Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Urban Legend Names

Recently, I've noticed several high-profile articles devoted to unusual names. David Zax has a piece entitled "What's Up With Black Names, Anyway?" featured on the front page of Salon today. Salon also ran a piece by Kate Harding on a similar subject a few weeks ago. Plenty of people are writing about Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii of New Zealand. I'm glad to know that others share my fascination with names.

People who are interested in onomastics walk a fine line between enjoying interesting names and mocking them. As many of the authors mentioned above are careful to point out, urban legends often ascribe ridiculous names to African-American or poor white children in order to reinforce racist or classist prejudices. According to Snopes,
Legend [sic] of the "kid named Eczema" ilk attempt to reinforce belief in the rightness of racism or regionalism. Just as parables were used in the Bible to communicate in a simple-to-understand form a behavior thought worthy of emulation, racist legends try to drive home the point that the looked-down-upon group is inherently inferior . . . The more stories like there are told, the more the message of them is worked into the fabric of the people exposed to them. Hearing the "kid named Eczema" story again and again makes it that much more easy to think of Blacks as less intelligent.
The urban legends generally focus on medical terms and report that an uneducated mother gave her child an inappropriate name such as "Chlamydia" or "Gonorrhea" after hearing a doctor use the term. In addition to ridiculing African-American or poor women for their supposed ignorance, these stories also imply that the mothers are promiscuous or sexually deviant by placing them in situations where their doctors would be mentioning sexually transmitted infections.

I agree with Kate Harding, David Zax, and Snopes about the purposes of these urban legends. On the other hand, I am an historian-in-training, and as such, I am loath to accept statements such as, "Was there ever a mother so stupid as to name her kid Eczema without realizing what the name meant? Probably not." "Probably not" is not good enough. In this essay, I will put some of these urban legend names to the test by running them through the census, birth, marriage, and death records at Ancestry.com and seeing what turns up.

Before I begin, a few words on my methodology:

The names tested will be drawn from the list on Snopes.

I will search for these names in several databases, including the Federal Census records (1790-1930), US military records, the Texas Birth Index (1903-1997), and the California Birth Index (1905-1995). These public records are available through Ancestry's Library Edition. This collection also includes many smaller sets of records, which I will cite appropriately when necessary.

If I can find no evidence of a particular name, I will classify it as "unconfirmed."If I find a name, I will classify it as either "confirmed" or "possible." The criteria for these categories are as follows:
  • Confirmed: A name can be confirmed in one of two ways. First, if a name appears in an official, typed record, such as the California Birth Index, that provides substantial identifying information (birthdate, parents' names, residence), it will be confirmed. Second, if a name appears in a handwritten record (1800 census), it will only be confirmed if a second source establishes its authenticity. This is necessary because many handwritten records are difficult to read, so a name like "Denis" can be misread as "Penis." For example, I can confirm Gay Hitler as an authentic name because I verified the individual's existence on the 1910 Census, the 1930 Census, and on his WWII draft card.
  • Possible: If I can only find the name on one handwritten record, I will classify the name as possible, rather than as confirmed. Sometimes, the person indexing the census has a hard time reading the handwritten records, so "Virginia" might look like "Vagina." If I find the same individual listed as "Vagina" in one census and "Virginia" in another, I will assume that "Virginia" is correct. *Caveat: just because a name appears in only one census, it is not necessarily incorrect. Census takers often missed people living in rural areas or those who did not speak English as a first language, so someone might turn up in the 1910 census, but not the 1900 or the 1920. Other problems can occur, particularly with the 1890 census, which was destroyed by a fire at the National Archives in 1921. If a woman was born in 1875, she might show up on the 1880 census and have been married or dead by 1900, so it would be difficult to confirm her identity.
— I can only confirm the existence of a name, not the circumstances under which that name was chosen. Thus, I cannot confirm the truth of urban legends such as those listed at Snopes.

— Public birth, marriage, and divorce records do not always identify the race or ethnicity of individuals. I have not made an effort to verify the race, ethnicity, or native language of individuals unless that information is readily available in the public records.

