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What's in a name? A great deal, it seems


The other day I asked the couple in Mondawmin Mall how they had named their 4-year-old son.

At first they'd considered calling him Raymond, after the father.

But Raymond the elder nixed the idea.

"Too conventional," he said. "Too-- dare I say it -- European."

For that reason, names such as James -- the most popular boy's name, according to the New York Times -- and Alexander, which ranks second, never made this couple's list.

They toyed with something more exotic: Malcolm (in honor of Malcolm X) or Jamal. Shaquille, for NBA basketball star Shaquille O'Neal, briefly caught their eye. They got a book of African names, but nothing there leaped out at them.

"I don't know," said the child's mother. "We also wanted a name that had meaning. I mean, meaning for our individual families."

Added the father: "We had an image in our mind's eye of what we wanted our child to be."

"What was that?" I asked.

"We wanted him to be culturally conscious, above all. We wanted him to be self-assured but capable of having fun. We wanted him to be goal-oriented but always aware of his cultural heritage. We hoped he would be one of those successful people who go out of their way to help those less fortunate."

Added the mother: "We also wanted him to be proud of his father and his grandfathers on both sides. You know, his personal heritage."

Eventually, the couple gave up on existing names and coined their own: Reylyle.

"You pronounce it Ra-lyle, with the accent on the 'lyle'," explained the mother. "Ray, for his father Raymond. Lyle, for my father."

"His teacher seems to have a particular problem grasping his name," complained the father. "Reylyle has had to pull her up a couple of times."

Actually, Reylyle is kind of tame compared to some of the names parents are making up. There are Latowandas and Ferishatitias toddling around -- little kids with names longer than they are.

The trend has spawned a new stereotype within the black community -- a way for some blacks to make fun of their brethren in the inner city. Comedians have picked up on it; in his new TV series, "Martin," comedian Martin Lawrence gets in a gentle dig at the practice with his character, Sheneyney (pronounced Shenaynay).

The trend was the subject of a fierce debate some years ago in Essence magazine. As I recall, readers complained that such names lacked meaning, were too hard for children to pronounce and spell and would stigmatize the child in later life. Such names, people complain, are pseudo-African and indicate ignorance. Such names, other people say, illustrate how lost and confused some black people are.

I disagree. As a matter of fact, I applaud the trend.

What's in a name, after all?

Some parents choose to honor the Saints or the Twelve Apostles. Some honor ancient kings or other cultural heroes. Some parents just like the way a name sounds. But all names were made up at some point. Even the European ones.

And upon inspection, the names often are not as meaningless as they sound. My buddy George, a Harvard grad, named his daughter Rheq-Rheq (pronounced Ree-Ree) in honor of his mother, Rita. He chose the spelling to give the name a Middle Eastern flavor.

One of my best friends in high school chose for himself the Easternesque name Nahatanoj, which in reality was merely his given name, Jonathan, spelled backward. At various times in my life, I experimented with different spellings (Wyli) and with African names (Odubua).

Names, no doubt, are important. They are a parent's second gift -- after life -- to a child. They establish identity and place.

It could well be that some of those parents who choose to coin new names often are uneducated and poor. It could well be that they feel alienated from the mainstream culture and largely ignorant of their African heritage. Through names, then, they are trying to forge a new cultural identity for their children -- a fusion of the known world and dreams for the future.

I say, more power to them.

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