Uncommon Names.

Enrico Denard writes for Gothamist about a fraught and interesting topic:

In New York City, where nearly 200 different languages are spoken, the names people go by aren’t always as common as John, Mary, Jane or Steve. For those with less common monikers, mispronunciations of their names may come as frequently as train delays.

Although this issue can be just a minor nuisance for some, it can also be a chronic strain for people who say they experience additional social barriers because of their names. A person with a name that is easier to pronounce and write in English may not have this issue — unless they’re at Starbucks. But when a name deviates from the norm, mispronunciations can become a daily challenge. And, worse, native English speakers may avoid saying a name or even addressing the person in order to circumvent a challenging or unfamiliar pronunciation. […]

A 2013 research study [by Costanza Biavaschi, Corrado Giulietti, and Zahra Siddique] titled “The Economic Payoff of Name Americanization,” which looked at European and Northern Asian immigrants’ experiences during their naturalization processes from 1919 to 1930, showed that those who Anglicized their names went on to do better financially.

The study stated that, “When comparing the labor market trajectories of two migrants both named Guido at birth, one who Americanizes his name to John and one who keeps his name, John’s occupational-based earning growth is 22% higher than Guido’s occupational-based earning growth.” Today, people of immigrant descent still negotiate with the tension to fit in with an ethnic or uncommon name. WNYC spoke with New Yorkers who maneuver through life with names that affect their sense of place and community.

It’s easy to sympathize with both sides of the assimilate-or-not debate, and I recommend reading the experiences described by the people interviewed. (Even such a standard name as my own, Stephen, is mispronounced with surprising frequency, which is why it’s easier to use Steve at, say, Starbucks.)


  1. From the article:

    He and his wife, who is Jewish, named their first son Fivel, meaning “bright one” in Hebrew/Yiddish

    The claim as it stands is obviously absurd, but in any case TIL about the alleged derivation of פײַוול Fayvel < Gr Φοῖβος Foĩbos. I’d always assumed it was somehow related to Pavel.

  2. The claim as it stands is obviously absurd

    Yeah, you can pick up all sorts of crap from baby-name books and sites.

  3. Once, while waiting at a US immigration office, where 99% of the clients are Hispanic, I heard the loudspeakers calling to the counter a Vasqueeze, and later a Velasqueeze.

  4. The abstract for the quoted paper:

    We examine the impact of the Americanization of names on the labor market outcomes of migrants. We construct a novel longitudinal data set of naturalization records in which we track a complete sample of migrants who naturalize by 1930. We find that migrants who Americanized their names experienced larger occupational upgrading. Some, such as those who changed to very popular American names like John or William, obtained gains in occupation-based earnings of at least 14%. We show that these estimates are causal effects by using an index of linguistic complexity based on Scrabble points as an instrumental variable that predicts name Americanization. We conclude that the tradeoff between individual identity and labor market success was present since the early making of modern America.

    I have no doubt that the open racism of that era would make it harder for someone named, say, Costanza Biavaschi, Corrado Giulietti, or Zahra Siddique to advance in American life. On the other hand, I distrust this sort of study the same way I distrust studies correlating climate and phonological inventories.

    It makes me think of an old (1982) article I read about Peter MacDonald, a powerful Navajo leader (later convicted and disgraced for abuse of said power), where one quote stuck in my mind:

    One day Hashkasilt heard someone singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” He named himself MacDonald. That was in 1938. Today Peter MacDonald is the most powerful and possibly the richest pure-bred Indian in the United States, a status he knows he could not possibly have achieved with a name like Hashkasilt Begay.

    (“Pure-bred” was evidently not so cringy 40 years ago, even in Mother Jones.)

    It also makes me think, not exactly apropos, of Asimov’s S is for Zebatinsky.

  5. It doesn’t seem like Scrabble points would be a great measure to use for that, considering that J is worth 8 points for its rarity in English text but surely shouldn’t be counted as unusual in “American” names.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    There was a famous paper in BMJ* years ago by two British authors, one with a Brit-style-aboriginal name, one not, who had submitted applications for a whole range of medical jobs under their own and each other’s names (I think: I may be misremembering and can’t be bothered to check just now.) Be that as it may, they demonstrated pretty conclusively that otherwise identical applications resulted in different chances of being shortlisted for interview depending entirely on the supposed foreigness or otherwise of the applicant’s name. (I forget how they got round the ethical questions of the deception, but I suppose their results made it moot in any case.)

    This had actual consequences: when shortlisting applications for medical posts in the NHS, you are now not allowed to know the applicants’ names at all. (In practice, this is performative rather than helpful, as it is usually child’s play to deduce them from things like the applicant’s publications, the list of which you are allowed to see …)

    * Or perhaps The Lancet. One of the weekly comics, anyway.

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    (In trying to find it, I discover that there actually have been lots of studies like this, with duly predictable results.)

  8. Here’s the Asimov story (with OCR errors), under the original title, Spell My Name with an S.

  9. And “Indian” for Amerindian, or instead of the name of the people, was evidently not so cringy either.

  10. it’s easier to use Steve at, say, Starbucks.

    At the Saturday market I patronise (admittedly very busy on Christmas Eve), the coffee stall spelled me “Antoni”. The order-taker seemed to be a regular young New Zealander. I grant I pronounced my name with my Brit accent, no NZ dipthong at the end (‘antonyi’) — even so I put stress on the first syllable, not trying to sound Italian or anything …

  11. By the way, I forgot to mention in the post that I found this odd:

    Latif Nasser is a Canadian-born journalist with Tanzanian and Indian roots. The science reporter and host of WNYC’s RadioLab said his first name is pronounced LUH-tif. He said it is hardly accepted by English speakers, who often assign him their own interpretations like Lufa or Lester instead.

    I wouldn’t have called him Lufa or Lester, I would have called him lah-TEEF. If the reporter is correct that he uses LUH-tif (and I certainly don’t trust reporters to get these things right), that seems surprising for Laṭīf لطيف — I guess it must be affected by an Indian language?

