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!


By valvh (not verified)
October 9, 2009 11:56 AM

I agree totally. There is a lot of subtle racism in jokes. If you bring up the racist implications of the joke, the teller will vehemently deny being "racist". It is everyone's responsibility to call out and silence racist comments. The minorities themselves, by definition are too few to do all of the fighting alone.

By Amy3 (nli) (not verified)
October 9, 2009 12:00 PM

Laura, I'm so glad you're tackling this topic and can't wait for tomorrow's installment.

By CV (not verified)
October 9, 2009 12:10 PM

Then there is the famous Shi-thead story - I've heard this one so many times, and always by people who swear they know the person whose cousin knows the mother...

By Ash (not verified)
October 9, 2009 12:19 PM

Must confess . . . I'm on pins and needles for tomorrow's post! :)

October 9, 2009 12:20 PM

or the story of the woman who named her child "Placenta", after hearing the Doctor say it in the hospital and thinking it was such a beautiful word. I am also glad to see these tricky topics explored. Brave Laura!

October 9, 2009 12:36 PM

I've been told the Shi-thead one twice--both by friends who swore their friend subbed in a class/worked in a clinic where a kid had that name...

Glad to see such stories explored!

By Joceline (not verified)
October 9, 2009 1:13 PM

My brother-in-law is a teacher and has had a lot of students whose names are pretty much Urban Legend fodder, but these are truly peoples' names. No urban legends here. My favorite? Dijonnaise. Looking forward to tomorrow's post.

By LanaSimone (not verified)
October 9, 2009 1:29 PM

So glad you're addressing this. I've been hearing these stories since I was a child, and with the internet, they circulate even faster.

By cileag (not verified)
October 9, 2009 2:05 PM

Very excited to read more. As a L and D nurse, I hear these urban legends all the time! I do have a few crazy naming stories of my own though including babies named:
twins Kalvin and Kelvin
and a girl named Peu (pronounced pee-yew)

But have never run across any of the typical ones.

On a side note, how do people feel about the name Soren for a boy? I'm 38 weeks pregnant and still having a tough time feeling like our other choices (Graham, Neil, or Rowan) are really meant for OUR child. Soren is my latest one--and my husband likes it too. Two things hold me back:
1. It ends with -n like SO MANY other boys names right now.
2. Sore is part of the name--too icky of an association?

What do you think?

By Guest (not verified)
October 9, 2009 2:22 PM

I know someone who recently named an innocent baby girl Barlow. I wish that was an urban legend.

I haven't heard the Ledasha legend before, though I've been told about a friend of a friend who is a L&D nurse who witnessed twins called Chorion and Amnion.

By jenjenjen (not verified)
October 9, 2009 2:40 PM

cileag - I met a 20-something Soren today and wondered why I hadn't heard more people mention that name -- unusual here (Michigan) and nice. "Sore" didn't occur to me until you mentioned it. Like it.

By Sarah B (not verified)
October 9, 2009 2:55 PM

Absolutely true that we make assumptions about race based on name. Studies have demonstrated which names are more likely to receive responses on resumes, etc. But this isn't just about race, it is also about class and geography. I don't know if you have statistics for African names (as opposed to African-American names), but in my job at a university in international student relations, most of the African students have names that are pretty Anglo-sounding. Today I had Clive (Kenya), Francis, Thomas and Mary (Ghana), Christina (S. Africa) and Antoine (Senegal).

By KristinFromSC (not signed in) (not verified)
October 9, 2009 3:03 PM

I hear these kinds of naming legends on the baby center boards all the time. My recent favorite was a woman who SWORE she went to high school with twins named La Washa and La Drya (it might've even been La Washer and La Dryer). Le-a is all over the place too.

By hyz
October 9, 2009 3:06 PM

My best real life "urban legend" names are L@sagne (a woman who worked at my company--only saw the name written, never met her in person, so I don't know if she pronounced it as lasagna) and Aqu@netta--I did meet her in person, she was in an MCAT prep class my DH was teaching.

cileag, I really like Soren, and I still think it sounds fresh and interesting despite the -N ending. The "sore" thing does bother me a bit, though, I admit. It's the kind of thing that would never bother me on someone else's child (I know one little boy named this, and I remember when I first heard his name I thought it was such a stylish, fun choice), but I'm just neurotic enough that it might prevent me from using it on my own child. I love Rowan and Graham, though, too, so I might not be much help to you.

