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So I am guessing that at some point in your adult life, possibly even recently, you have been at some social gathering or event, and the topic of baby names came up. Perhaps you were pregnant at the time, and interest in what you plan to name your own offspring got the conversation going.
Then the opening volley is fired, as someone laughingly relates the story of the twins in the kindergarten class taught by her own mother, boys named “Lemonjello and Oranjello.” Sure, the person concedes, this sounds farfetched, but it’s TOTALLY true, which she knows for sure because she heard it from her very own mother, who actually knew these two little poppets with the wacky names. In person. Really. No, really
And with that, this tired but predictable conversation is off in earnest.
“Yeah, that’s bad, but my Uncle Bob had a secretary at his insurance office for like, 25 years and her name was — swear to God — Ima Hogg!”
“No way! Well, I had a girl in my 4th grade named — are you ready for this? — Crystal Chanda Leer!”
“Isn’t it unbelievable what some people are naming their kids these days? My best friend’s husband is an OB at the hospital over on the West Side and last month he delivered a little girl that her mother actually named Epidural, because she liked the way the word sounded when the doctor explained it to her! Can you believe it?”
Well, as it turns out, you mostly can’t believe it. While there are definitely some unique baby names that really exist out there (not that there’s anything wrong with naming your baby “Apple” or “Banjo”) there is also apparently a longstanding American tradition of flat-out urban legends around baby names believed to be joke-worthy, many of which are the same names, no matter who is telling what version of the story.
There are several websites that explore these bad baby naming urban legends, and as would be expected, one of the best is Snopes.com, which traces some pieces of this still-active, baby-name-mockery meme to pre-Civil Rights era, ugly, racist derision of African American parents.
But hold on a minute, apparently, there has been at least one credible sighting of Lemonjello and Oranjello, with a set of so-named twins living in Georgia. If that’s true, my suspicion would be that the tail was wagging the dog in this case, with some parent of questionable judgment and an even worse sense of humor actually naming twins AFTER the mythical twins in the oh-so-amusing cocktail party story you’ve heard more than a few times.
I mean, we already know that people do sometimes CLEARLY christen their progeny with names intended to showcase their own devil-may care, ironic, hipper-than-thou sense of humor. Can you say “Moon Unit Zappa?” Or how about “Zowie Bowie,” or “Tara Gabriel Gramaphone Galaxy Getty?”
Not surprisingly, all of these now-adult children of hipsters no longer use the names as intended by their HILARIOUS parents. But they exist as evidence that people sometimes use their own children’s names as a chance to offer up some bad performance art.
If you want to find out which “you won’t believe this one!” baby names are real, and which ones are myth, or even which ones started with one very real individual’s very unusual name (see: Ima Hogg), but subsequently grew into cross-country legends, springing up in insurance offices and classrooms from sea to shining sea, you should check out this book, “Bad Baby Names.” The authors are two honest to goodness geneaologists who scoured American birth and death records to get to the bottom of the whole thing.
How about you? Have you recently or ever found yourself in the middle of one of these conversations where someone SWEARS that her grandmother’s dog groomer had a baby named “Chlamydia?” Did you call the person out on this crazy, likely made-up claim with a history to at least some degree rooted in racism, or did you let it slide? Tell me in the comments below.
ADDENDUM TO MY ORIGINAL BLOG POST: Thanks to reader Saskia, I was directed to this fascinating blog post on the racist undertones of some of these baby naming myths. The post was written by Laura Wattenberg of “The Baby Name Wizard.” Wattenberg references a new contender for the crown long held by Lemonjello and his brother as most pervasive baby name myth. The new kid in town is a girl named “Le-Ah,” but pronounced “LeDashAh.” Get it? The dash in her name is written as a symbol but pronounced as if it were actually spelled out phonetically. Have you heard this one yet? Snopes also has the goods on a variation of the same name, spelled “Le-a.” Like Wattenberg, Snopes notes racial mockery in this newer naming myth, just as has been referenced in some of the older bad name legends. I actually can’t believe I forgot to include this new naming meme-myth when I first wrote this blog post because coincidentally, my own teenage daughter came home from school one day last year and reported that she had met a girl with a most unusual name. I asked her what it was, and she said the classmate’s name was – you guessed it – “Le-Ah,” pronounced “LeDashAh.” Now that I am thinking about this issue again, I am going to go back and ask my daughter (who is named “Jane” by the way. Yep really. Just good, old-fashioned Jane. As in Austen. But I digress…) about the “Le-Ah” sighting. I want more details about the “Le-Ah” she met, and how she learned what her name was, or discovered how it was spelled. I will get back to y’all on this.