What's in a name? To some, everything

Individualism: Michaels and Sarahs lead, but Devons, and Natashas are gaining as parents try to give children a boost at birth.

April 01, 2001|By Katrice Franklin | Katrice Franklin,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Zakhyia is her name.

She liked it so much, she picked Zakhi for her 6-week-old son and Eneizah for her 2-year-old daughter.

With names like those, the McCray family knows they stand out-at day care, at work, in the grocery store.

But that's the point.

"In high school, they used to call me Zuzuki to make fun of my name," said the 20-year-old McCray. "But I always told them, `You're just mad because your name is Tom, and it's the same name as six other people.' I always felt my name made me special."

Names like Dequan, Javon and Ayanna are finding their way to popular name books, Web sites and lists of frequently used names.

Name experts say giving children unusual names dates back to Africa. Blacks historically view naming as a way to express their heritage.

Its popularity has risen as the children of blacks who fought in the civil rights movement have babies.

A study by a Hampton University English professor of the school's graduating class of 2002 shows one in five incoming freshman have creative names, like Takea, Ashema and Rhan (pronounced Ron).

Once considered taboo, unusual names-such as LaTreece-have become cool and are being used by whites and other ethnic groups, according to Edward Callary, past president of the American Name Society.

Sense of individualism

Parents say a unique name instills a sense of individualism in a child. If they name their children something inventive or after someone with favorable qualities, that name will somehow influence fate.

The belief also influences spelling, transforming a common name like Christopher into Kristopher. Or Andrew into Andruw.

Such individualism is evident on the roster of babies and toddlers at Discovery Care Center in Norfolk, where there's a Raeanna, Khalid, Naiya and Tahj.

Before 2-year-old Tahj was born, his parents Latisha and Alejandro, were looking for a name "other than Mike. That just wouldn't have worked," said Latisha Capehart.

While pregnant, she watched a television show about an intelligent and creative black boy named Taj. With a little twist in the spelling, Tahj was born.

She hoped her Tahj would adopt the television Taj's traits.

She thinks the name is already working.

"Tahj loves music and loves to dance," said Capehart, who also works at Discovery child care. "He's very popular here."

About five years ago, Hampton University English professor Margaret Lee began noticing more unusual names on her class roster.

She conducted a study of the incoming freshman class at the historically private, black university. Of 545 names, 87 women had what she classified as African-sounding names.

Nagela, Chifaun, Amonie, Nneka and Jacinta were examples.

About 22 males, including Pleas, Kamari and Uleyz, had names with similar characteristics.

Lee said she combed history books and the Internet for reasons why unusual names were once again so popular.

Most of her research traced the practice back to Africa, where it is believed that a child's name affects their future.

Lee asked the students how they felt about their names.

"Ten to 15 years ago, students with different names would always say they didn't like them," Lee said. "But these students said they liked their names because they were unique."

They also told Lee that their names were combinations of family members' names.

An example of the philosophy being adopted by other cultures can be seen in Virginia Beach, where Honduras natives Isela and Mario Figueroa blended their names and chose Marisela for their 3-year-old daughter.

Lee said the sense of pride is influenced by a renewed interest in black culture. Several years ago, there was talk about Ebonics, an African-American vernacular.

"All of a sudden, you see some of that spilling over into mainstream society. Talk shows now feature white girls with names like Keisha, once a quintessential African-American name for girls."

Sure, the Michaels, Jacobs and Sarahs are still at the top of the most popular names in Virginia and across the country. But further down, past the top 10, quite a few Devons, Dejas and Natashas are being born.

Right now, it's hip to be different, as evidenced by a rise in body piercing and tattooing, said Callary of the American Name Society, an organization that's studied names for about half a century.

Elaborate names have always been more popular among Southerners and used more often for girls.

"Boys are more likely to be teased for their names than girls," said Jennifer Moss, creator of BabyNames.com, a Web site that helps parents choose names for their newborns.

"African-Americans also use a lot of prefixes like le and la, which comes from a strong French influence from those with a Louisiana origin. But it's all become more assimilated in the past 10 years."

Nudge from technology

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