— These results are based on the information that I have at hand. If further research indicates that the results listed here are incorrect, I will be delighted to update my post. I'm not trying to prove that the urban legends are true — I'm just trying to find out whether the names are real and am not emotionally invested in the results. If you see the name of someone you know or you notice a mistake, please comment so I can add to or revise my conclusions.

Ok, here are the results for the Snopes list:

Asshole: Unconfirmed. However, I can confirm that there are several people named Anal, including Anal Exceus of Houston, TX (b. 8/26/1988 — happy birthday!), Anal Singh, and Anal Shah. I noticed that several people named "Anal" are South Asian, so I suspect that it might be a variant spelling of "Anil," the Hindu god of wind.

Clitoris: Unconfirmed. Variant forms can be confirmed, viz. Clitty Jones of Somers, OH (b. 1895, married to Walter, confirmed in 1920 and 1930 census). The name "Clit" appears in several census records, but cannot be independently confirmed (ex: Clit Mangum, Commerce, GA, 1930 census).

Chlamydia: Unconfirmed.

Eczema: Possible. Three women show up in the census records as "Eczema": Eczema Wright of Indiana, Eczema Hugey of Missouri, and Eczema James of Texas. All three of these women were born before 1900, so I doubt that anyone alive today has ever met a "kid named Eczema."

Enamel: Confirmed. Enamel Landry of Ascension, LA (b. 1869 d. 1944 — confirmed in 1910 census and in Louisiana death records), Joseph Enamel Pereten of Williamson County, TX (b. March 5, 1932). Searching for "Enamel" in the census records returns about 40 hits, some of which seem to be misspellings of "Emmanuel."

Female: Possible. This one is tricky because there is a legitimate reason for "Female" to appear on vital records in various fields and it could be misinterpreted. In addition, it is difficult to distinguish between someone named "Female" and female child who has not yet been named. This name shows up in circumstances that indicate that it may be an actual name, but there are so many opportunities for error here that I am not willing to call it confirmed. The California birth records (image above right) show three babies named Female, all of whom have middle names (either that or their middle names are really their first names and someone screwed up when they typed them into the computer). The Texas birth records also contain several Females (Female Butler, Female Hardin), though neither has a middle name, which makes me suspicious.
"Male" is a confirmed name: ex. David Male Tiumalu (b. 8/1/1953, Alameda Co., CA), Linda Male Osmer (b. 5/8/1952, Texas), Male Joseph Cotton (b. 3/29/1974).

Gonorrhea: Unconfirmed.

Latrine: Confirmed. Latrine seems to be a legitimate name. Examples: Latrine Sharmine Olive (b. 11/24/1979, Sacramento, CA), Quiana Latrine Phillips (b. 4/1/1988, Los Angeles, CA), Latrine Nicole Cook (b. 1/21/1976, Dallas, TX), Charlotte Latrine Martin (b. 2/8/1971, Wichita, TX). A variant form, Latrina, is actually quite popular, even cracking the top 1000 baby names in America for six years running during the 1970s. There are nearly 500 girls named Latrina in the Texas and California birth records alone. The most unfortunate example of this name has to be Latrina Pickens-Brown of Nevada (that's her married name).

Lemon Jello/Orange Jello: Unconfirmed. Perhaps this rumor got started by someone who heard the Neapolitan surname "Lemongello."

Meconium: Confirmed. Willie Meconium Cage (b. 3/15/1933, Texas), Alfredo Meconium Gallardo (b. 5/18/1936, Los Angeles, CA).

No Smoking: Confirmed. Nosmo King Cheatam (b. 11/26/1918 d. 11/10/1997). Mr. Cheatam was a veteran of the United States Navy and is buried in Texarkana, TX. He is listed on the 1920 census as "Nosmo Cheatam" (residence: Garner, Arkansas) and on the Social Security death index as "Nosmo K. Cheatam." "Nosmo" is not a unique name — see Nosmo Welch, Nosmo Corsa, Richard Nosmo Whiteheart, etc. It is possible that Nosmo Cheatam adopted the middle name "King" as an adult as a joke or that he was named after the vaudeville character Nosmo King. Either way, the Federal Government knew him as Nosmo King Cheatam. Also, Nosmo Cheatam was white.

