It's a Denis! It's a Pervis! It's...
Warning Label: readers who blanch at explicit language should tread carefully this week.
First things first. Your cousin did not go to school with twins named Lemonjello and Oranjello, and your brother-in-law did not give a speeding ticket to anyone named S***head ("shi-THEED"). That's that, case closed.
Naming lore is full of the fake and famous: non-existent lousy baby names passed on relentlessly as fact. As I was writing a book chapter on these urban legend names, I took pains to confirm that the names didn't exist. There are no Lemonjellos or Oranjellos in government records. (Someone did once manage to sneak a "Lemonjello Snarfblat" into the Tempe, Arizona phone book. A snarfblat is an intentionally ludicrous fake word from Disney's Little Mermaid film.)
As I poked through the records, though, I encountered some real-life surprises -- names I had assumed to be tall tales that seemed to be borne by real people. But were they? Digging deeper made me realize that even a census record isn't necessarily "proof." The wild names are out there, but not as many as a glance at the data would have you think.
Take the name Vagina. Looking at Ancestry.com's database of the U.S. Census through 1930 (including scans of the original handwritten surveys), Vagina was once a modestly common first name. 16 women named Vagina are listed in the 1900 United States Census, 16 in 1910 and 23 in 1920. Proof positive? Not so fast. None of them are the same women. The Vaginas of 1900 all mysteriously vanished by 1910, and the adult Vaginas of 1920 are nowhere to be seen in earlier years. What's the story? Well, census records were recorded by door-to-door surveyors asking residents for information. It happens that most of the "Vaginas" in the records were rural Southerners...and the name Virginia was one of the most popular names in America during the "Vagina" era. Try pronouncing Virginia a few times with an old-time Alabama accent. I'm not ready to concede the existence of babies named Vagina just yet.
For equal time I took a look at the ultimate boy's name, Penis. Census databases reveal dozens of boys named Penis, and even a smattering of girls. I'm unconvinced. As with Vagina, no Penis appears in more than one year's census count. But what mis-hearing could produce that name? This brings us to yet another source of error, the modern interpretation of the old handwritten records. Most census forms were written in swooping cursive and entries can be ambiguous. (For example, the 1920 entry for one Nuts Moshmesh, a native of Italy, should surely be taken with caution.) When I spot-checked the handwritten originals for the men named Penis I found entries that looked to me like Denis and Pervis, and a few that were simply indecipherable. But somebody looked at them and saw Penis. It's a new twist on fake names: howlers entered into a seemingly official record because the word came a little too easily to transcribers' minds. After all, sometimes a Pervis is just a Pervis.
Yet some of the surprises do hold up to scrutiny. I was skeptical of the handful of women named Placenta, and if you look at the original cursive records most are highly questionable. Most, but not all. A couple of examples are crystal clear and at least one is validated by other records. So if you want to tell stories of bad baby names, Placenta looks like a go.
For a solid boy's name tale, you might consider Felon. Several Felons reappear in multiple years' census reports, including some who passed the name on to a Felon Jr. I thought at first that it might be a variant on the Irish Faolan/Phelan, but as in life, there are Felons of all ethnicities.