Ja, De, Le

As any American sports fan has noticed, the last two decades have shown a new trend emerging in African-American naming culture. In the movement towards fresh and creative names, we are seeing a prefix model become increasingly common. Pre-existing names get a prefix; for instance, Marcus becomes DeMarcus. Similarly there are NFL players named DeJuan, D’Juan, LaJuan, TyJuan, DeSean, LeSean, DeMarcus (besides the one mentioned above), JaMarcus, LaRon, Le’Ron, LarDarius, D’Anthony, and lots, lots more.
Updated: How does this trend relate to Hebrew uses of prefixes (and suffixes) in naming? KRG pointed out that there might be a bias towards French sounding names. Is that why this specific set of pre-fixes has emerged? BZ notes that his time as a public school teacher in NYC, like my time as a public school student in Philadelphia, has not led him to notice many people with this name pattern. He noted that it seems to be most pronounced in the deep south. Why would that be? Do most examples reflect patrilineality? Is this trend an alternative to Jr., III, etc?
Jews, in general, have been very slow to adapt to this cultural trend. I have yet to meet a Da’Shlomomit, JaShmuel, LeEytan, DeSharon, or a JaDavid. Not even a LaIrit. Although, come to think of it, we may have been ahead of the trend. Just ask L’Chayim.

54 thoughts on “Ja, De, Le

  1. Jews have been augmenting names ever since Avram became Avraham. We just rarely do it at the beginning. We have Dan and Daniel, Yonatan and Yohonatan, Shir, Shirli & Shira, and so on.

  2. Steve Levitt’s names study, discussed in his best seller Freakonomics, goes into great detail regarding the signals names send regarding race, socioeconomic status, and education. He suggests that it won’t be long before middle-American goyim will be naming there children Aviva…

  3. So American sports fans have some special insight into black names? You don’t think most (white) Americans would have any reason to know something about black Americans and black culture outside of sports–say, personal relationships? Everyday life? That line is just thoughtless–as is the whole post, really. Do you have any point aside from just making fun of black names?

  4. Shlomo Yitzhaki (of Isaac)
    Yitzhak Alfasi (of Fez)
    Moshe DeLeon (of Leon)
    Yitzhak DeRossi (of Red)
    Jews, in general, have clearly emphatically embraced this phenomenon.

  5. i’m really disappointed and surprised to see this on jewschool. it smacks of all sorts of racism – from making fun of names to associating african americans primarily with/through sports.
    this is not a new phenomenon, it’s not funny, and, as some other commenters have pointed out, it’s not even correct, as Jews have been augmenting and adapting names for centuries.
    also, in “african american naming culture,” it’s common to name a child after his/her parent, so it’s not just that “Marcus become DeMarcus,” rather that Marcus’s son becomes DeMarcus or LeMarcus.
    This is also common for white people – see JamieLynn Spears, named after her parents Jamie & Lynn.

  6. Wow, I was also really disappointed to see this racist post on Jewschool. But gladdened to see commenters call it out for what it is. This is not funny, not cool, and just downright meanspirited and racist.

  7. I was also very uncomfortable with this piece. The first line is the one that caught my attention the most: “As any American sports fan has noticed, the last two decades have shown a new trend emerging in African-American naming culture.” Jessica above spelled out specifically why this is problematic.

  8. I’m a little disturbed by the tone of the comments here. I guess, yeah, if zt was a public school teacher, he might have written a different lede (“As any public school teacher in multi-ethnic America, as well as sports fans, may have noticed…” or something), the rest of what he wrote is pretty parve. I don’t get the accusations of racism.
    Depth? No.
    Sin? I don’t think so.

  9. Eric and Simcha-
    There is in fact racism in this post. The poster is essentially saying, “Wow, don’t those African American folks have funny names? Those crazy people!” Ridiculing people’s names has historically been a method used to debase people and remove their individuality and culture. For examples, see, black slaves and Native Americans being renamed by white slave owners and settlers, Jews given numbers instead of names during the Holocaust. Jews more than anyone should realize that giving names to your children is an incredibly important part of many people’s culture, including our own. To mock this practice is shameful, no matter how strange or silly or foreign those names may seem to you. And yes, it is racist.
    I’m sure this was not the intention of zt when this was posted. I’m sure that that the intention was to write something cute and funny. But, unfortunately, this post missed the mark.