  12. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    With the usual British tendency to put the stress on foreign names earlier than Americans do, I would more likely call him LAH-teef, or maybe just lah-teef (with no obvious stress).

  13. But one of the things about Mr. Nasser is that, according to him, his given name is extraordinarily uncommon (because thought blasphemous) in Muslim-majority countries. So this is a “parents being idiosyncratic” thing, not a “name that is perfectly ordinary in country of origin becomes weird/exotic as a result of migration to a new country with different onomastic norms” thing.

    I associate “Latif” with the surname of the jazz musician Yusuf Lateef (pronounced with final-syllable stress), born William Huddleston. I have never heard it claimed that his assumed surname was deemed blasphemous by others, but it’s certainly the case that many of the black Americans (jazz musicians* and otherwise) who assumed “Muslim-style” names over the course of the 20th century did so in a milieu where direct contact with “regular” Muslims from Muslim-majority cultures was minimal and thus sometimes had eccentric/autodidact ideas about Islamic practice and culture.

    *I’m reasonably confident that “jazz musician” is an occupation in which switching to a less “American-sounding” name was not, at least after some point in the 1950’s, likely to cause diminished earnings.

  14. By the way, if you skim the actual 2013 paper, the claim of an earnings boost is basically smoke and mirrors because they admit they have no data on the actual earnings of any of the actual individuals they tracked. What they did demonstrate to their own satisfaction is that immigrants who had Americanized their first names had some statistically-significant propensity to cluster in higher-average-earnings occupations than those who didn’t. That is I suppose interesting, but also seems a big correlation-is-not-causation red flag, although I didn’t take the time (and may not have the necessary math skills) to try to understand their story about what they did methodologically to allegedly demonstrate that the relationship is causal.

  15. But one of the things about Mr. Nasser is that, according to him, his given name is extraordinarily uncommon (because thought blasphemous) in Muslim-majority countries.

    But I submit that Mr. Nasser is full of shit in that regard. Check out the list of “Notable persons: Given name” here.

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ve known several pious Muslims who go by “Latif” in English-speaking contexts, as an abbreviation of عبد اللطيف.

    In Ghana, similarly, I knew Muslims who called themselves by the Kusaalified forms “Dasmaani” and “Dahamaani” of عبد الرحمن.

    In the UK, most Muslims seem to have given up the struggle of explaining that if they are called Abdul Rahman (for example), this isn’t “given name + family name”, and they just go with the flow and put “Rahman” down in the “family name” box.

  17. Mr. Nasser claimed to have encountered Muslim disapprobation of his name in Morocco, and the examples in the wiki list are mostly from the other end of the Muslim world. It’s certainly plausible that there’s substantial geographical variation in what names are or aren’t thought taboo within the Muslim world and he overgeneralized. Consider by way of parallel how “Jesus” is a common boys’ name in Hispanophone cultures but not in Anglophone cultures. And then there are more idiosyncratic taboos — the early New England Puritans reportedly eschewed “Michael” as a boys’ name because they thought it overly presumptuous to apply an angel’s name to a human child, but most other sorts of Anglophone Christian did not buy into that taboo.

  18. There you go. Everything has an explanation!

  19. A good example of a name one is unlikely to pronounce correctly is Simona Foltyn, a journalist based in Dubai. Fortunately, you can hear introduce herself as /sɪˈmoːna folˈtiːn/ here. I just wish I knew how Foltyn would be written in Arabic (or a scientific transliteration).

  20. سيمونا فولتين

    She herself says she is Slovak:


    Foltýn is the Czech and Slovak rendering of German Faltin, Foltin, of the family of Valentinus, no?

  21. Ah, now all is clear! Thanks very much for that.

  22. A good example of a name one is unlikely to pronounce correctly is Simona Foltyn, a journalist based in Dubai.

    I’ll admit she pronounces her first name more or less exactly the way I would have thought (I mean, it’s a pretty common European name), and I can (naively) imagine three plausible pronunciations of her last name, one of which is the way she does it.

  23. Yeah, it was the last name I found difficult. But that’s because I assumed it was Arabic; had I known it was Slovak, it wouldn’t have presented a problem.

  24. J.W. Brewer says

    “Simona” has never been a common name in the U.S. but Ms. Foltyn pronounces her name the same way the one U.S.-born Simona* I happen to know does, so I already thought of that (based on limited sample size!) as the “standard” pronunciation.

    *It may be relevant that she is the daughter of immigrants, one from the U.K. and the other from then-Yugoslavia. “Simona” may well be popular in the Balkans, but doesn’t have the marked-as-exotic vibe that a more overtly Slavic name like Miroslava would.

  25. J.W. Brewer says

    In the Biavaschi et al. paper, the immigrant group (defined by country of origin) that had the highest percentage that switched over to “American” names was “Russian Empire.” That empire was of course ethnically and onomastically heterogenous. In particular, a quite high percentage of immigrants to the U.S. (in the relevant era) from that empire were Ashkenazim, who had a different inventory of common first names than their gentile-Slav neighbors did. It would be interesting if they could break down their Russian-Empire datapoints into Jew/Gentile subcomponents to see if the rate of renaming was different between the subgroups.

    Then there’s the fact that many Ashkenazic immigrants ended up choosing “American” names that ended up becoming ethnically-marked. Irving and Sidney are “American” names in a way that “Yitzhak” and “Shlomo” aren’t, but they aren’t doing anything to downplay the ethnicity of the bearer. I suppose one could try to compare economic (or other) outcomes of Ashkenazic-Americans with those Irving/Sidney/Morris/etc. sorts of names versus those with names like David/Jonathan/Samuel (i.e., of Hebrew origin but in common use by Anglo-Protestant Americans even after the Puritan vogue for more exotic “Old Testament” names faded).