October 9, 2009 3:13 PM

Laura, I agree that many of those story jokes contain an element of racial indignity/inequality. However, don't we do this same thing with other names and it is not then called racism? The names John, Mary, and Elizabeth are taken by so many different ethnicities today that it is hard to distinguish their family roots. However, people such as PPP (if I may use you in an example) when naming their child Saorise, Aoibheann, or Sorcha are clearing referencing their Irish/Celtic heritage. In the last post we were just discussing "names which SOUND Spanish/Hispanic/Latino". I believe statistically there are very few (though I don't know how to check the stats) White people named Barack. I think the problem comes in assuming without asking is all.

October 9, 2009 3:19 PM

cileag-I don't think Soren is that bad. Isn't it Scandanavian? It seems like a good sib for Astrid. Rowan, Neil, and Graham all also have weird things about them if the "sore" part of the name bothers you.
Row-an=like rowing a boat
Graham=many assume like the cracker
So, pick the name you like and the heck with the rest of it.

By Guest (not verified)
October 9, 2009 3:29 PM

I recently heard the Le-a story repeated by a friend about a mutual friend who is a nurse midwife and delivered a Le-a. I started to talk about the urban legend aspect (I'd already heard this same Le-a story a few times!), but it seemed as if I was subtly accusing the friend of lying, so I just dropped it and listened silently. Sigh.

I've also heard from several separate sources all swearing they know someone who has taught/ treated, etc., an ABCD pronounced "ah-BISS-ah-dee"...

I love Soren! I've always heard the sore, but only thought of soar, as in soar-en. So only a beautiful, gliding-like association in my mind. :-)

October 9, 2009 3:33 PM

according to the baby name lady, there ARE children named abcd....

October 9, 2009 3:36 PM

Finally found the reference to the celeb who has the daughter Pilar. She was one of a set of triplets-Barbara, Gwyneth, and Pilar. Born to Richard Thomas in 1981. If you remember he was known for playing John-Boy in the TV series The Waltons.

By Chrispy (not verified)
October 9, 2009 3:40 PM

I have liked Soren since reading Kierkegaard in college. I think that it is little used enough that it doesn't sound like one of the many -n names.

I have more run into names that are perfectly fine in another language or culture but have a problem here - Titi (Teetee), Bimbo and my husband's favorite Mr. Pupi (I have no idea how to spell it but when they called him from the office trying say Mr. Puppy, he corrected them, saying "It's Poopy.")

These jokes revel in perceived ignorance, thus placing the joker and audience above the ignorant subject with subtle clues often pointing to either an immigrant, a person of low socioeconomic status or an African-American.

Sarah B - most Africans that i know have very Anglo sounding names if they go by an English name - Albert, Bernard, Antonia, Iris.

By Chrispy (not verified)
October 9, 2009 3:42 PM

I meant to say above that I think that this is why they are racist/classist.

October 9, 2009 3:48 PM

It's odd with some of these stories.

I've been caught on Male and Female (right here, in fact) but I'd never thought that there might be a racial component. I thought, "What kind of officious hospital made that look like a good idea, 40+ years ago?" It shocked me into silence to learn about targeting the namer...

Laura, thanks for covering this. I've learned an awful lot about my own preconceived notions about names here, and it's really helped widen my horizons. This is an important topic. I'm sure I've still got barriers I need to remove, and I welcome the chance to see them and clear them.

By Amy3
October 9, 2009 4:43 PM

@cileag, I *love* Soren! My daughter actually is Astrid, though, and I agree with zoerhenne who said they make a great sib set. The "sore" part doesn't phase me at all. Love the name!

By MaeC (not verified)
October 9, 2009 4:56 PM

I agree that some of the problem with names and race is that many names are chosen to HIGHLIGHT a racial/ethnic difference. Therefore, a name can be a marker in a story for an ethnic group without actually saying it outright. This also applies the other way. If the person in a story is Richard Duffy III, there are going to be some class/race assumptions as well.