  10. In addition to Shoshie’s comments, which are right on the money in terms of why a post using Black names to get a laugh might raise some of our hackles, I think that this post also shows cluelessness as to why Black people name their kids what they do. It’s portrayed here as a novelty and source of amusement rather than a legitimate cultural expression or something with any meaning or occuring within a specific cultural or historical context. It uses the tired cliche of Black men in sports to further its comedic point. And it also ignores the history of Black naming, instead making it sound like unusual Black names are something that popped up out of nowhere during the “last two decades” (um, what?). This just makes the poster seem out of touch. This post doesn’t seem to be merely “noticing naming patterns”… If it was, then why would it be on Jewschool since it’s really about Black names and not anything specifically Jewish? This post didn’t have to go in the direction it did – Some of the comments point out interesting parallels of naming in Jewish tradition that could have been explored in a serious way in this post. But that’s not what zt chose to do.
    On a different note, I would also like to hear about Yermiya vs Yermiyahu, Yeshaya vs. Yeshiyahu, etc.

  11. i think the variant name pronunciation stems from a lack of vocalization in the text which causes yermiya v yermiyahu, et al, as being spelled identically since the “u” sound at the end of the name is coming from a kubuts under the letter hey and not an additional letter vav which would force the ‘yahu’ reading regardless of vocalization.
    Jeffrey Tigay has an excellent little book which is not so easy to find called “Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods” which is on the “Yahwization” of names in Scripture. definitely fascinating and kind of relevant to this little thread.

  12. Folks, seriously: few things are funnier than watching people twist themselves into a tizzy and emit pious “anti-racism” sanctimonies over cultural observations.
    If you’re against the very noticing of naming patterns because taking such notice is “racist”, it means you’re ipso facto against the disciplines of anthropology, sociology, demography and probably linguistics.
    Would it be “racist” to observe that Group X of white Christians was naming their children with seemingly odd Biblical names that have fallen into complete disuse? How about Muppim, Huppim, Arpakhshad and Ootz? Would it be “racist” to notice the presence of such names? Or would it be OK because they’re white?
    What a joke!

  13. In defense of the sports leadin, I think there is a culture of making fun of athletes’ names that can transcend race. For example, when I was growing up, Detlef Schrempf (who is white) was a source of much entertainment.

  14. So, if everyone would rather laugh than understand, thats fine, but there’s a legitimate reason behind this naming pattern; note the prefixes are all rather French sounding. As you may recall, France was one of the few places where African descended folks could go and have a decent career and be treated (in the context of the time) fairly decently. Thus, is it any wonder that Africa Americans honored this by taking French names (When I worked in Barry Farms, I knew several, including a D’Artagnan. Do try to make fun of that, please, as a WEIRD NAME -not), or altering American names to sound more French?
    This is not, in fact, a particularly new phenomenon. It’s been going on for probably over a hundred years. I”ll also point out the Cajun custom of naming their kids “Ti'” whatever (which has also been adopted in the Africa American community). Just in case you’re wondering, it’s short for “petite.” Ti’Jacque is Jack Junior.
    Can we all stop dithering about this and move on?

  15. Sorry, we’ll whip the volunteers so they work harder over the weekends. (Really, there were 13 new posts last week, which I believe is above average for Jewschool.)

  16. Eric: You’re right that a discussion of group naming patterns would be right at home in the disciplines of anthropology, sociology, demographics, and linguistics. But in those disciplines, that discussion is always followed by some analysis–where has this phenomenon come from and why is it important to our discipline, that sort of thing. What they don’t do is point out stuff like this just to say, “isn’t it weird that black people do this!” That’s racist.

  17. @dlevy–i don’t think you need to take it as a personal criticism of the jewschool contributors. perhaps because y’all have been so prolific, folks have come looking for things on which to comment more frequently and have focused on whatever is here.
    i don’t know if i agree with this assertion or not–i feel like a bunch of people would have shared these comments in any case, though i can’t say that some wouldn’t have shifted attention if a different discussion had been going on.
    i just think it doesn’t have to be a criticism. we love our jewschool contributors and all the effort they put in to give us good content as frequently as they do!

