LaReeca Rucker has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and her work has appeared in newspapers across the nation. She spent a decade as a features writer and multimedia journalist with The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, where she was also a USA TODAY contributor. She is a freelance journalist and support journalism instructor in the University of Mississippi's Meek School of Journalism and New Media in Oxford, Mississippi.

Names reflect tradition, creativity

LaReeca (La-Ree-sa) Rucker
The Clarion-Ledger

When Madison resident Angel MacDonald chose a name for her baby girl, she wanted to honor her mother and mother-in-law.

The name Miriam had been in the family for generations. It first belonged to her great-grandmother, skipped a generation, was given to her mom, skipped another generation (with Angel), then MacDonald decided to revive it, continuing the pattern.

The middle name would be "Hazel," after husband Ian's mother. And when she discovered that her great-grandmother had been named "Miriam Hazel," that finalized the decision.

"I liked that they were older names that weren't very common," she said. "I guess names now are more traditional than they have been."

According to the Social Security Administration's latest Mississippi statistics, the Top 5 names given to girls in 2006 were Madison, Anna, Emma, Hannah and Emily. For boys, William, James, Joshua, Christopher and John topped the list.

But traditional names aren't the only ones that have become common. Makayla, Addison, Aaliyah, Jakayla, Aubrey, Janiya, Nevaeh and Aniyah made the state's Top 100 names for girls. Jayden, Hayden, Brayden, Jaylen, Jamarion, Xavier, Dalton and Kaden are among the state's Top 100 boy names.

Lexington resident Kaynetta Meeks has a name that's frequently mispronounced.

It was originally supposed to be Kaynita, a combination of two family names "Kay" and "Nita," but her grandmother, who named her, decided to add "netta" to the end instead.

Kaynetta and her twin brother, Jaycee, who died as an infant, were known as "Kay and Jay." She later named a child after her deceased twin.

Many of her children were named after their father, Rayford. There's Raymond, 9; Raydarius, 6; Jason Rashard, 4; Jaycee, 3; Rayanna, 2; and Michael, 1, who was named after two family friends.

In the 1970s, Lorman resident David Crosby, who taught at Alcorn State University 26 years, analyzed the names of 70 to 100 students in his daughter's Claiborne County third-grade class who were predominantly African-American and discovered a few commonalities.

"As a transplant Northerner, I was intrigued by some of the names I found," he said. "The thing that struck me were how frequently names were not given by parents, but by some important relative."

Crosby said he noticed a strong emphasis on uniqueness, but simultaneously, a concern for family tradition.

"A way to honor both of those would be to take one syllable from one family member and combine it with a syllable from another family member," he said, echoing the history of Kaynetta's name.

Euphony was another important quality. "It had to sound good," he said. "Often, that would be as important or more important than the meaning."

He also noticed prefatory syllables like "La," "Ra," "Na" and "Ca" were found in 20 percent of the names analyzed.

Crosby said having the right to name your ch ildren came later for African-Americans, who were frequently named by the master during slavery.

"So having the ability to do that was very important," he said. "In the South Carolina novel Bricks Without Straw, the opening scene involves black people renaming themselves after slavery, choosing names that were different from their master's. It's full of empowerment."

Crosby said it was common for slaves to be named after Roman statesmen, like Ceasar and Pompey.

"And if you read Faulkner's novel, you'll come across a tradition of referring to male black children by their mother's name and their first name," Crosby said, citing "Dilsey's son" as an example in The Sound and the

Crosby said one tradition he's noticed among white Mississippians is using an ancestor's last name as a first name (like Parker or Smith), a practice he hasn't seen often in the African-American community.

Melissa Lea, assistant professor of psychology at Millsaps, studies the perception of names. Take, for instance, the name Bob - what do you think a Bob looks like?

Using police profiling software, Lea asks her subjects to create an image based on the following names: Bob, Bill, Brian, Chris, Dan, Joe, Josh, John, Justin, Jason, Mark, Matt, Rick, Tim and Tom. It's called "embodiment," and she's discovered that patterns generally emerge.

"Typically Bobs are seen as round-faced, average, middle-class men," Lea said. "In contrast, when I ask the same subject to describe Tim, they tend to describe someone tall and slender with angular features. So my research is showing that the name affects your perception."

Lea said members of traditionally conservative communities typically give children traditional names. She said the people of central Ohio and central Mississippi have similar views and values and choose similar names for their children. But the opposite is true of more liberal communities.

"If you go to Cleveland, the liberal town, you get more name variety, and you see that in New York, too," she said.

She's also noticed that over the last few decades, many African-Americans have chosen names that stand out, but said unique names are found in every culture, and celebrities may be influencing the trend.

Singer Erykah Badu named her son Seven Sirius and daughter Puma; actor Jason Lee named his son Pilot Inspektor; Penn Jillette, of the Penn & Teller duo, named his daughter Moxie CrimeFighter; and we all know about Gwenyth Paltrow's Apple.

Lea said she believes parents name their children unique names to identify with a certain group, whether its cultural or the creatively affluent. "It makes the group special, not just the individual," she said.

There are many names once considered unique that aren't any longer, Lea said. Mercedes, a name with Spanish origins meaning "mercy," has permeated many cultures.

Lea said research has also shown that names play a role in hiring practices. Someone named Anne may be more likely to land the job than someone named LaQuisha.

"It is something employers need to watch out for," she said. "Also, if you put William on your resume instead of Billy, you are more likely to get an interview for prestigious jobs."

Lea said the most common name given to boys in this country since the turn of the century has been Mike, and no one can deny the importance of a word that will be printed atop your report card, in your wedding announcement and chiseled into your tombstone.

"When you name your child, it's a huge deal," Lea said. "You are giving them an identity for life."


To see the Top 100 Mississippi baby names:


The writer, LaReeca Rucker, also has a name that's frequently mispronounced. The "c" is pronounced as an "s," or like the name Teresa, but with an "L."

Her full name, LaReeca Denee, rhymes with her older sister's name, Lesa Renee, and she is named after her uncle, Danny Lareece Rucker, who died when he was 16.

All her grandmother's sons had middle names that began with the "La" prefix, including Billy Lawayne and Jimmy Lane.

She hopes to have a little girl someday she can name Violet after her grandmother, Violet Theta Douglas, whose mother's name was Mississippi Ida Renick.

E-mail LaReeca at and tell her the history of your name.


The Journalism Portfolio of LaReeca Rucker