    To tie back to the modern examples in the Gothamist piece, “Wellington” seems likewise ethnically marked as a given name, however Anglo its etymology. I would be mildly astonished to find a US-born white male bearing it but highly unsurprised to find it accompanied by a Chinese surname. If I saw it accompanied by an “Anglo-Saxon” surname, my first guess would probably be “black immigrant from the formerly-British West Indies.”

  26. I know someone who goes by Joe except in foreign Starbucks, even anglophone. The GOAT vowel with a Cork accent is apparently unrecognisable to other anglophones, so he goes by Sebastian, which provides enough consonants and prosody to enable a barista to infer any unclear vowels.

  27. Does this mean that even something as low-level foreign as Guido already has such enormous implications or that Guido is considered rather significantly more foreign by Americans than I’d have thought?

  28. jack morava says

    A shout-out to all the Malgorzatas of the world.

  29. PlasticPaddy says

    Seems to be an ethnic stereotype, like Paddy or Mick for Irish

  30. Now, I don’t doubt that there is name-based discrimination, but did the authors control for the possibility that people who are ready to change their names in order to improve their chances are also probably more ambitious / driven and could be more likely to succeed for that reason?

  31. > even something as low-level foreign as Guido

    Guido was a bit of a caricature name in my barbaric youth, to our shame.

    One subplot, hapless well beyond the hopeful parents with baby Irvings and Wellingtons, are efforts to disguise a foreign name. A kid in a neighboring high school insisted his name Guido was pronounced Guy-doe, and a colleague with a dipthonged Moin went by Moon. Both sounded ridiculous and drew far more attention to the outlandishness. They’d have done better to stick with their ethnic names. But I sympathize with the impulse that drove them to it.

    It’s also interesting to me, looking back, that at least at my (circles at my) high school, we had no stereotypes for the Korean and Indian kids, but we did for Italians.

    It supports my perception that much of it is class viewed through another lens. In 1980, the Asian kids were already all middle class, while Italians were still in many cases working class. I wonder whether the “untracked” students did have stereotypes for the Korean- and Indian-Americans.

  32. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    At one point, my ex-girlfriend’s boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend had a boyfriend named Brian,, pronounced à la française. It was indeed ridiculous.

  33. David Marjanović says

    Ah, coffee names. 🙂

    Faltin, Foltin

    I didn’t know those forms, but I knew the early-20th-century comedian Karl Valentin insisted on his [f].

  34. Another twist of using the definition of “Americanized” as being more common in the broader American populace at a given moment in time (as opposed to another definition,like say names common among Anglo- or colonial Americans) is that ironically, those who keep their name unchanged yet become citizens, make it more common among Americans as a % — might this break the association wth “less American”?

    For example, if Guido or Latif was uncommon initially but the Guidos and Latifs arriving did not change their names, and parents did not stop using it for the next generation of kids, eventually you’d get a sizeable number of born-and-raised speaking-American-English Guidos and Latifs and the association that someone with such a name is more foreign vs, someone named John or Mary would be eroded as opposed to if name changes were so common that such names would continually be associated with unassimilated new arrivals..

  35. Yes, an excellent point.

  36. J.W. Brewer says

    Of course a claim about a statistical tendency is not falsified or contradicted by a single striking counterexample, but I can’t help but think of a particular Italian-born immigrant kid named Guido who did not change his name and went off to have a ridiculously successful career by the standards and values of the pre-existing WASP elite: from Rhodes scholarship (awarded in ’53, well before the selection committee might plausibly have been seeking out “diverse” applicants rather than simply congratulating itself on being so tolerant as not to reject them out of hand) to high-profile academic career to federal judgeship: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guido_Calabresi

    Interestingly enough, you could call him part of a natural experiment since his older brother had the much more normal-American name “Paul” (presumably Anglicized from Paolo after arrival in the U.S.). And brother Paul had a very distinguished career of his own* in the U.S. as a medical researcher, teacher and administrator, but you can’t really claim that he outperformed little brother Guido.

    *This obit/appreciation in a professional journal describes Paul with the striking epithet “statesman of oncology.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1500936/

  37. David Marjanović says

    That reminded me to look up how Omar Bradley happened. Wikipedia:

    Omar Nelson Bradley, the son of schoolteacher John Smith Bradley (1868–1908) and his wife Mary Elizabeth (née Hubbard) (1875–1931), was born into poverty in rural Randolph County, Missouri, near Moberly. Bradley was named after Omar D. Gray, a local newspaper editor admired by his father, and a local physician, Dr. James Nelson.

    Does anyone have any idea on how Omar Gray happened…?

  38. Omar in Gen 36:11? (אוֹמָר, possibly from the root *ʾmr “say” with glottal stop, different from the root with ʿayn in Arabic in the nameعمر ʿumar, which is West Semitic *ʿmr “dwell”.)

  39. Omar D. Gray was born in 1869, in Missouri. First guess: he was named after Omar Khayyam, who was just getting popular in the English-speaking world: the second edition of FitzGerald’s translation came out in 1868, though from what WP tells me he got really well-known in the U.S. only after the third edition, of 1872. Second guess: he was named after the biblical ’Ômār (Genesis 36:11). Third Guess: he was named after Michigan Senator Omar D. Conger. I don’t know where Conger got his name.

    Actually, scratch all that. Omar D. Gray was probably named for his uncle, William Omar Gray (1849–1939). In 1849, Omar Khayyam was unknown in Saint Charles, Missouri (where W. O. Gray was born), and Omar D. Conger was an obscure lawyer in far-away Michigan. Saint Charles had been French, but they were probably a minority by that time, and his family were not French. Maybe his parents liked the French name Omer? W.O.’s siblings were named Henry Lock (their mother was born Martha Locke) and Ann Maria Virginia, which could be Anglicized French names.

  40. … Gray …

    In this weekend’s local obits: Graydon (Gray) Nelson “Private secretary’s decades of service marked by discreet silence”.

    The ideal diplomat: a gray thought in a gray shade.

