Ellie Mae, George Washington Carver, J.R. Ewing, Billy Graham, Dixie Carter--What do these names have in common? Give yourself a point if you guess they're all Southern. Give yourself 10 points if you guess that each represents a characteristic of Southern naming.
Double namesThirty or forty years ago, script writers began giving Southern characters names such as Billy Bob and Ellie Mae. The Southern tendency toward double names became a caricature and a joke, but like all satire there was truth in it. Double names have been more pervasive in the South than any other region. Billy Bob might have been christened William Robert, but chances are he was not. Shortened versions of names and nicknames became the given name, and Billy Bob was called by both names all his life.
A look at my high school, senior class yearbook indicates that Ann, Mae, Sue and Jean were the most popular second names for girls of my generation. My classmates were Mary Ann, Jo Ann, Patsy Ann, Delia Ann, Lola Ann, Margaret Ann, Joyce Ann, Edna Mae, Ella Mae, Lyndal Sue, Betty Sue, Marcell Jean, Beverly Jean. There is no similar pattern for males of the same year. Their middle names range from Cade to Taylor.
Naming is sometimes done without respect for gender. Connie, Bobbie, Gene, Carroll are given to males and females. Sometimes two given names represent both sexes and are given to both boys and girls: Constance Robbie, Will Annie, Shelly Rae, Sandra Benn, Tommy Ruth. Usually, however, the first name is the same gender as its bearer, but not necessarily.
Most modern Southern parents are moving away from calling children two names, and after years of television jokes, many older Southerners have dropped one name. For example in my family, my Aunt Will Annie is now Anne; Aunt Sarah Nell became just plain Sarah; Rebecca June prefers Becki. Bobbie Mell (named for grandfathers Robert and Melvin) is now just Bobbie. People often misunderstood the name, calling her Bobbie Bell, which she hated even more than Mell.
Heroic namesInterestingly, the casualness of short forms of names is offset by grandiose, heroic names. Military heroes, Presidents, and Southern dignitaries' monikers have been given to many tiny Southern babies. Since the Civil War, Robert Lee and Jefferson Davis have been used countless times. Botanist George Washington Carver lived up to his famous name. Former Florida governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward is another well-known example of heroic naming.
Surnames as first or middle namesFamily is important in the South. Naming a child for his grandparent, aunt or uncle honors the relative and puts the child firmly in the family circle. This is probably true throughout the country. In the South, surnames are often passed on as first or middle names. An only daughter, for example, will give her male or female child her maiden name as a first or middle name to perpetuate it. Hence, the classroom rolls show children called Hunter, Nelson, Howell, Spencer, Gray, Danny Sharp. South Carolina Senator James Strom Thurmond went by his mother's maiden name, Strom.
Friends in North Carolina tell me there was a trend of naming girls Mary plus the mother's maiden name. The child is always called by both names as Mary Southgate, Mary Brent, Mary Dare. Perhaps both names have to be used to differentiate the Marys. According to the Social Security Administration, Mary was the most popular name for girls from 1900 to 1946, and again from 1953-1961.
Diminutive formsThe Southern practice of carrying the diminutive form of a name ending in -ie or -y into adulthood is well-known because of the celebrity of persons who have used it. Religious evangelists and politicians perhaps use the form to seem familiar, closer to the people: Billy Graham, Jimmy Swaggert, Jerry Falwell, Tammy Faye Bakker, Jimmy Carter. A host of Johnnys, Tommys and Bobbys are seen on local roadside political signs.
Many Southern celebrities have used a diminutive form: Jimmy Buffett, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Coach Bobby Bowden.
Family diminutives such as Sis, Sissy (forms of sister), Bubba (brother), Sonny (son) and Junior can remain long after childhood is over, and have been known to be the real, birth certificate name of a Southerner.
Initials as namesIt is not unusual in the South to use initials as a name. The most famous is the tv fictional character J. R. Ewing of Dallas and B.B. King, the guitarist. Sometimes the initials stand for names, but they are also used as the given name. My uncle J. S. was named for his grandfather James Smith Greenway. To avoid family confusion, the younger was called only by his initials. No one knew him by any other name.
Colorful names and nicknamesSports figures and entertainers from the South often have fanciful names or nicknames, but so do ordinary people. Back to the high school yearbook--it reveals nicknames Cookie, Boots, Hound-dog, Shorty, Nippy, Quail, Honey, Ducky, Snooks, Teddy.
Celebrities' names, Satchmo Armstrong, Tennessee Williams, Jelly Roll Morton, Dixie Carter, Zelda Fitzgerald, Zora Neale Hurston, Bear Bryant, Babe Zaharis, Catfish Hunter, further illustrate the point.
Names go out of style just like everything else. Any teacher can tell by the names in her roll book who the popular movie and television stars were when their students were born. Soap opera stars and their role names are popular name sources
Works ConsultedCharles Reagan and William Ferris, editors. Encyclopedia of Southern Culture 1989: University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill (page 778).
Howorth, Lisa. Yellow Dogs, Hushpuppies, Bluetick Hounds 1996: University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.