It's a Denis! It's a Pervis! It's...

Aug 30th 2007

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'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.


By Kristin (not verified)
August 31, 2007 3:32 AM

I've done some genealogy research, and, yes, those old census records are doozies! Spellings often vary from one census to the next, and the handwriting can be almost impossible to decipher.

It's depressing to think of parents ignorant enough to name their child Vagina or Penis, so I prefer to think all these cases are myths and misinterpretations.

By Amy (not verified)
August 31, 2007 3:36 AM

My husband had a child in swimming lessons whose name was Sh**head. That one's not an urban legend. Usually he'd play a game with the kids trying to guess whose name was whose. That day he opted to have the children just tell him their names.

By OLASJ (not verified)
August 31, 2007 4:12 AM

Well! My cousin's friend's neighbor's chiropractor happens to be Oranjello Lemonjello Asshole (Ah-SHOE-lee) Shithead (Shih-THEED) Jones! Take that, skeptics! :p

By Katie (not verified)
August 31, 2007 6:56 AM

Once or twice, I have seen the Arabic name that is usually transliterated as Shahid/Shaheed transliterated as "Shatheed", most likely in a effort to try to get English speakers pronounce the the "h" sound properly.
Given that this transliteration is only 2 letters away from "Shithead", I think it is entirely possible that someone saw the name "Shatheed" and either misremembered it or exaggerated whet they saw to make a better story.

By Katharine (not verified)
August 31, 2007 8:30 AM

There was one lady who posted not so long ago and said that in her many years of teaching she had encountered a Vagina but who knows? Personally, I haven't had experience of names like this unless you count a Chinese boy in school called Pooey Koon (to be fair though that was the pronounciation - and not necessarily the spelling)...

By o.h. (not verified)
August 31, 2007 12:01 PM

"Placent" = "they please," which might be a reasonable Latinate source for a name "Placenta." I can believe that one, maybe.

By kristin dawn (not verified)
August 31, 2007 12:43 PM

We do have to remember the ethnic heritage factor. A few years ago my mom taught a little girl called Nacho. She was Vietnamese and her name didn't seem to bother her in the least - it was common in her family.

I would suspect that typographical errors aside, many of the urban legend names are simply our American ears misinterpreting a perfectly lovely ethnic name into our own language.

Like the woman on Jay Leno named 'Phat Ho' sometimes it sounds unfortunate to us but I'm sure a lot of our names have hilarious meanings.

Besides, am I the only one that thinks that in a world of Britney, Nevaeh, and Anfernee, Orangello doesn't actually sound that bad?

By melanie (not verified)
August 31, 2007 1:34 PM

It is interesting how easy stories can get twisted or "authenticated" in some way that doesn't hold up to scrutiny otherwise. I wonder if some of the anecdotes are people tryin to pull a fast one by purposely giving a bad name. Hmmm. The strangest name I know of personally is still my cousing Sparkle (the other name they considred was Sprite) but as kristin dawn pointed out about Ornagello, it really isn't that bad.

By Howard (not verified)
August 31, 2007 1:43 PM

Nacho is a nickname for Ignacio, a somewhat common Spanish name. Actually nachos the food were named after a guy named Ignacio who invented them. Having married into a Hispanic family, it sounds like an ordinary name to me. My wife has a Tio Nacho.

By Jessica (not verified)
August 31, 2007 1:55 PM

Wayne County Hospital, Wayne County, GA

There is! a Sh**head on record.