  41. “Gray, as he was known to colleagues and ministers of both National and Labour administrations, died recently at his home in Greytown aged 95.”

  42. Google books finds Omar: Designed to Illustrate the Jewish History, from B.C. 63, to the Birth of Christ. “written for the American Sunday-school Union” but by whom it doesn’t tell. Published apparently in 1835. Omar is a title character, who lived a few years before year 0 in Judea and witnessed child Jesus, but I didn’t find an explanation of his name.

  43. And then, Omar Bradley, the General, was probably who Omar Bradley, mayor of Compton, CA, was named after.

    (That’s a lot of diverse commas in one short sentence.)

  44. David Eddyshaw says

    might this break the association with “less American”?

    I was surprised to discover here at the very Hattery itself that the surname “Jones”, which strikes me, and, I would have thought, most if not all other Brits, as archetypally Welsh, has no such associations for Americans.

    (This may, admittedly, have something to do with Americans never having heard of Wales at all. I’ve long since given up trying to explain my ethnicity to French and Germans and now fall back on “Scots” as second-best. That, they have heard of.)

  45. Omar Bradley’s cultural legacy, FWIW: https://ajiggerofblog.com/2010/09/15/the-omar-bradley/

  46. @David E.: I feel like even in Sassenach BrEng as of 1968ish, a line like (J. Lennon’s) “I feel so suicidal / Just like Dylan’s Mr. Jones” failed to explicitly evoke Welshness or Brythonicness in the median listener. Them’s the breaks, dude.

  47. DE: On the other hand, people like Kristin Chenoweth might be thought of as some kind of foreigners, by Americans named Jones or Stewart.

  48. following on a bit from JWB, to raise a methodological problem:

    another factor in that “russian empire” catch-all, especially for the yiddish jews that made up the bulk of the u.s. immigration wave (but i think also applicable for at least some other inarodtsy), is the general practice of having separate names for state, ritual, and family/community purposes. my grandfather (born in the bronx to parents from bukovina) is a fine example: his proper given name was yidl nukhm, which if he hadn’t been vigorously secular would’ve implied his ritual name would’ve likely been either yehuda or nekhama (or possibly nekhemia), but for state purposes he used julius until switching to jules in his late teens or early twenties, and in the family he had an entirely other name.

    when you have multiple names for different purposes and contexts, roughly corresponding to the different languages / namestocks of the authorities in those different contexts, looking at the records compiled by one authority is going to find – surprise! – names that correspond to that authority’s language.

    if you look at u.s. government records, you’re guaranteed to find “americanized” names. if you only looked at synagogue records, you’d only find hebrew names. if you looked at the (well-off members of the) previous generation’s gymnasium records, you’d find russian (and maybe some french, german, or polish) names. and none of them would tell you a damn thing about what people were called by the people who knew them, in any context except the few minutes a year taken up with filling out government forms, being called for an aliya, or paying your extortionate tuition.

    @DE: sadly, i think most in the u.s. who are familiar with the concept of wales (aside from the princely title, which i don’t think generally evokes a particular place) would need to see a “ll” or a syllabic “w” to recognize a name as welsh.

  49. DE, are you telling us that “keeping up with the Joneses” means “we can’t possibly be seen worse off then Welshmen“?

  50. The town of Omer, MI was named so because “Homer” had already been taken. If you read the linked article you’ll find that Omer is famous for the legal case of the Cussing Canoeist, and for two households seceding from the town over non-delivery of water.

  51. Rozele, isn’t Y. Nukhm = H. Nakhum? (Although the vowel is odd. It’s נַחוּם not נָחוּם.) And Nekhama is a feminine name.

  52. if i’m remembering right what the person who proposed it told me, this nekhama (which may be properly nekhome) is itself a more formal yiddish version of something else (presumably either nekheymia or nakhum) – sometime i’ll remember to look in beider’s book when i’m at the right library, and have a more definite answer.

    as far as i know, he never had a ritual use for a proper shem himself, and his equally secular kids haven’t needed to have one for him, so there hasn’t been a source of more clarity.

  53. “Gray, … at his home in Greytown … .”

    Yeah, I wasn’t going to draw attention to Greyness upon Grayness.

    Greytown — named for Governor Grey, an equally able administrator — is at least a pretty place. Unlike another namesake: the Grey River, which flows to Greymouth. The River is almost always grey, thanks to its large load of gravel outwash brought down by the permanent drizzle on the West Coast; Greymouth town/harbour for which the epithet “grey” immediately plods to mind.

    (AFAICT No connection to Early Grey of Northumbria and the tea, allegedly.)

  54. David Marjanović says

    I’ve long since given up trying to explain my ethnicity to French and Germans

    That does surprise me. They’re supposed to know Wales exists, even if nothing further.

  55. just dropping back in to cross-link to another hattery post about people with multiple names, in this case roma.

  56. might this break the association with “less American”?
    I was surprised to discover here at the very Hattery itself that the surname “Jones”, which strikes me, and, I would have thought, most if not all other Brits, as archetypally Welsh, has no such associations for Americans.
    (This may, admittedly, have something to do with Americans never having heard of Wales at all. I’ve long since given up trying to explain my ethnicity to French and Germans and now fall back on “Scots” as second-best. That, they have heard of.)

    This also makes me wonder about gaining and losing association with ethnicity. There might be many examples where an ethnic association or stereotype associated with a name is gained or lost across borders.

    For example, in the US, German last names being stereotyped as “Jewish names”. Names like Jamal, Ayesha etc. either associated with non-Muslim African Americans or Muslims of ethnicities from various places in the world (e.g. Africa, Asia) etc. depending on the place. Also some names associated with African Americans/Caribbean groups with Irish/British origin first/last names like Tyrone etc. (or like in an example earlier, Wellington might sound like a West Indies immigrant’s name) might not be apparent to those unfamiliar with them

    It would be interesting to consider the processes of how names gain or lose ethnic associations. Is there some critical mass or threshold where some name is (or becomes) so commonly held by a subgroup in the population that it becomes tied to them, or alternatively becomes de-associated once more diverse groups of people hold them.