By Alaina (not verified)
October 9, 2009 4:56 PM

Sorry, Laura, but my mom was a maternity/nursery RN up until a few months ago, and her latest name story for me was Ta-da. Yes, "Tadashda". It's not an urban legend.

By Saya (not verified)
October 9, 2009 5:06 PM

Wasn't Soren the name of the Prince's servant/bodyguard in The Prince and Me? Thats my first thought (and I really loved the character - well at least the actor who played the character in the first one!)

By Spearle (not verified)
October 9, 2009 5:07 PM

Cileag- I like Soren. Very handsome sounding. I too am having issues picking a name that doesn't end in N, but Soren isn't quite the same as Aiden/Logan etc. I'm 33 weeks along, and for a boy, I'm debating Cordell. What do you think? I love cowboy sounding names... Zane, Wyatt, Doyle, Cyrus..Do you think Cordell is too Walker-Texas ranger-ish?!

October 9, 2009 5:15 PM

Spearle-I'm not fmailiar with Cordell but it sounds like it could be grouped along with the western theme. Names like Colby, Wyatt, Montana, seem to match well.

October 9, 2009 5:18 PM

You know typing out and rereading the above, even separations in location can be stereotyped/judged. I bet there is a certain "feel" to those names that are Western and Southern in particular that makes one think of a certain type of folk. We have had this discussion many times before.

October 9, 2009 5:23 PM


You asked about the details in my posts. A lot of the information is available here, in Namipedia. Namipedia, Behindthename, and the SSA statistics are my top sources. Top-name lists for different countries are available online. I'll occasionally comb through foreign websites for information even when I don't know the language very well. I've met lots of people from lots of countries and try to understand how the names link up to one another, and use my experiences as a gut check. I usually have to look at multiple sources to check my facts, but I'll freely admit my research for my comments is not as rigorous as Laura's work.

By Kristen R. (not verified)
October 9, 2009 5:40 PM

I love you. That is all.

By Kristen R. (not verified)
October 9, 2009 5:47 PM

Also, you know what I find? That I don't believe the people who claim to be only once-removed from the story. I think people edit for ease of telling, so "my mom is a daycare worker who heard from a co-worker about a baby named X" becomes "my mom is a daycare worker who had a baby named x in her class." Seriously, at this point I would need to see actual proof (birth certificate) to believe ANY story of a "La-a," "Orangejello," or "Female."

By Mirnada (not verified)
October 9, 2009 5:48 PM

I love Soren. I think I mentioned it to my husband, and I don't think he went for it. It makes me think of "soar", too.

By Guest (not verified)
October 9, 2009 6:00 PM

Speaking of names that are particularly raced, Cordell initially struck me as an African American name. When grouped with some Western-style names, I see how it can do double duty, but the popularity of two-syllable names that end with a stress on -ell in black US populations means that, to me, it reads like a black name (think Tyrell, Dontell, etc.) But maybe this is just me...?

By cileag (not verified)
October 9, 2009 6:05 PM

Thanks so far for all the feedback on Soren. I'm still leaning towards it.

Cordell doesn't strike me as particularly western, but I don't think it would have difficulty fitting in to today's naming schemes. It sounds like a surname to me. So I think it would work well along side all the kids named Fletcher, Taylor, Archer, Anderson etc.

By Spearle (not verified)
October 9, 2009 6:08 PM

Wow, isn't it funny how we automatically link names to socio-economic backgrounds?! I hadn't even considered Cordell as more of an AA name, but i am from the south, and have grown up with more than a couple white Tyrells. I think in the south we like names that are drawn out, especially ending in "ell" or "elle". It's almost like having a middle name attached--"Trisha Jo" or "Alice Mae".

October 9, 2009 6:23 PM

Guest@34-I could see how Cordell could be construed as AA also.

Yes Spearle, the Deep South has almost its own language (ethnic heritage per se) when it comes to names. I think there are probably some names you would see in certain areas of the country but not in ANY others. Laura-have you done any research on that? What other names spark your interest Spearle?

