Slave names

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Tue Dec 11 17:50:43 UTC 2007

On Dec 11, 2007 12:14 PM, Joel S. Berson <Berson at> wrote:
> There are books that discuss African names, specifically
> day-names.  The only one I recall now is Hart, Blacks in Rebellion,
> page 11.  Kofi, of course, sometimes became Coffee.  But I'm
> skeptical that names such as "Caesar" or "Pompey" were mis-hearings
> of African names; rather, as I think I've read somewhere, they were
> deliberately chosen, sometimes in irony (or perhaps because Romans
> were pagans).

In his 1937 article "Names of American Negro Slaves" [*], Newbell
Niles Puckett says: "Classical names, although less numerous than
certain writers on plantation life would have us think, also probably
reveal the hand of the master class." He also points out that
classical names such as Cato, Hector, and Pompey were also given to
mules and cows (as shown in probate records), so irony no doubt played
a role.

[*] reprinted in _Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel_, Alan Dundes, ed.

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

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