as in the surname of the “Pride and Prejudice” hero, overlooking the apostrophe and the subtle and correct French pronunciation. Texans have a way of doing that; I had Boisseau relatives whom everybody had dubbed “Borsaw.”
I got to thinking about names the other day after the arrival of an email noting an African-American congresswoman’s objection to discrimination in the naming of hurricanes. She is Sheila Jackson Lee, of Houston, and it might amuse her to know that this issue is still out there on the internet, because her complaint was made 12 years ago.
She reportedly told the U.S. weather people that she’d prefer some names that reflect African-American culture, such as Chamiqua, Tanisha, Shaquille.
The National Hurricane Center began using women’s names for storms in the first place because they were easier to remember than the latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates with which they’d been previously identified. Used in the Pacific during World War II, they were adopted for Atlantic storms in 1953.
Everybody — old folks like me in particular — can tell you how hard it is to spell and remember some names. More creative monickers began to be bestowed on babies during the ‘70s (remember Zowie Bowie?). Before that most everybody was John and Timothy and Ella and Lena and Sidney and Hattie, to name a few of the celebrities born prior to the change. Now, any parents can have their children christened with any name they choose, but I can tell you, living with some of them can be a burden.
I’ve had to spell out B-e-t-t-y-e all my life because for some reason my mother had the otherwise simple name put on my birth certificate with the extra e. And that’s easy compared to the plight of columnist Leonard Pitts’ daughter: Years ago Pitts wrote of the birth of his daughter, adding that he and his wife had named her “Onjel” because they loved the name “Angelle” but figured nobody would be able to spell it or pronounce it. And they thought they were simplifying matters?
By the 1970s and 1980s it had become common within African-American culture to create new names, says a website I consulted. “Many of the invented names took elements from popular existing names. Prefixes such as La/Le, Da/De, Ra/Re, or Ja/Je and suffixes such as -iqua, -isha, or -aun are common, as well as inventive spellings for common names.”
And New Orleans folks get the credit for some of the later innovations: The book “Baby Names Now: From Classic to Cool --The Very Last Word on First Names” places the origins of "La" names in African-American culture in our city.
“The name LaKeisha is typically considered American in origin, but has elements of it pulled from both French and African roots,” says the book. “Other names ... were created in the same way. Punctuation marks are seen more often within African-American names than other American names, such as the names Mo'nique and D’Andre.”
Baby names in general are more creative these days. Caden, Jayden, Liam and Zoe are among the current most popular ones overall. And Drew Brees named his kids Baylen, Bowen, Callen and Rylen.
But young New Orleanians aren’t the only ones with names that probably wouldn’t work well on hurricanes. After I moved here, the feminine surname “Haydee” occasionally popped up in the TP, and guess how this newcomer pronounced it until I actually met the lady? Right. Shades of Mister D.R.C.
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected]