The Name Game

'Dick' and 'Jane' just don't cut it anymore.

A woman walked up to me the other day and handed me her business card. It said that her name was "Debe (Something)." I looked at it and then asked her, "Your name is Deeb?"

"No, that's pronounced 'Debbie.'"

Stunned, I said, "How the (heck) is that Debbie? You don't get to just make up rules as you go along. Were you actually born here in America?"

"Well," she explained, "my parents gave me this boring name. so I just thought I'd spice it up a little."

I gave her the card back and said, "I'd rather not do business with somebody who thinks that D-e-b-e spells Debbie. I'd be afraid of how you might spell 'ethics.'"

I'm not sure when this craze of bad spelling (and worse names) took off. I remember back in college there was a girl named Cindy who had dropped out of school because she was bored. I saw her at a store and asked how she was doing. She said things weren't going all that well, so she decided to change the spelling of her name to SynDee. I remember thinking, "Well, that's certainly easier than going back to school and finishing your education."

And just the other day, I met a high-school basketball player whose name is LiBreAnna. I asked her if she had been a particularly difficult labor, so her mother paid her back with a name that is absolutely guaranteed to be misspelled for the entirety of her life. She said, "No, I'm Hawaiian." Okee-dokee.

Names have always fascinated me. I've always wondered whether people's lives would turn out differently if they had different names. Back about a million years ago when I lived in Los Angeles, I knew a guy named (and I'm not kidding) Hymie Hymen Fishenfelder. And the guy looked just like his name. He looked like Woody Allen after a three-week bout with the flu and diarrhea. What a tortured life that guy must have had. His parents probably should have clubbed him and spared him all the grief.

With our own kids, my wife, Ana, and I came up with Darlene (so it would be alliterative) Annette (so it would be like "Little Ana" and her initials would spell out DAD) for our daughter; and Alexander (because it's strong) Brett (named for Ana's favorite baseball player, George Brett) for our son. But, as it turns out, while I still like my daughter's name, every time you see a Darlene in a movie or on TV, it's a heavy-set waitress with high hair and an eighth-grade education. As for my son, he hates baseball and has spent much of his life uttering the phrase, "My name isn't Alex." And we had actually put a lot of thought into it, unlike the untold number of young mothers who seem to come up with ever-more-bizarre ways of putting the "sh" and "qu" sounds in made-up names.

Actually, I'd rather not go down this particular road at this time, lest I be deluged with letters from neo-liberals who don't actually know any real ethnic people, but feel compelled to speak out on their behalf, nonetheless. This name business is a particularly tricky subject among African-Americans, one well addressed by an article in Ebony magazine a few years ago. The article looked at an exhaustive study that showed that African-American kids who have "traditional" American names like Bill or Mary are less likely to use drugs, join gangs or commit crimes than are their counterparts with names like LaKeisha or Rasheed.

The black Bills and Marys are also more likely to finish high school, go to college, get married and put off having children until after marriage. However, the study did not draw conclusions as to whether the traditional names helped these kids by making them somewhat less threatening and more easily accepted by mainstream American society, or whether their parents, having already achieved a spot in the middle- or upper-class, simply chose to go along with one more aspect of their socioeconomic status.

Obviously, a kid can be successful no matter what his name is, and on the flip side, we all know how well adjusted and normal that Michael Jackson guy turned out to be. At the same time, I do think that it's incredibly stupid to lend any credence to the ridiculous notion that naming some poor kid Shaqueesha gives her some sense of identity.

There was a young woman the other day on The Maury Povich Show who (big surprise!) had had a child out of wedlock with some guy named LaPhonso and had named the kid "LaTiyeesha" so that "my daughter can carry around with her a part of her daddy and be proud."

Proud of what?! The guy you had to drag on national TV to take a blood test to prove that he was the one who actually impregnated you that night at the party?

Anyway, now that I didn't go down that road, let's get back to the weird spelling. I was watching the NCAA softball championships a couple weeks ago. One of the young stars for the University of Arizona has the great name of Autumn Champion. Still, no matter how cool that is, the kid ends up playing a sport that runs from mid-winter to late spring. Playing for California that day was a kid whose first name is Wynter. How freakin' hard can it be to spell "winter" right?

This young guy I know told me that he and his wife are having a daughter and they've already decided on the child's name. They saw that the name "Madison" is one of the three most popular names for girls these days, so they decided to name her Madyson, "with a 'y' so it'll be unique." I told him that Madison was a name made up for a character in the movie Splash and that the movie had been written, in part, by a guy named Babaloo Mandel.

Now, that's a name.

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