By Spearle (not verified)
October 9, 2009 6:32 PM

We have thought about character names from Louis L'Amour books such as: Tell, Jubal, and Orrin. I also have strong family names that are possibilities: Truman, Rex, Roy, Howard (tho it's hard for me to paste 'Howard' on a baby boy!). Our last name sounds like Wagner but begins with an S.
We haven't thought of many girl names. I really like the sound of Ginger, Dinah (long I sound), Jordie, but can't get the Mister to commit to anything other than Cody for a girl.

By LKG (not verified)
October 9, 2009 6:51 PM

I agree with everything you've said, except that I'm convinced it really is a name, or at least variations of it exist. My brother teaches high school, and had a La-a in his class last year. Granted, I never met her myself, but he's not the type to exaggerate.

By LKG (not verified)
October 9, 2009 6:51 PM

I agree with everything you've said, except that I'm convinced it really is a name, or at least variations of it exist. My brother teaches high school, and had a La-a in his class last year. Granted, I never met her myself, but he's not the type to exaggerate.

October 9, 2009 7:26 PM

Spearle-Using Nymbler for inspiration I came up with these possibilities for you.
Jody (g)
Shayne/Shane (b)
Cheyenne (though I'm not sure about the alliteration with your LN)

October 9, 2009 7:46 PM

Thanks everybody! After reading some of the responses, I just want to make it clear once more: I'm NOT saying there is nobody name La-a. There could be, I have no idea. I'm saying that it's an urban legend either way.

It circulates like mad in person, in email and on the web -- literally millions of retellings of the story by people who have no personal knowledge of a La-a -- and the only consistent element is the derision. That's an urban legend.

Oh, and I absolutely agree that real-life names do often carry ethnic & socioeconomic info. In fact, I'd say that's exactly why these legends work.

October 9, 2009 8:32 PM

As always, Laura, your posts are very timely. I was told this story just yesterday -- along with the "Mah-le/Fe-mahl-le" one.

I DID have a gym teacher named Soda Popp. And he had a sister named Lolly. They are both still alive and well in Missouri. That's not an urban legend!

October 9, 2009 9:41 PM

@cileag - I love Soren, one of my favourite names! While I am also not a fan of 'ends in /n/ boys names' I think that Soren stands out from the pack a bit so won't feel too played out. The sore element has never bothered me either. I also like Rowan, but prefer the spelling Rohan. Soren would be my favourite from your list though. What are you thinking of for a middle name?

October 9, 2009 9:41 PM

Oh, Laura, I love you! lol. (Also, glad to see I'm not the only one who feels that way.)

I think this post is about more than making assumptions about race based on name. It's about the stories we love to tell, the people we love to tell ridiculous stories about.

cileag: love soren. would never think of sore. yeah it ends with n, but i think it stands out from all those N names in style.

re: Barlow: What's wrong with this name? Am I missing something?

By Eo (not verified)
October 9, 2009 10:06 PM

I've always loathed the kind of cruel name discussions that allow the participants to feel superior to the hapless namers being derided, whether it's minority racial groups, the socially disadvantaged, Mormons, residents of the Mountain West, or whatever group is being targeted.

Those taking mirthful shots at these usually defenseless namers are revealing more about themselves than they perhaps realize...

Interestingly, I've personally encountered very few, if any, of the "urban legends" referenced above. I wonder if they get the most circulation in the Internet community, with its assumption of anonymity and no accountability for crass, low and just plain "tacky" behavior?

By the other Amber (not verified)
October 9, 2009 10:09 PM

Speaking of names that conjure up status of any kind, when I read that one post about Ily, I thought "either teenage mother or very young mother, no older than 21." I didn't want to say anything for fear of being revealed to be a bigot in any way, but it is interesting that La-a is urban legend material but Ily and its ilk are not. I guess Ily is subtil enough and follows the unwritten rules of proper naming, whereas La-a challenges those rules, much like names with numbers or obviously unloving messages in them do.

By the other Amber (not verified)
October 9, 2009 10:33 PM

However, I don't know of too many names with numbers in them that are actually urban legends.

I'm really looking forward to tomorrow's post, Laura. Picking apart bigotry is fun and educational.

By Spearle (not verified)
October 9, 2009 11:09 PM

zoerhenne- terrific names! I like Jody for a boy, so does the Mister. Devin and Adam are nice as well. Thanks for the suggestions