Ledasha, legends and race: part two

Oct 10th 2009

Reader advisory: sensitive topics/vocabulary

In the first post on Ledasha, I suggested that many familiar "urban legend" names serve as proxies for talking about race. Names are the perfect vehicle for this because they carry so many subtle cultural signals. Even fake names can have real ethnic identities. Take another read of the Ledasha tale, then try  this one for comparison:

A college student comes home for the summer and her shocked parents see that she's obviously pregnant.  She tells them that she's determined to finish school on time and that all of her sorority sisters have promised to help her with the baby. Sure enough, come September she's back on campus with her baby son in her arms: little Kegger, named for the place he was conceived.

You've never heard that one before, have you? I thought not, because I made it up. But if you heard it in a different context, I'll bet that you'd follow the social and linguistic cues that point to the family as upper middle-class white people. I chose the name Kegger not just for its meaning, but because it follows stylistic conventions of distinctly white names like Kyler, Bridger and Cooper.

Real name tall-tales aren't about folks like that. They're consistently packed with cues pointing to a non-white underclass, and it all starts with the names. Consider one of the longtime kings of urban legend names: shuh-THEED, spelled S-H-I-T-H-E-A-D. When you hear the name shuh-THEED you know without a shred of context that you're not talking about a white boy.

The standard length for an American boy's name is two syllables. By my calculations three-fifths of all boys are now given two-syllable names, and the percentage of white boys is even higher.  Yet among all those hundreds of two-syllable white names from Aaron to Zander you won't find a single name with stress on the second syllable. That rhythm is common enough among contemporary black names, as well as in other languages like Arabic. Some more traditional English men's names have second-syllable stress too, but if you think of one chances are you'll find it has dropped out of use among whites while maintaining some currency in black families. Try Jerome, Maurice and Bernard. (That's maw-REECE and ber-NAHRD. As the front-stressed MOHR-iss and BERN-erd, they're solidly white.)

This brings us back around to Ledasha. It's a hair's breadth from the popular black name Latasha, and echoes a whole generation of Leshondas, Lakishas and more. Check out the NameVoyager graph of LAT- names for a snapshot. Not only does the name Ledasha identify the mom as black, but it works a sly bit of guilt by association. It positions its silliness right in the middle of a standard black naming style -- in fact, one version of the story claims La-a is "one of the most popular names in Detroit." The story is designed to be "all too plausible," playing off what we already believe. The implication is that the whole style of names is equally suspect. That's a common technique of derision, as we'll see in part 3...

Ledasha, legends and race: part one

Oct 9th 2009

A new Queen of Urban Legend Names has been crowned! I first heard reports of her last year, but the sightings are coming fast and furious now. Friends, acquaintances, and total strangers write to me about her. She's the new darling of messageboards, a blog and Twitter staple, and a big hit at watercoolers around the country. If you haven't been introduced to her yet, allow me to do the honors:

My aunt/cousin/college roommate is a teacher/nurse/social worker in Georgia/Louisiana/Detroit. She had a student/patient whose name was written Le-a. She asked, "is that pronounced LAY-uh?" and the girl's mother got all offended: "It's Ledasha! The dash don't be silent!"

Now, I should be clear. I have no idea whether there really are girls named Le-a. It's certainly possible, and hard to confirm either way. Punctuation is a rising name trend but it's usually stripped out of official records, so a Le-a would be recorded simply as Lea. True or not, though, I consider this an urban legend name because the tellings of the tale make it so.

Look at the form of the story. It's widely repeated, always in the third person, with constant embellishments and no consistency to the details. (Sometimes the girl is La-a, Li-a, even Lou-a.) And to borrow a phrase from libel law, the story is told with a "reckless disregard for the truth." Sometimes the teller will even say "I don't know if this is true, but" before launching into a "can you believe how stupid that mother is" yarn.