    I guess it’s parallel with lots of other processes, linguistic and non-linguistic like slang of a subculture going mainstream or alternatively a mainstream slang term fading away but being retained more locally and then gaining associations that way. Also related to other aspects of food,culture etc. which can quickly gain or lose ties with the “origin” culture (e.g. pizza being seen as an Italian thing or Italian-American thing, then American thing, then fast food, global thing)

  57. David Marjanović says

    might not be apparent to those unfamiliar with them

    Oh, I’m occasionally reminded that a long list of originally English last names is stereotypically Black in the US. I still have no idea what’s on that list.

  58. @DM:

    i think the association mostly operates in the north and west, since that set of english surnames is more or less the core stock of southern slaveholding families’ names, which are carried by a smaller segment of the white northern & western population but were brought north by many black families during the Great Migration. i wouldn’t be surprised if the set of names varied in different places based on the different tracks of migration – bed-stuy, brooklyn is south carolina, for example (and you can still hear it in people’s dialects), while iirc south-central LA is texas.

    but to get a general sense of those names, you can basically look at any list of prominent white southern politicians or businessmen: washington (as in harold), jefferson (as in george), calhoun (as in cora), etc.

  59. I wonder how much of the Washington/Jefferson thing reflects confirmation bias, driven by the even greater rarity of these surnames among the US White population. As a sample, the 1992 book 100 Greatest African Americans lists no Jeffersons, and only one Washington, Booker T., who took his surname from his stepfather’s first name.

  60. @Y: It’s hard for me to take seriously any list of “greatest” anything that includes Crispus Attucks. While he is famous for dying in the 1770 Boston Massacre, he was not a significant figure in any way except having died there.

  61. I don’t think much of any list of (round number) greatest anythings (“10 greatest Jewish athletes”, “10 best free alternatives for Microsoft Excel”, etc.) In this case, though, it’s fine for a random sampling of surnames.

    As to Attucks, he was influential in death (if not in life), and he was a real person. Some influential figures of history can’t even claim that.

  62. Going back to the observation that the Asian immigrant’s chosen name Wellington (mentioned in the linked article) would also not seem out of place belonging to a West Indies immigrant to Britain, there was the previous observation that Asian Americans often choose “classical” or old-fashioned sounding names for kids (e.g. Harold, Vivian etc.) relative to the US mainstream. There’s been a similar observation with Black Americans and previously common classical names (e.g. Muhammad Ali’s former name Cassius Clay).

    So despite differing histories among Asian and Black (Americans, if not other Anglophones), there’s an interesting parallel in that both have a history of choosing “western names” more classical than the majority.

    I’ve heard the claim that some immigrant groups might be behind the times based on the movies they watched from the west/Anglophone world (e.g. naming their kids after people/places/things popular in older generations). But the trend of Victorian or at least old-fashioned English/classical/Biblical sounding names has a history among people who are not recent immigrants to English-speaking society (e.g. African Americans, people from the West Indies) so it’s not the only thing.

    Is there something here as a parallel (e.g. perhaps a minority in a western country might prefer classic names as a way to avoid prejudice and seem upper class) or just a coincidence? Sometimes minorities/newcomers/people perceiving themselves as outsiders try to outdo the locals in assimilation (e.g. the whole “more English than the English” thing).

    Or am I totally off-base here?

  63. In the case of an immigrant from say British Hong Kong and the British West Indies both having very old-school Anglo names, it might be just be shared cultural norms from the British Empire. Although the classical/Biblical name trend being parallel among Black and Asian westerners (or if not western-influenced people like Hong Kongers, Singaporeans, West Indies) alike is still striking to me Biblical/classical first name + Chinese surname is a super common combo. Many people seemed to have noticed both trends individually for Black and Asian minorities in the west, but I don’t know if anyone has drawn a parallel?

  64. From this list of top 2000 African American surnames.

    The top 10, and the percentage of all Americans with the surname who are Black:
    WILLIAMS 47.68%
    JOHNSON 34.63%
    SMITH 23.11%
    JONES 38.48%
    BROWN 35.60%
    JACKSON 53.04%
    DAVIS 31.60%
    THOMAS 38.75%
    HARRIS 42.39%
    ROBINSON 44.93%

    The following are more than 90% Black:

    Among the top 300 Black surnames, those which are over 70% Black are:
    WASHINGTON 87.53% (ranked 19 overall)
    JEFFERSON 74.24% 108
    PIERRE 86.74% 151
    ALSTON 79.83% 188
    BATTLE 77.31% 227
    MUHAMMAD 82.86% 298
    BOLDEN 72.27% 300

  65. @SH Or am I totally off-base here?

    I have only anecdotal evidence from working/living/travelling in Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, but I’d say yes you’re off-base. I’m talking about the Chinese diaspora in Asia, rather than (say) Indian or South central Asia. I observe a lot of personal names that aren’t common/not even old-fashioned in English (like ‘Serene’); or are more commonly family names/typically of famous people.

    Biblical/classical first name + Chinese surname is a super common combo.

    You do know that Chinese languages put the family name first, then the personal name(?) So it’s super-convenient to prefix an English personal name then use that + family name in English-speaking contexts and family name + Chinese personal name in Sinitic-speaking contexts.

    Typically Chinese speakers will pick their own personal (‘Christian’) name for themselves about when at the age of Confirmation (whether or not they’re actually Christian). Or it might be a hangover ‘baby’ name shortening of their Chinese personal name. Also I know personal names ‘Seven’ and ‘Fourteen’ — propitious numbers.

    OTOH, a significant number resolutely refuse to adopt a prefix personal name, as a statement against English cultural imperialism. (Lee Kuan-Yew and his children, despite Lee being sometimes known as ‘Harry’.)

