- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2008

NEW YORK (AP) | 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 United States, the 22-year-old college senior with the Greek first name and the Ghanaian last name grew up in Philadelphia.

But Mr. Ackah is hopeful that change is coming, that the idea of an “American” name will expand beyond monikers like Tom and Harry and Sally and Jane and Smith and Jones. He figures he’s got a strong weapon on his side — for at least the next four years, when people look to the most powerful and best-known American in the country, they will be looking at Barack Hussein Obama.

“I think it will help people understand that people in America aren’t just John, Jack, Mary,” Mr. Ackah said. “They’re Zenas and Barack.”

Mr. Obama’s name gave him his share of trouble during the campaign. He acknowledged its unfamiliarity to most Americans, making a joke about it at the Al Smith Dinner. Some supporters of his opponent made a point of using his middle name, best-known to Americans from Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

But the next four years will ensure that his name is no longer unfamiliar. People have already named their infants after him.

The more people hear it, the more mainstream 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 Mr. Nilsen pointed out that immigrants have long tried to fit in by Anglicizing their names or changing them outright, or have even had others change it for them.

Mr. Obama, born in Hawaii and named after his Kenyan father, went by “Barry” for some years before deciding to use his full first name.

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 Baby Name Wizard blog.

“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 the shift started in the 1960s when Mr. Obama was born and has 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 Ms. 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,” she said.

“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.

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