By LKB (not verified)
August 31, 2007 2:17 PM

I went to school with several people (mostly women, as luck would have it) with the last name Ho or with Thai names that included the word "porn" somewhere within them. No one ever blinked an eye at these names, however, because I lived in a very multi-ethnic place, and they're perfectly mainstream names within their respective cultures. In fact, I knew one girl who was nicknamed Ho-Ho, but she was only called so affectionately by her friends. I also knew a girl named Farihah (fur-EE-ha), who was affectionately called "Furry" by her friends, and it was never derisive. I didn't know any Shaheeds, but I can imagine how easily an ignorant person of a different background might *see* it incorrectly. It does seem that most of these stories are either displays of white ignorance of other cultures or (as in the case of Uterus and Lemongello) stories with intentionally racist undertones. I don't mean to insult whoever it was above who swears that her husband met a Shithead... I'm sure that it happens! But I also

By Alissa (not verified)
August 31, 2007 2:21 PM

I went to college with an Indian girl named Jugkroop (I think that's how it was spelled). We all just called her "Jugs". My grandmother's name is Virgena (vir-GINA) & she has been called Vagina. It's kind of a family joke, and at least she always knows if its a telemarketer on the phone!

By Alissa (not verified)
August 31, 2007 2:22 PM

it's, it is....

By LKB (not verified)
August 31, 2007 2:26 PM

think it was most likely an honest cultural misunderstanding (perhaps on both the part of the person reading the name and on the part of the parents -- had the parents been aware of the English reading of "Shithead," they might have gone for Shahid or Shaheed instead). What I found most bizarre, growing up, were the names like Anthony Antonitis and Zachary Zachariadis, both of whom went to my school, both of whom where white (Italian and Greek respectively). It always seemed odd to me that they had those "repeated" names, because that is not a decision that their parents could have made unknowingly. But perhaps I'm just ignorant of some rich naming tradition that isn't a part of *my* culture. (Any one have info on that sort of phenomenon? And is the "itis" ending similar to the "son" ending?)

In the end, it was the white kids with non-traditional names who got teased the most. Kfier (pronounced Fear) was one who fell under this category... but even that name, I'm sure, has plenty of cultural precedent.

By LKB (not verified)
August 31, 2007 2:31 PM

p.s. Sparkle??? Names like that really annoy me, because they seem to lock the child so harshly into a certain image, which is a lot of most children to deal with. They may strive with the name, or they may flounder... A child with the name Amanda can always nickname HERSELF Sparkle, or you could just call her that affectionately in your home and hope it catches on! Also, sorry for the long split post, but the character limit got in my way.

By LKB (not verified)
August 31, 2007 2:32 PM

*thrive*, sorry.

By Penn (not verified)
August 31, 2007 2:35 PM

"The town was named "Placentia" by Sarah Ann McFadden in 1876. The word comes from a Latin word meaning "a pleasant place to live."

(From the California town's wikipedia page.)

In the 1870s, naming a place "Placentia" didn't seem like a bad idea to educated people, so they probably wouldn't have blinked at naming a daughter something similar. (There are also girls named "Pleasant" in the period--so some of the Placentas could be misspellings of that.)

By Penn (not verified)
August 31, 2007 2:36 PM

"The town was named "Placentia" by Sarah Ann McFadden in 1876. The word comes from a Latin word meaning "a pleasant place to live."

(From the California town's wikipedia page.)

In the 1870s, naming a place "Placentia" didn't seem like a bad idea to educated people, so they probably wouldn't have blinked at naming a daughter something similar. (There are also girls named "Pleasant" in the period--so some of the Placentas could be misspellings of that.)

By RobynT (not verified)
August 31, 2007 3:00 PM

I also have to wonder if folks just gave made up names because they distrust the government. My husband worked for the census one year, going door-to-door chasing down those who did not return their forms. Some folks obviously made up information, but his job was so awful that he was fine with it; as long as they gave him something, he wrote it down. There are folks who don't want to be counted.

By o.h. (not verified)
August 31, 2007 3:22 PM

My maiden name was "Phelan," and while my family pronounces it with the "e" approaching more of an /ey/ sound than an /eh/, the Irish pronounce it in a way that sounds very much like "Felon" to my Texan ear.

I'd actually always wanted to name a baby "Phelan"--it means "Little Wolf," and has that attractive -an ending. But combined with my married name, you get what sounds almost exactly like "Failed Endeavor." Sigh.