  66. A couple of possibly interesting tidbits:

    The Chinese painter Dong Kingman (my mother’s teacher, incidentally) was named Dong Moy Shu, but his teacher called him Dong King Man. He later combined the two first names into Kingman, leading Anglophones to think he had an English last name: http://www.dongkingman.org/about.html

    Also, my great-grandfather was named Commodore Perry Rohrbaugh, after Commodore Perry. I suspect using titles as names is fairly rare, as well as a bad idea.

  67. in the u.s. (and i think parts of the anglophone caribbean world), titles as names is considered another african-american marker, and isn’t particularly rare. the usual explanation (dunno if it holds up) is that it was a response to whte supremacist refusals to call black men anything but their first names. that may have established it, but it’s definitely lasted past that particular mode of social racism being as pervasive as it once was. i went to elementary school (in 1980s cambridge, MA) with a Commodore, and have known plenty of other title-names since, of many ages.

  68. @ jack morava “shout-out to all the Malgorzatas of the world”

    I know two, one of them goes by Gorza (with a sibilant) and the other by Goschka.

  69. David Marjanović says

    Gosia, diminutive Gośka, is what I’m used to.

  70. Curious! I’ve met many people over the decades, but no Commodores. You obviously move in better circles. Googling tells me it was common in the 1890s, but has steadily dwindled in popularity since.

    A woman in Australia, Isabella Veronica Hayes, recently wanted to name her child Commodore, but couldn’t, because military titles as names are illegal there. Instead, she named him Holden Commodore. You can name your child after a car, but not after an officer.

  71. The college I taught at for twenty years has a Commodore Slone Building, whose namesake wasn’t a commodore, but a man born, I suspect, in or shortly after 1898.

  72. Earl Hines seems to have been so named at birth.

    Whereas most jazz nobility (Duke Ellington, King Oliver) got elevated in admiration for their playing.

  73. The name Earl is fairly ordinary as an English given name; and as a legal name, Baron (sometimes with a double r) is also not terribly unusual. (When I lived in Bloomington, my on-again, off-again congressman* was named Baron, but he was white.) As nicknames, Duke and King are also pretty common, and they are not unknown as legal names either. Rex serms to be much more common as an official name, similar to Earl; people generally know what the word rex means, yet it feels more like a name, like James than a common noun like lord.

    The noble titles that feel distinctly odd to me as (nick)names include: Count, Marquess (there is a young, talented trumpeter named Marquis Hill,** however), and Graf. (Is there a jazz Graf?***) When I learned about Duke Ellington and Count Basie, around the same time, the former’s name sounded pretty ordinary but the latter’s distinctly odd. My immediate question was whether Basie’s nickname was specifically imitating the older Ellington’s.

    I’m not sure about the aforementioned Lord. Maybe it’s a little less odd than Count as a first name, and it probably benefits in that respect from being unremarkable as a surname (e.g. “Book ’em, Danno”). For that matter, Duke and King probably sound better as first names because they are ordinary last names too. (Hardly anybody, in the Anglosphere at least, seems to be surnamed Count. Is that because it’s more of a French title?)

    * Baron Hill ran against Republican Mike Sodrell four times, in 2002, 2004, 2006, and 2008. Sodrell won once, in 2006, by less than 2000 votes. After Sodrell was blown out in 2008 (after I had moved to South Carolina), he was unable to secure the Republican nomination in 2010, and Hill lost to Todd Young instead. However, that was a Republican wave year, so Hill would probably have lost to whomever was nominated.

    ** This may be related to the fact that many French names code as black in America. Prominent examples are Antoine, Andre, Christophe, Delroy, Jermaine, Lebron, Marcel, and Tyrell. I assume that this tendency is partially just happenstance, but also partially a product of French Caribbean influence.

    *** As a surname, sure, but not to my knowledge as a nickname. Moreover, the surnamed Grafs tend to be European. Graf, for whatever reason, is not a usual surname in America, although it’s fairly ordinary in Germanic Europe.

  74. Don Marquis’ family name goes back to at least the 17th century, coming from Ireland or France.

  75. This may be related to the fact that many French names code as black in America.

    Huh, I don’t think that had ever occurred to me.

  76. I came across an interesting dataset associated with a 2018 article in Nature (of all places!), where if you scroll down you can click through to an excel spreadsheet giving 4,250 American given names with data as to the pseudo-racial identity (using the standard American bureaucratic categories) of their bearers by percentage. (The source data FWIW was mortgage applicants in 2007, 2010, which obviously has some effect on the age and economic status of the sample, but they still got millions of datapoints, and the lenders were under federal regulatory obligation to match up “racial” identification with applicant names.) https://www.nature.com/articles/sdata201825

    Not enough “Wellingtons” to make the cut, although you could find other “prominent surname used as first name” things that were overweight Asian-American, such as Darwin (!), Emerson, and Wilson.

    I did a rough survey by hand/eye (results not guaranteed 100% accurate) of the first 1000 names in the dataset (A through Desmond …) and here are the ones where n = 50 or more where >10% were Asian-American and it was in my subjective estimation a “Western” rather than “Asian” name. Note that I did NOT exclude “Hispanic-sounding” names, which I expect within the heterogenous “Asian-American” category are overwhelmingly borne by Filipino-Americans. So that’s one trend you can see, but maybe you can see some others, not all necessarily conceptually aligned with each other. Names with an * had >15% AA bearers; with an ** had >20%:


  77. The Nature paper, BTW, says that first names are not a particularly good way to identify individual Americans as black (“NHB,” as they say in the trade, thus excluding “Afro-Latinos” etc.), because although there are plenty of coded-as-black first names, most black Americans do not bear one. While on the one hand it’s super-interesting to see that such-and-such group of “normal-sounding” common-stock American names have 25-30% black representation while such and such other group of similar names have only 5% such representation, even if you know the pattern, the median/modal bearer of a name in the first group is still gonna be white.

