The Global Hit Name You Haven't Noticed

Oct 12th 2009

I've talked before about the international style of names -- the smooth classics that are easy to spell and pronounce in many languages, and that have soared in the age of the European Union. Names like Alexander, Anna and Lucas are popular in dozens of different countries. As an English speaker, you can probably feel their fashion energy. They are names of our moment, timeless yet distinctly youthful. As a group, they're five times more popular in the U.S. today than they were in the 1960s.

Yet there's another name with global momentum to rival those fashionable three. It's a boy's name, a biblical classic. A form of it ranks in the top 10 in 22 different countries, including the United States. In fact, it cracks the top 100 in every single country that reports its top 100 names. Have you thought of Matthew yet?

Matthew strikes me as an unusually quiet world beater. Part of that, doubtless, has to do with my American perspective. The U.S. hit its Matthew stride early. The name first hit the American top 100 in 1956, and it has stayed there ever since. It's hard to see a New Classic like that as trendy.

There are other reasons for its stealth popularity too, though. Unlike the international-styled names, Matthew tends to "go local" around the world with a wealth of international variants. The two spellings Anna and Ana are enough for that name to cover the globe. Even Lucas, which like Matthew splits into local and Latinate versions (Matthew/Matthias, Luke/Lucas), places only five forms on the global charts: Luca, Lucas, Luka, Lukas and Luke. Matthew, in contrast, shows up in 30 different versions from Maciej to Thijs. This can mask the name's true fashion power when you're scanning global rankings -- or even rankings within a single country. Belgium, with its multiple linguistic traditions, counts no fewer than seven versions of Matthew among its top 100 boys' names.

Here's my roundup of top-100 Matthews around the world. The real number is doubtless much higher, as many countries report only their top 10 or 20 names.

Argentina: Matías, #3; Mateo, #13
Australia/New South Wales: Matthew, #21
Australia/Victoria: Matthew, #21
Austria: Matthias, #19
Belgium: Mathis, #9; Matteo, #22; Mathias, #23; Mathéo, #35; Mats, #89; Mathieu, #90; Matthias, #97
Brazil: Matheus, #4
Canada/Alberta: Matthew, #8
Canada/British Columbia: Matthew, #6
Canada/Ontario: Matthew, #2
Canada/Quebec: Mathis, #11; Mathieu, #35; Mathias, #47; Matthew, #76; Mathys, #78; Matis, #84
Canada/Saskatchewan: Matthew, #10
Chile: Matias, #4
Czech Republic: Matej, #7; Matyas, #17; Matous, #25
Denmark: Mathias, #11, Mads, #12
England: Matthew, #24
Finland: Matias, #4
France: Mathis, #3
Georgia: Mate, #8
Germany: Matthis, #87
Hungary: Máté, #2; Matyas, #53
Iceland: Matthias, #32
Ireland: Matthew, #17
Italy: Matteo, #4; Mattia, #7
Lithuania: Matas, #1
Netherlands: Thijs, #13
New Zealand: Matthew, #21
Northern Ireland: Matthew, #2
Norway: Mathias, #1, Mats, #56, Mads, #95
Poland: Mateusz, #3; Maciej, #11
Scotland: Matthew, #9
Slovenia: Matic, #8; Matevž, #28; Matej, #30; Matija, #32
Spain: Mateo, #62
Sweden: Mattias, #82
Switzerland (Italian): Mattia, #4
United States: Matthew, #10


p.s. My timing's off on posts this week...I hope anyone who still wants to discuss urban legend names will continue to comment on the earlier series, parts 1, 2, and 3.

Ledasha, legends and race: part three (of three)

Oct 11th 2009

Reader advisory: sensitive topics/vocabulary

In parts 1 and 2 on Ledasha, I talked about how fake names can convey real social cues. In most of these stories, though, the social cues go far beyond the names.