By Jillie (not verified)
August 31, 2007 3:41 PM

According to the 1890 census records My great-grandfather's siblings were named Odor, Arse and Ass. However my family knows they were named Odin, Arne and Åse, and the 1900 census records prove the correct names.

By Jillie (not verified)
August 31, 2007 3:44 PM

The third name is Ase, pronouced Ah-sah. It wouldn't let me post in Norwegian.

By J&H's mom (not verified)
August 31, 2007 4:06 PM

My husband used to be on a rugby team, and the guys had all these made up names for each other (think of the kind of names Bart Simpson would ask for if he was doing a prank phone call). It took me forever to realize that they weren't their real names!
As for the shi*head and the limonjello-by any spelling-I'm officially not believing any of them.
These stories have all the classic traits of urban legends.
We did used to have a cashier at our Fred Meyer named Latrina. She went by Trina, and honestly, I'm pretty sure her mom had never gone to Girl Scout camp and probably thought it was beautiful.

By Jennie W. (not verified)
August 31, 2007 4:53 PM

Those old census records can be terrible. I volunteer on a regular basis to transcribe microfilm census records onto the computer and it can be really difficult. Some census takers could barely write (I just picture them trudging all over the coutryside with a pot of ink and a quill pen. What a drag!). Once you add in all the immigrants and strange spellings, I don't doubt there was a lot of confusion.

By Nuts Moshmesh (not verified)
August 31, 2007 5:13 PM

About the 1891 (UK) manuscript census forms, from a novel (Andrew Drummond, _Handbook of Volapuk_ 2006):

"We came to a house on Argyle Place, where it was evident that the servant-girl had completed the form...." (195)

In this case, the servant girl fills in the form maliciously, listing the master's age as "almost dead," and various other household members as "eunuch," "drunkard," "turnip-head." Another form lists 47 people in a two-room house, including Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Robespierre, etc.

There's also the main character in Toni Morrison's _Song of Solomon_ who's called "Macon Dead" because he filled in a form wrong, and put his place of birth and whereabouts of his mother (if I'm remembering right) in the spaces for first and last name.

It's fun to run across the random "Augustus Butts" (German immigrant, saw him in a 19c. census from Janesville WI), but like Laura says, these records certainly have their flaws. Drunken census takers, bad handwriting, language issues, you name it.

By Elizabeth T. (not verified)
August 31, 2007 5:44 PM

LKB, I am with you on "adjective" names like Sparkle (no offense intended to your cousin, Melanie). Some friends planned to name their daughter Whisper (okay, not an adjective) but fortunately had a boy. I say fortunately because both parents are over six feet tall, and baby Whisper would have ended up a Shout!

By Jessica (not verified)
August 31, 2007 5:56 PM

Hey there really are "Butts" in America. In fact I know Dr. Butts. (Charlottesville-ish, VA - for all you who doubt it)

By C & C's Mom (not verified)
August 31, 2007 6:37 PM

I too know a family of "Butts" - I'm in NC

By o.h. (not verified)
August 31, 2007 6:43 PM

The HEB supermarket chain in Texas is named for the original owner, Howard E. Butt, and is still owned by the Butt family.

By Shoeaddict (not verified)
August 31, 2007 9:08 PM

There is a family with the last name "Dick" in my small town. Their daughters- Precious and Delicious

By Lainey (not verified)
August 31, 2007 10:19 PM

It's surprising how many people I've heard who swear they've met the orangejello/lemonjello duo!

But as a side note to your real-life "Felons" -- I am a prosecutor, and a few months back, I was out at the local jail. One of the poor girls there for court was named "Felony." Ouch. She was a really pretty little blonde girl, just 18. I can't imagine what her parents were thinking.