  18. Wow! pretty racist if you ask me…you wouldn’t want African Americans writing posts about those funny fringe things hanging out of mens shirts.
    Plenty of fun can be made of Jewish culture, and we never like it when others do!
    And by the way, Andy who wrote…>Steve Levitt’s names study, discussed in his best seller Freakonomics, goes into great detail regarding the signals names send regarding race, socioeconomic status, and education. He suggests that it won’t be long before middle-American goyim will be naming there children Aviva…<
    You are certainly showing how smart you are compared to the “goyim.” You don’t even know how to use the proper “their” in your words “there children” Way to show Jewish brains! And your educational level!
    My fellow Jews, don’t expect to get any respect from others if you don’t show any respect to them.. That’s all I’m saying

  19. BZ, generally, people let it slide when you make fun of a culture when you’re a member of…that is, as long as you don’t mind running the risk of being called self-hating. The reasons for this are obvious.
    I find it interesting that as I write this, there is a little box underneath that reads “Jewish Bloggers For Responsible Speech Online.” This post was irresponsible.
    Whether or not the intentions were good, racism isn’t about intentions, it’s about impact and this post will definitely add to the ill will between Jews and other minorities (Jewish or otherwise). I was very pleased to find that so many Jews were willing to step up and say, “This isn’t funny! It’s racist!”

  20. I think it’s generally true that Jews don’t like it when non-Jews make fun of Jewish culture. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I don’t think that’s some sort of far-fetched premise.
    The thing about this post is that it comes off as mocking black American culture. Maybe that wasn’t the intent. Maybe it was only “noticing” differences in names. But when a significant number of the people reading it interpret it as mockery, maybe the problem isn’t that those readers are over-sensitive but that the writer failed to achieve his intent.

  21. “But when a significant number of the people reading it interpret it as mockery, maybe the problem isn’t that those readers are over-sensitive but that the writer failed to achieve his intent.”

  22. >>“Whether or not the intentions were good, racism isn’t about intentions, it’s about impact and this post will definitely add to the ill will between Jews and other minorities (Jewish or otherwise). I was very pleased to find that so many Jews were willing to step up and say, “This isn’t funny! It’s racist!””
    That’s absurd. Of course racism is about intentions. What else could it be about? Are you now proposing to redefine racism to encompass anything that could “add to the ill will” between two different groups? If that’s the case, then the very fact that Korean Americans tend to excel on pre-college tests while black Americans tend to score below average is “racist”. Are human realities now “racist” too?
    And I think Jews often need to lighten up when others poke fun at this or that element of Jewish culture. It’s all about context and intent.

  23. This is a rich and poignant set of criticisms.
    Many of which are, I think, correct.
    First, the point I think is most apt is that the initial observation about an interesting trend shouldn’t have been coupled with anything funny since that implied a disparagement of the naming culture. I mostly thought the idea of merging disparate naming cultures which don’t generally overlap was a fun thought experiment. For sure, it could have been, and perhaps ought to have been framed differently.
    Relating to sports: it was a place I quickly found a data-set and one most readers would be familiar with regardless of their personal identity or history of interaction. It seemed prudent to have specific and public examples of an interesting trend and this seemed like an easy way to provide examples of both. There is, of course, and interesting socio-economic analysis to be done about why athletes tend to have a higher rate of innovative names. Freakonomics has an interesting chapter previously mentioned about the impact of names related to this class question.
    While growing up in Philadelphia public school I mostly saw a different trend, towards fresh and creative names often with unusual spelling, though not directly based on previously common names. For instance I had three different classmates with different spelling of Laquia. This is different insofar as Quia isn’t is very common name independently. My black neighbors and classmates in Philadelphia, Providence, and Washington have rarely had this prefix+common name combination but it seems to be increasingly common.
    Regarding the parallels to Abraham v. Avram. I am curious whether there are common spiritual, family, etc meanings for the extra phoneme. In many of the Hebrew names, the phoneme has specific linguistic content, as in is recognizable to native Hebrew speakers as meaning a particular thing. That doesn’t appear to be true of the Ja, De, L’ pre-fixes in general.
    I have asked around but haven’t gotten very many answers on how and why this trend emerged and about it’s cultural significance and am thankful to the commenters who addressed those issues.
    I hadn’t noticed the French connection myself, nor had a few of the people I discussed this with more broadly (including someone of Haitian decent). It’s intriguing to say the least.
    The re-imagining patrilineality in first names is also very interesting. After several generations of the Jrs, IIIs, etc what happened to create this new model.
    Of course, there is a critical an interesting question related to the Freakanomics article about what the impact is and should be with creative names. When there is a strong correlation between name, naming culture, and various other socio-economic factors, how are all three related? What can we do to undermine the reinforcement mechanism that might make it harder for folks with Ja, Le, etc type names to succeed as much as they might with less marked names.
    Lastly, though I imagine it is always hurtful to be called a racist, in this case it was helpful to have impetus to more broadly lay out the range of ideas in the hopes of having a more fruitful dialog. The shrill tone of the discussion was certainly hard to read and internalize and the temperature sure heated up quick, but I suppose it’s the internet and that is to be expected. I won’t address accusations of racism directly except to say, I am glad we can talk about the issues and hope we can do so with measured tones, benefit of the doubt, and without intense and purposely hurtful attacks.
    Thanks for the interesting ideas and sorry to have stupidly mixed an interesting point and a whimsical (okay, unfunny)idea about blending naming patterns.