That's the ultimate mark of an urban legend. As tellers of the tales we don't want to know if they're true or not, because we kind of suspect the answer would be not, and what fun would that be? If you don't look too closely, you get to pass the story on. My favorite example of this ostrich approach is from the book "Freakonomics," in which the authors describe their purpose as applying disciplined, rigorous analysis to social questions. Yet they repeat as fact certain well-known urban legend names -- then explain in the footnotes that it must be true because a friend of theirs swears he once overheard the names in a grocery store.

Why does it matter? We tell funny stories all the time without believing them. (Does anybody really think that a priest, a rabbi and a chicken walked into a bar?) I believe it matters in the case of urban legend names because they're not merely humor...and they're not random. They exist in a complex social setting, and they serve a subtle and consequential purpose. They are proxies for talking about race.

I am not saying that telling the story of Le-a, or Lemonjello and Oranjello, or Male and Female (that's MAH-lay and feh-MAH-lay, of course) makes you a racist. People of every color and background repeat the stories because they're clever and amusing. What I am saying is that as a group, the legend names have a context and meaning we shouldn't ignore. Or to put it another way, I haven't mentioned a word about Ledasha's race, but didn't you draw assumptions about it? And aren't those assumptions a key part of the story?

This is a big topic for me, and to do it justice in blog form I'm going to have to break it into pieces. More tomorrow...

On to part two!

Hispanic names, rising or falling? Time vs. The Times

Oct 6th 2009

In 2007, a New York Times reporter called me for my thoughts on a baby name phenomenon. For the first time in a generation, the most popular name for Hispanic boys born in New York City was a Spanish one: Angel. Since the mid-1980s, names like Justin and Kevin had been topping that list. What did the shift away from Anglo names mean? A surge of ethnic pride? A demographic shift from Dominican to Mexican parents, who might maintain different links to their heritage?

I ran some quick statistics to get a clearer picture of the naming change. The numbers pointed me toward another factor at play: style. Angel was simply a trendy choice, and didn't represent any overall shift toward Spanish names. You can read more on the stats in the original Times article, but here's a handy quote from me:

“What changed was the distribution,” she said. “Angel has been a hot rising name across the country for more than a decade. It rose to the top among Latino New Yorkers by taking a bigger slice of the Spanish-naming pie, not by growing that pie. The rise in Angel is more than offset by the decline in José and Luis. And it’s still not as popular as Justin was in 2000.”

With that in mind, I was fascinated to see a new article in Time Magazine today that makes a claim precisely opposite to the NYT article: that Hispanics have been abandoning Spanish names.

The reasoning the Time writer puts forward makes sense. As a growing percentage of Hispanic Americans are 2nd generation and beyond, a growing percentage of them will choose assimilated names. That's a natural projection. But the writer further claims that Hispanic names are already disappearing, and that "the Social Security Administration has the cold numbers to illustrate the point."

The "cold numbers" in the article gave me pause. There's no attempt to look at the actual rate of Spanish name usage in the population. Rather, the writer simply offers examples of individual Spanish names that have dropped in popularity. For example, the article notes that the names Juan and Guillermo both slipped downward from 1998 to 2008. But their Engish counterparts, John and William, have also become significantly less common over that time. Are we to conclude, then, that Anglo names are disappearing?

The core issue here is a familiar one from the Angel story above: style. Fashion makes individual names go up and down, and fashion change is accelerating. But has the past decade really witnessed a shift away from Spanish names as the Time article claims? (The article's online title: "Hispanic and Latin Baby Names Becoming Less Popular")

To find out, I tallied the distinctly Spanish names that ranked among the national top 200 for boys in 1998 vs. 2008. (Spanish girls' names aren't easily measurable, because so many of them are used cross-ethnically.) In 1998 22 Spanish names made the top 200, representing 4.22% of all boys born. In 2008 there were again 22 Spanish names, this time representing 4.38% of boys born, a 4% increase.

The Time article's conclusion, therefore, seems premature at best. "Ethnic" names aren't disappearing, just changing. In fact, if you look deeper into the name stats you'll find that many of the nation's fastest rising names each year are specific to Hispanic Americans. They're names of Hispanic reality tv stars, telenovela heroines, and singing stars. Baby naming isn't just about Juan and Maria -- or John and Mary -- any more.