By Catharine (not verified)
August 31, 2007 10:35 PM

My husband went to college with a (I think) Vietnamese girl named Tanyaporn Wansom (sp?). Which is pretty unfortunate-sounding in this language but who knows? Could be beautiful in Thai.
Also at his college was a Dan Dan from Danbury CT (also Asian). My husband, also a Dan, would always joke with him: "you're twice the Dan I am!"

By Flatula Fireflume (not verified)
August 31, 2007 10:41 PM

Honestly, just this past spring, I came across the most unfortunately named child: I was in a bookstore in Naples, Florida, where I met a woman with her 2 young children, one of whom had been named Bane. How absolutely devastating! Can anyone imagine a worse name? Here, let me give you my dictionary's definition: "Bane: 1. a person or thing that ruins or spoils. 2. a deadly poison. 3. death; destruction; ruin. 4. that which causes death or destroys life.
Oh, that poor child...

By Flatula Fireflume (not verified)
August 31, 2007 11:10 PM

By the way, I really wanted to announce myself as "Nuts Moshmesh" but I figured that with 2 of us already out there, nobody would believe me.

By The artist formerly known as Nuts Moshmesh (not verified)
August 31, 2007 11:27 PM

Hey FF, you can be Nuts Moshmesh now. I'll be Vagina Pervis.

BTW, there's a rather well-known drag entertainer in Los Angeles known as Vaginal Davis. As you might imagine, it's not the name his parents gave him (which, I just learned, was Clarence Dennis Williams).

By LKB (not verified)
September 1, 2007 12:17 AM

Sorry to change the subject, but I'm very interested in the name Isannah. I've heard of it historically (from the book Johnny Tremain, and Paul Revere's daughter), but it doesn't appear to have been around much in the past 100 or 200 years. I'm wondering where it went, and whether or not there's some reason behind its near-disappearance. It seems to fit perfectly into contemporary trends -- a historical revival, a biblical sound (not sure if it's actually biblical though), rhymes with the popular Hannah and Anna, and shares the oh-so-hot "Is" sound with Isabelle and Isaac. I've heard it pronounced with the starting sound of Isaac ("eyes"), but I don't know if it's pronounced any other way. Just curious to hear whatever bits of info you all have on the name. Laura, if you're reading this, I'd love to hear more about this name. Seems like a perfect recommendation for all of the contempo-traditional namers out there!

By linda (not verified)
September 1, 2007 12:33 AM

my sister is a nurse and the nurse boards teem with these kind of stories and according to them oranjello and lemonjello have been born numious times as well as people naming their kids after medical words, cars, and other things.

By Liz & Louka (not verified)
September 1, 2007 12:59 AM

Not a person's name, but a display home I visited recently was called Shiralee (Australian Aboriginal word meaning "burden"). Well a home can be a financial burden, but I doubt that's what the builder intended.

On the other hand, it's a pretty word so I wouldn't be surprised if there were girls named Shiralee. Better than Bane, anyway!

By Beth (not verified)
September 1, 2007 1:13 AM

I'm with LBK on this one. With all due respect, it's always the nurses who are cited as sources for Oranjello, Lemonjello, and Vagina. But has a smart analysis of how these urban legends are just racist/class-biased claptrap. I'm glad to think they might die here.

Too bad about little Felony, though. Pronounced "Feh-LOW-nee," it's kind of pretty. Or as an alternative to Melanie?

By Flatula Fireflume (not verified)
September 1, 2007 1:31 AM

Thanks, Vagina Pervis, formerly known as Nuts Moshmesh. I very well might come back soon as Nuts, then. Brilliant.

Not too long ago, I read (on a francophone baby-name forum) a pregnant person asking everyone else's opinion on the name "Nausica." As everyone gave their 2-cents' worth (well, it was more like their 2-sous worth) about what an awful idea that was, and how much of a burden it would be on her baby, I was wondering if they should even bother getting all worked up -- maybe I'm cynical, but surely that was a joke question, right? But it it was true, this little toddler is still better off than Bane (at least in the name category) -- but Shiralee is probably better.