  24. To ZT- thank for listening to criticism and not knee-jerk rejecting those who disagreed with this post. And for your apology.
    Eric- Your privilege is showing. This link is particularly helpful if you wish to educate yourself on the issues of white privilege, and why many people here did not think that this post was funny or OK.
    On intent: obviously things are much worse if I know I’m being hurtful, through racism or any other action, and I continue doing so. However, it is no less painful to the person or people on the other end of my actions if my intent is benign. People frequently say or do racist things without meaning to. I think it’s important to differentiate between “You’re a racist” and “What you said was racist.” Using racist as a noun seems to imply a kind of permanence. If I’m a racist, then racism is an essential part of my being, and that is an incredibly scary accusation. However, well-intentioned and good people can make racist remarks. The key is that we can educate ourselves to be aware of racism (both our own and the racism of others) and avoid making such remarks in the future.

  25. Oh dear! I’d hate to be accused of “privilege”! That’s about the foulest sin there is aside from racism and first-degree murder…
    The truth is that you’re entirely projecting. You have no idea whether or not “it is no less painful to the person or people on the other end of my actions if my intent is benign.” You assume it would be, or you want to appear sensitive and morally excellent by announcing that assumption. But there are potentially 6 billion people “on the other end” of your potential actions — that’s one heck of a way for you to presume to speak for all of them.
    And of course in a black majority country (or a country defined in whatever other way in which you’d qualify as a minority) you yourself might end up “on the other end”. Personally I’d feel better if I learned that something I’d wrongly assumed was derogatory was in fact meant in warm jest. Wouldn’t you?
    I understand exactly why some people felt the post was unfunny. I also understand why people claimed it was racist. However, I think that claim is sanctimonious baloney. I wonder if you’re willing to understand why somebody would believe that.
    Fell free to “educate” away, Shoshie. But I’ll be steering my unwashed brain clear of the self-criticism sessions and pre-approved language.

  26. Eric – Ok. it’s true that shoshie might not know what it feels like to be one of those “6 billion” people but i do. and i can tell you that as a person that is on the other end of it it doesn’t matter about intent. do you think i’m less angry at my boyfriend when he says “i got jewed down” or at my friend when he says “i’ve yet to meet a black person who isn’t an asshole” while looking right at me? and when i point it out to them and they say “oh sorry i guess i don’t think of you that way” like it’s supposed to be a compliment when really all it is, is their good intentions fucking up my day. i hurts just as much, maybe even more, when good people with good intentions cut you down with thoughtless remarks.
    and i’m not speaking for the 6 billion people, but i am speaking for myself. i know zt didn’t mean it that way, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. and i’m GLAD shoshie and others have the balls to call him out on it because i NEED to know that it’s not just me in a room alone with these feelings. I need white people to stand up and say that it’s not ok with them either, that this is their problem as well.
    It’s not about projection, it’s about being invested in valuing everyone.

  27. i’ve been following this conversation since it was posted. Today I went back to read the original post. I am having trouble finding the racism. can someone help me out? or, what would have been a different way to notice this trend? thanks.

  28. Trista, why do you hang out with said boyfriend and friend, if they’re like that? If they only hang out with you because you’re “not really one of those” people that you actually are?

