President named Obama changes name game in America
Sunday, November 30, 2008
NEW YORK -- Zenas Ackah has heard it all his life: What kind of name is that? You must not be from here. You must be foreign.
Actually, no. Born in the U.S., the 22-year-old college senior with the Greek first name and the Ghanian last name grew up in Philadelphia.
But Ackah is hopeful that change is coming and the idea of an "American" name will expand beyond monikers like Tom and Jane and Smith and Jones. He thinks he has a strong weapon on his side: For at least the next four years, when people look to the most powerful American in the country, they'll be looking at President Barack Hussein Obama.
"I think it will help people understand that people in America aren't just John, Jack, Mary," Ackah said. "They're Zenas and Barack."
Obama's name gave him his share of trouble during the campaign. He acknowledged its unfamiliarity to most Americans, and there were times when supporters of his opponent made a point of using his middle name, which was seen as an attempt to cast doubt on his background and faith.
But the next four years will ensure that his name is no longer unfamiliar.
The more people hear it, the more normal it becomes, said Don Nilsen, a professor of English linguistics at Arizona State University and co-president of the American Name Society.
"Who is more American than the president of the United States?" he said. "There's no question it will have a ripple effect, because of the power of the position."
Names traditionally considered "American" tend to be "British-sounding stuff," said Cleveland Evans, professor of psychology at Bellevue University in Nebraska. "We are still basically an English-culture country. We really are still in many ways at our base an Anglo-Saxon culture."
He and Nilsen pointed out that immigrants have long had a history of changing their names to fit in more with the United States, or have even had others change it for them.
Obama, born in Hawaii and named after his Kenyan father, went by Barry for some years before deciding to use his full first name.
Ackah can understand. He still finds the comments about his name irritating, along with the assumptions people make upon hearing a name they're not familiar with.
"People start talking down to you because they think you're foreign," he said.
Electing someone named Barack Obama president reflects a shift in attitudes about names that's been going on in American society for the past few decades, says Laura Wattenberg, a name expert and author who runs the blog The Baby Name Wizard.
"As a group, American parents are naming much more creatively and are striving to be distinctive with the names they pick," she said, pointing out that shift started in the 1960s when Obama was born and has only accelerated in the last 25 years or so.
So while certain names may be more popular and prevalent than others, it's not by much, she said. In 2007, Jacob was the most popular name for boys. But Wattenberg pointed out that only 1 percent of boys were given that name.
In contrast, a century ago, 7.5 percent of parents chose the top name, John.
A president named Obama could break down the perception "that there is such a thing as a 'normal' name," said Wattenberg.
"It's a powerful symbol of breaking down barriers where it wasn't that long ago where kids with a non-English name would go to school and teachers would routinely change it. The president having a non-English name is a sign that we're not squeezing everyone into that box," she said.
On the Net
* American Name Society: www.wtsn.binghamton.edu/ANS/
* The Baby Name Wizard: www.babynamewizard.com/