Consider the language of the Ledasha tale. Google counts 100,000 results for the punchline "dash don't be silent." (For the linguistically inclined, that's the "habitual be," a distinctive syntactic feature of African American Vernacular English.) You'll also find thousands of similar hits for "dash ain't silent." But when you search for the Standard English version "dash isn't silent" you mostly find explanations in the storyteller's voice, not quotes from Ledasha's mother. The mother's vernacular is intrinsic to the story.

For some perspective on this, let's take a trip back in time. Urban legend resource, in their excellent review of name tales, unearthed a relevant item from a 1917 book of humor. Please excuse the period vocabulary:

A young woman in Central Park overheard an old negress call to a pickaninny: "Come heah, Exy, Exy!"

"Excuse me, but that's a queer name for a baby, aunty?"

"Dat ain't her full name," explained the old woman with pride; "dat's jes' de pet name I calls for short. Dat child got a mighty grand name. Her ma picked it out in a medicine book — yessum, de child's full name is Eczema."

The blithe racism makes us cringe today, but every element of this joke is echoed in modern name tales. The proud, earnest ignorance, the desire to aggrandize, and the vernacular speech are all familiar. Even the misreading of medical jargon remains a popular touch; just swap out eczema for an STD to give it a more contemporary punch.

The big difference between the Eczema tale and today's is that the 1917 teller had no qualms about identifying the child's race as the central point. The many widely circulated versions of Ledasha, laden with racial signals as they may be, never come out and say it. Tellers rely on implicit cues so that the story, on the surface, is just about a funny name.

As is so often the case, what we tiptoe around is as revealing as what we say. The minute you inject adjectives like "black" and "poor" into a story, the ground shifts. You've lost your protective coating of mere humor; you're talking about society. That can be dangerous ground. A funny name tale is a safer way to poke fun, with plausible deniability. Indeed, some tellers may pass on the stories without a thought about their cultural underpinnings. Yet the real issues are still there just below the surface. You can tell, because in settings where people are not afraid to talk about race and class, the same stories still flower with full, explicit cultural context.

On many African-American messageboards you'll find people laughing over the familiar name tales, including Ledasha. In those forums, though, the racial and cultural setting isn't just alluded to, it's the whole point -- and the distinctions go far beyond black and white. Names are dissected as "ghetto" or "saditty," likely to get you rejected for a corporate job or likely to get you beaten up in the 'hood. "Ghetto names," including the standard urban legends, are a staple of black dj's and comics, as in this YouTube video. The names are used as explicit, exaggerated symbols of a specific social set, just as a caricatured "valley speak" might be used by whites.

At the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, you'll find the name tales repeated in white-supremacist publications and web forums. There, not only is the racial element of the stories explicit, but the most outrageous examples are presented as typical black names. Moreover, the truth of the stories is never questioned. In fact, the white supremacists often embellish the tales in ways that reinforce their supposed authenticity and typicality. One common approach is to interweave the absurd names with real, unremarkable African-American names. For example, in one article from a "racial realist" magazine an attorney offered "Some Names of Blacks Encountered in My Practice." Names like Lemonjello and Orangejello and even Godzilla Pimp were nestled among the likes of Ajeenah and Tywanna. The effect was to smoothly suggest that all were equally ridiculous.

In another case, a poster in a white supremacist forum acknowledged that some of the names he was talking about were cited as false urban legends on a well-known web site. He quickly found his own unique way to discredit that source, though, noting: "Of course they also say that it is false that Israeli workers stayed home from work at the WTC on 9-11-2001."

As you might imagine, most of the name stories in the white-supremacist forums are laced with filthy racial epithets. Tellingly, though, I found the story of Ledasha cut and pasted directly from widely circluated mainstream versions, without any mention of race. No added commentary was needed when the "mainstream" versions included lines like this:

"SO, if you see something come across your desk like this please remember to pronounce the dash. If they axe you why, tell them the dash don't be silent."

Or, to quote another common version of the tale: "And we let these people vote."

"These people." It's a loaded phrase, eh?  Ostensibly "these people" are just people who choose silly names, so it's safe to make fun of them...right?

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...