    Anyway, I did a similar informal survey I did (first thousand names, excluding those where N50% NHB:


    [ETA: My edits are not taking; the six above are the only names where >50% of bearers were NHB]

    Another baker’s dozen where the NHB %age was under 50 but over 30:


    And some more where the NHB %age was under 30 but over 20:


    Only 13.4% of Earls were NHB.

  78. David Marjanović says

    Hardly anybody, in the Anglosphere at least, seems to be surnamed Count. Is that because it’s more of a French title?

    The usual story about the title, which seems to be true, is that before the Great Vowel Shift it sounded too similar to another C word, and that therefore earl remained in use while all other titles this side of king & queen were replaced by French ones at the Conquest. Only after the GVS it came to be used for foreign nobles, but at that point earl was so entrenched for the British ones that there are now works of at least fanfiction where counts is elegant variation for vampires because the only count people have heard of is Dracula.

    (Graf Dracula in German, with repetition of /raː/ that makes dramatic pronunciations especially easy.)


    How is that French?

  79. David Marjanović says

    We’ve talked before, starting here, about whether Earl as a name is much, much older…

  80. Graf, for whatever reason, is not a usual surname in America

    i wonder whether this is just a reflection of the class & political composition of the waves of german-speaking immigration to the u.s. – 18thC artisans and farmers, ’48ers, etc. (disregarding the Operation Paperclip nazi wave as statistically insignificant)

  81. I like to think that men named Earl are named after the first one. You know, Earl, Carl and Thrall.

  82. J.W. Brewer says

    Turns out jazz or jazz-adjacent musicians known as “Graf” are not completely non-existent. Difficulty is that this fellow is Norwegian and I take it it’s just his proper legal surname. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5EWy7osdaU

  83. J.W. Brewer says

    And then of course there was the legendary “Jazz Baroness” who was literally a baroness (although she eventually divorced the baron in question as she segued into her new vocation as a patroness/muse of quite a number of legendary jazzmen): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pannonica_de_Koenigswarter

  84. Haakon Graf “is the older brother of the bass guitarist of LAVA, Rolf Graf […] and the jazz singer Randi Elisabeth Graf.” It’s a Graf dynasty!

  85. @ J.W. Brewer

    Thanks for that link to the paper and actual data with different US groups — particularly how African Americans or Afro-Caribbeans (the paper was about the US but I’ve noticed similar names among say Jamaicans) AND Asian Americans both seem to have interestingly converged on similar naming trends vis-à-vis the majority that are “marked” ethnic but still western. Among these parallels are names evocative of older cohorts (e.g. Bernie, Daphne), old British Isles surnames as firstnames (Wellington, Darwin), classical/Biblical names and names that may be coded non-Anglo European, often Latinate, particularly Spanish, Italian, French (e.g. Alphonso, Vivien etc.). It seems too coincidental that two different minority groups in the west with different histories (one consisting of involuntary assimilated people, the other voluntary immigrants who purposefully assimilated and gave up “ethnic names”) have maybe more than just a passing resemblence in naming patterns of picking old-sounding names.

    Those examples you brought up show exactly what I had observed and wondered surely someone else noted this parallel.

    I ask because, again, I’ve seen these trends discussed with very group-specific claims that only reasonably apply to one group but not the other (e.g. claims that classical/”powerful” upper class names like Demetrius were chosen to be empowering among descendants of slaves in the US or that voluntary immigrants, e.g. the Chinese were inspired by names fitting their L1 phonology, or movie stars popular in their old country prior to immigration), but I have yet seen no one bring up why such patterns of “name your kid something mainstream Americans associated with the older generation” should exist among two disparate groups with different histories of either forced or voluntary assimilation into western culture. It might be coicindence, but maybe not?

  86. “This may be related to the fact that many French names code as black in America.

    Huh, I don’t think that had ever occurred to me.”

    I’ve wondered if there was a scholarly consensus on how this link/association got started, but it does seem like it’s not just a recent thing, at least since the 50s and 60s.


    I mean, I’ve heard of things like the Louisiana/Creole influence, and also Haiti and the French-speaking Caribbean providing inspiration.

    There’s also a long history of African American ties to France with black intellectuals/artists/performers moving there (e.g. with Josephine Baker etc.) and the perception of France as a liberating, open society.


    The Harlem Renaissance, jazz etc. all had links with France and Francophones.

    France also does have ties to the African diaspora be it continental Francophone Africa, the Caribbean etc. even today.

  87. Another thing is the creative naming/personalized name trend (e.g. creative spelling, mixing elements of more than 1 name etc.), names often inspired by places/things/brand names.

    It is widely seen and sometimes respected but other times unfortunately sometimes stigmatized but it does seem like it happens across a wide range of ethnic, racial and national groups (white or black Americans or other ethnic groups of Americans, Chinese immigrants or in the diaspora, or Africans and Asians in Africa and Asia itself).

    But how it’s respected or mocked depends on — if it’s a white or black American, it might be stigmatized as lower class, though still “American” etc. or alternatively creative, clever, freewheeling, hippie, “cool” etc. If it’s a group of recent immigrants or someone whose families are one or two generations removed from a foreign place (or a foreigner that’s not even American, living abroad), it’s often explained as “poor English” or unfamiliarity with western culture rather than familiarity yet still having creativity or clever word play.

    But ultimately, there is a common stigma you see among those with standard “conventional names” towards the more creative names right? Anyone written about this, cross-comparatively, about the high or low status of creative naming and why it crops up or doesn’t in some times or places?

  88. Graf, for whatever reason, is not a usual surname in America

    i wonder whether this is just a reflection of the class & political composition of the waves of german-speaking immigration to the u.s. – 18thC artisans and farmers, ’48ers, etc
    In general, having a noble rank as last name doesn’t imply that the person’s ancestors were nobles – nobles would use the rank designation as a title coming before first name and last name, and have a family name different from the title, frequently the name of their ancestral seat or the fief that gave them their title. People with noble ranks as names rather belonged to the suite of a noble or were his serfs. As for Graf, that was, besides a noble title, also the designation of various low level and local officials, appointed from above or elected by their communities. So most of the bearers of that surname wouldn’t be higher in class as the average German immigrant to America.