  29. they don’t hang out with me for those reasons. they genuinely like me as a person but they don’t always make the connection between my identity and my personality.
    my boyfriend is actually a wonderful person that has worked very hard to make a shift in his reality to understand why saying these things aren’t ok. when he said that i blew up at him, and he couldn’t understand why because he didn’t connect that the saying was attached to people and the people were people he knew. sometimes he doesn’t think, sometimes he’s just thoughtless.
    and that friend is actually his best friend and though i may be quite disgusted with him many times i realize that these are learned behaviors that take time to unlearn. they didn’t know me for the majority of their lives and didn’t have anyone telling them it wasn’t ok for that majority. if i continually cut out every good person from my life because they are humans that are struggling to change i would be very lonely. i would have to stop talking to a lot of people, like my grandfather…my best friend…i would rather work with them than turn my back on them.

  30. @uzi-
    I had a similar reaction to you (and I KNEW that you’d chime in here eventually) but I think part of the problem is a semantic one. Is being insensitive or culturally ignorant (not necessarily accusing zt of either of those) the same as being racist? I think peoples’ discomfort comes from perceived insensitivity in couched statements like that sports fans have an intimate insight into African-American culture, that said culture has a “movement” towards “fresh and creative” names, and that the names “they” choose “preexisting names” and give them, dare I say, “bling”. All of these stereotypes are then implied to apply to “that culture” but not to “our culture”. And that’s where the question of intent comes in, was it the intent of zt to label the African American community with these stereotypes? I don’t know, but it clearly grabbed peoples’ attention.

  31. Thanks Justin, that helps. Intent does seem to be a significant issue here at least to the extent that we should strive to have our actions and speech match our intent. But surely we should be able to distinguish between a gap between those things and being a racist.

  32. I didn’t take the time to re-read the comments so I totally might be wrong, but I don’t recall people calling zt a racist, I recall them calling one action of his (this piece) racist. There is a difference. We can all be racist, it doesn’t make someone a bad person who is boiling over with prejudice. But it does mean that someone did something insensitive or ignorant that deserves to be confronted.
    I’m not even going to touch the “shrill” comment ZT made, which made me roll my eyes. I do appreciate his acknowledgment of the way his post made some people (including several POC/JOC who posted in this thread) feel but I also think there is a lot of dismissiveness in the tone of some of the commenters as well as the author.

  33. Kudos to ZT for gracefully accepting criticism and to our readers for their quick and (usually) sensitive dialogue. No contributor (or commentor) will never make a editorial mistake. Lord knows I have. It’s great to see a debate come to rapprochment. Now I just wish our Israel-related threads would do the same…

  34. And just for FYI, a few comments have been moderated that were deeply inappropriate responses no matter how offended one might have been. Many of the comments which we allowed to post are also borderline. Fighting racism with slurs and insults is a quick way to undercut the validity of your cause.

  35. @trista Amen! Amen! As a fellow Jew of color, your statements just brightened up my day.
    @chillul who?
    If I stopped hanging out with all the white people who have said hurtful things like that, I’d have to cut out a great deal of my friends AND family.

  36. “Fighting racism with slurs and insults is a quick way to undercut the validity of your cause.”
    Too true. It’s amazing what people will say when they’re angry, huh? But then it’s amazing what people will say when they’re not.

  37. Simcha Daniel writes:
    I guess, yeah, if zt was a public school teacher, he might have written a different lede (”As any public school teacher in multi-ethnic America, as well as sports fans, may have noticed…” or something)
    So I wonder if there is geographic variation on this. I taught at a majority African-American school in Harlem, NYC, and didn’t see this style of name among my students. (to be clear, we’re not just talking about names with prefixes, but prefixes attached to existing common names). (Nor have I seen this style of name among my peers growing up in the Chicago area, etc., though that may also be because this trend is after my time.) So then I googled some of the names that ZT mentioned in the post, and most of these NFL players seem to be from the South, especially Alabama.

  38. I am a teacher in the deep south (Louisiana). I am not Jewish but found this thread becuase I was interested in this naming pattern. It is prominent and prevalent in this area. I specifically googled the “JA” prefix, which is not mentioned here but is no less obvious here as the others mentioned above. I saw what I percieved as possible racist remarks, but did not feel my perceptions were enough to bother with a comment. I then read the whole thread. Though I do not agree totally with Eric, I lean that way. Americans are getting too sensative. This, in it’s self, can be a very slippery slope. We assume the worse first. Then we scream for tolerance. I understand that people who have been oppressed tend to see things through that history, but how do you fix the wound if we are all poking it constantly?

  39. Sorry! I probably negated everything I said by saying I did not see the “JA” prefix which is the first prefix in the piece. I meant “SHA”. Sorry! I should have edited myself before sending.

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