Pajama: Possible. I found several people named "Pajama" in the public phone/address records, including Pajama Ngongba of Alexandria, VA and Pajama Howanitz of Alabaster, AL, but was not able to confirm their names independently. Since phone records are not official, I can't confirm that these are real names.

Placenta: Confirmed. Placenta Ann Woodard (b. 8/7/1953, Freestone Co., TX, married Rahman Hassan 11/10/1986 in Tarrant, TX), Placenta Ayala (b. 10/5/1951, Howard Co., TX), Placenta Theresa Bennett (b. 7/21/1958, Caldwell Co., TX). Others show up in the census — the picture at right is of the entry for Placenta M. Duncan of Green Bay, Iowa in the 1860 census.

Shithead: Unconfirmed.

Syphilis: Unconfirmed.

Testicles: Unconfirmed. Only one person named "Testicles" appears in the census records — a Sioux boy born in 1892 in Devil's Lake, North Dakota. The U.S. Indian Census Schedules (1885-1940) record Native Americans' names as well as the English translations of those names. The records indicate that the boy's name, Susu, means "testicles." I really enjoyed looking through these records and recommend them to anyone interested in names or in Native American history. Some of my favorite names from Susu's community include Itekanpeskawin ("Face Like an Ornament"), Hotaninmaniwin ("They Heard Her Voice"), and Tawakanhdiwayakapi ("They See Her Electricity"). These records really drew me in — after I'm done with this essay, I'm going to try to find out more about them.

Urea: Confirmed. Urea Pyle of Delaware Co., PA (married to Reece Pyle, confirmed in 1900, 1910, and 1920 census records), Elton Urea Juniel of California (married in Las Vegas 3 times: married Tish Denise Harris 6/27/1981, married Beverly Jean Mills, 8/17/1991, married Julie Marie Bossin 9/23/2003), Sophia Urea Nelson of Los Angeles, CA (b. 1/11/1991). The Texas birth records contain information for six babies named Urea:

Urine: Confirmed. Nora Urine Workman (b. 10/13/1940, Lamar Co., TX), Jonathan Urine Smith (b. 12/3/1996, Denton Co., TX), Urine Adkins of Coeburn, VA (b. 6/15/1896, d. March 1972, according to Social Security Index). Several others appear in the census. At right, Urine Thibideoux of Louisiana, listed in the 1900 census.

Vagina: Confirmed. Vagina Ann Williams (b. 3/18/1934, Hall Co., TX), Ellen Vagina Goode (b. 9/13/1918 Lee Co., TX, listed as "Ellen V. Goode" on 1930 census), Lorene Vagina Cranfield (b. 7/26/1938 Rowan Co., NC), Vagina Harper Bland (b. 1/19/1842 in Virginia, d. 5/4/1927 in Kentucky). Hundreds of women (and a few men) are listed as "Vagina" in the census, but many of them seem to be misspellings of "Virginia." Some, like Vagina Carrera of Hawaii (b. 1899), can be confirmed in two or more documents. One that caught my eye was "Vagina Glasscock" who lived in Somerville, Alabama in 1910. I was not able to find her in any other census, but then, I couldn't find her father or mother in any other census either. I'll post a pic of the record and you can decide for yourself.

From this evidence, it is clear that some of the most outrageous of these alleged names (particularly the diseases) are entirely made up. On the other hand, nearly half of the names on the Snopes list are genuine. I need to stress that this does not mean that the legends themselves are true. I do not know what inspired Willie Meconium Cage's parents to bestow that name on him and I will not speculate. I don't know whether this information will help fellow nomatophiles, anger them, or (most likely) go ignored. In any event, I enjoyed exploring the Ancestry.com holdings and compiling this list.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Most of those names make names like Critta(Critter?) & Tinea sound absolutely lovely. Critta was a sibling of Sally Hemmings and Tinea was a friend of my niece. And I am pretty sure I remember her saying it was spelled Tinea, which is another name for ringworm. Though according to Tinea, her mother told her it was an American Indian name, meaning. . . ? I don't remember what she said it meant, something quite lovely I'm sure because I can't imagine her mom would have purposely named her another name for ringworm.