By Flatula Fireflume (not verified)
September 1, 2007 1:31 AM

Thanks, Vagina Pervis, formerly known as Nuts Moshmesh. I very well might come back soon as Nuts, then. Brilliant.

Not too long ago, I read (on a francophone baby-name forum) a pregnant person asking everyone else's opinion on the name "Nausica." As everyone gave their 2-cents' worth (well, it was more like their 2-sous worth) about what an awful idea that was, and how much of a burden it would be on her baby, I was wondering if they should even bother getting all worked up -- maybe I'm cynical, but surely that was a joke question, right? But it it was true, this little toddler is still better off than Bane (at least in the name category) -- but Shiralee is probably better.

By V. J. J. Pervis (not verified)
September 1, 2007 1:43 AM

LKB, Isannah must be a version of Ysanne (or vice versa)--I rather like the Y version. I'd pronounce it "ee-SAHN."

By Liz & Louka (not verified)
September 1, 2007 1:45 AM

At least Nausica is a real name - the French form of the Greek Nausicaa I think, which apparently means "burner of ships". She's in the Odyssey.

By Liz & Louka (not verified)
September 1, 2007 1:51 AM

LKB and V. J. J. Pervis - Ysanne is lovely, it sounds like it comes from an old French romance!

By Nuts Moshmesh, f.k.a. FF (not verified)
September 1, 2007 2:06 AM

I really like Ysanne. Never heard it before.

But back to an older subject, I've heard of a woman named Regina who insists that everyone pronounce her name with a long "i" (rhyming with vagina). This is also the case with the Canadian city called Regina. (I think it's in Canada, anyway.)

By owlet (not verified)
September 1, 2007 2:39 AM

oh, you women feel like old friends to me! i have been reading your posts for several months and find them erudite and amusing. i have been interested in all aspects of names and naming since i was a mere child...i'm now a 64 year young grandmother. our second grandchild will arrive early next year,[can't wait to find out what her/his parents will choose to call the wee one], so naming trends are especially interesting to me at this time.
i thinks we all know of at least one aquaintance with a curious name; here's mine. my husband's aunt had a dearly beloved housekeeper whose mother, a cleaning woman in a commercial building, saw a name on a door she found appealing. so she named her daughter lavatory, nicknamed lavvie.
lovely lady, but, ouch!
flatula: have you tried gas-x? great nom de plume, by the way.

By owlet (not verified)
September 1, 2007 2:41 AM

make that i think...or, me thinks.

By askf (not verified)
September 1, 2007 3:14 AM

Re Shithead: My friend's daughter works for an agency that arranges student exchanges for foreigners to come to the US. She recently had the paperwork for a Shithead come across her desk. Given the fact that the name would have to be transliterated from Arabic, and given the vagaries of English spelling, it's not at all unreasonable that a non-native speaker could think "ead" was an acceptable way of rendering the "eed" sound.

By askf (not verified)
September 1, 2007 3:20 AM

I taught junior high back in the 60s. There was a family, named Williams, whose children gradually worked their way through the school over a period of years. They all had biblical names--unusual ones. We had Ezekiel, Hepzibah, and a number of others, but the one everyone remembered was...I am not making this up!...Queen Esther Willliams. If the name Esther Williams means nothing to you, Google it, or check or Wikipedia.

By askf (not verified)
September 1, 2007 3:32 AM

One more. A friend of mine, teaching high school history, had a new student, an immigrant from Turkey, come into his home room. He looked at the admission papers--the kid's name was Ufuk. (This is actually a fairly common Turkish name.) "Okay," he said, thinking quickly. "'Ufuk' in English is 'Tony.' So your American name is Tony."
I'm sure there will be people out there with something to say about cultural heritage or the like, but, honestly, do you think sending this poor kid out into the halls of a New York City high school (or any high school in this country) with the name Ufuk would have been a good idea?