  89. David Eddyshaw says

    The sort of West African you meet in Europe, especially in a university or medical context, is often from a very illustrious family back home: noble or indeed royal. (It’s no accident that you get so many people with Yoruba names containing adé “crown.”) Subsistence farmers don’t have the same options.

    “Count”, nothing.

  90. J.W. Brewer says

    @David E.: Indeed, a reasonably likely cultural/political blow-up looming in the U.S.A. is the full realization on the part of “regular” (ancestors here since before 1808) black Americans that the high-achieving Nigerian-American etc. recent immigrants that elite universities are disproportionately using to fill up their “black” quotas at the expense of deeper-rooted locals are not only strangers to the specific American historical experience of racial tsuris but may well be direct descendants of the locally-powerful West-African folks who sold their ancestors to the slavers back in the day. Not that I personally believe in inherited guilt (other than what we all may get from Adam and the chick wot led him astray), but …

  91. David Eddyshaw says

    It is not lost on northern Ghanaians of my acquaintance that the black American habit of identifying with the Ashanti (and who wouldn’t? there’s a lot there to want to identify with), adopting Ashanti names, and so forth, has a certain irony about it. It’s easier to appreciate the irony when your forebears spent a lot of time resisting Ashanti imperialism.

  92. David Marjanović says

    People with noble ranks as names rather belonged to the suite of a noble or were his serfs.

    There’s at least one large exception.

    Kaiser is a widespread last name in Austria; I’m told the reason is that both old ei and long ä have merged and become [a] in the Bavarian dialects. Blessed indeed are the cheesemakers.

  93. To be fair, the question “why identify with the empire/imperial culture that did stuff to your ancestors” has been brought up a lot in different contexts — e.g. sometimes you can hear discourse within and among communities like why are some Ashkenazi Jews so keen to identify with cultures like e.g. gentile German/Slavic names or eastern European culture as “one’s own” as opposed to Israeli culture (e.g. bagels and lox vs. falafel), some heavily Amerindian-descent Hispanics critiquing others for being so eager to identify with the Spanish conquistadore’s culture vs. the native one. Genghis Khan’s reputation of destruction doesn’t necessarily turn people off from being proud of their surname Khan. Some African Americans have criticized the idea of taking white names as that of the oppressor (e.g. slaveowner’s names, British Isles names). But likewise you might hear criticism of the adoption of Arabic or African names among African Americans for various reasons — some along the same lines (e.g. some of those groups like Arabs also conquered and colonized/assimilated) but e.g. some African Americans often identify with pan-African ideals, regardless of which African kingdom did what to which, even though it’s not quite the same you do see for e.g. some Asian Americans gradually in a western context identify with generic “Asian” identity despite a history of their ancestors having conquered one another, and for the same matter, Europeans and European Americans identifying with generic “Euro” identity no longer caring about past feuds between the English and Irish, or Poles and Germans so it’s not like there’s some precedent there too).

    At some point, some people eventually throw their hands up in an “it is what it is” way and ignore the “why identify with some culture that did something bad to your ancestors” critique, when either it’s so far back or even if not very far back at least the culture of the “empire” is so ubiquitous and not worth giving up in any more than a symbolic way (e.g. some may rhetorically say English is a language associated with imperialism, imposed upon many folks by the Empire that didn’t have the sun set on it, yet often these folks won’t stop using it anyways or even try to return to the pre-conquered state linguistically, culturally etc.).

    I don’t know if there’s an easy or consistent principle to tease out there. There are people that do try to recover and revive stuff lost because of past imperialism (e.g. reviving Hebrew or Celtic languages or Amerindian ones and giving names that harken back to preceding cultures prior to cultural assimilation or partial loss), and kudos to them for the effort. But also plenty of people who acknowledge imperialism was bad without wanting to give up what is the state of cultural/linguistic norms after the imperialism has already taken place, often generations or centuries later.

  94. I’d say the rule of thumb is that more recent and more grievous wrongs take precedence.

  95. David Marjanović says

    Genghis Khan’s reputation of destruction doesn’t necessarily turn people off from being proud of their surname Khan.

    Also, Cengiz is a common first name in Turkey (and Attila remains very common in Hungary).

  96. Is Attila a historic Magyar name? I assumed it spread as a 19th century nationalist affectation to underline Hungary’s apartness relative to its German, Slav, and Vlach neighbors.

  97. Cengiz is a common first name in Turkey

    As is Kaan (for example, the popular singer Kaan Boşnak).

  98. J.W. Brewer says

    I went to college with a dude named Attila, who was Canadian. But IIRC his parents were ethnic Magyars who had emigrated from Communist-occupied Transylvania. He was born in the 1960’s, so his existence does nothing to contradict Vanya’s theory re 19th-century nationalist affectation.

  99. From Hungarian Wikipedia:

    Az Attila név igazán csak a 20. század második felében vált népszerűvé, a század elején kevéssé ismerték. Erre példa, hogy József Attila nevét nevelőszülei semmisnek vették, amiről így írt önéletrajzában, a Curriculum Vitae-ben:

    “Nem csupán azért érdekeltek a hun királyról szóló mesék, mert az én nevem is Attila, hanem azért is, mert Öcsödön nevelőszüleim Pistának hívtak. A szomszédokkal való tanácskozás után a fülem hallatára megállapították, hogy Attila név nincsen.”


    The name Attila only really became popular in the second half of the 20th century, and was little known at the beginning of the century. For example, Attila József’s foster parents considered his name to be null and void, as he wrote about in his autobiography, Curriculum Vitae:

    “I was interested in the tales of the Hun king not only because my name is Attila, but also because my foster parents in Öcsöd called me Pista. After consulting with the neighbours, it was established by ear that there was no name Attila.”

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