Would “McNeill” By Any Other Name . . . ?

 Dear Blog Readers–

This recent exchange with a former (well, maybe “former” with students = “forever”) student of mine may raise a quite sensitive topic: that of the practice of naming in the African-American culture.

Such a discussion is considered by linguists to be a subdivision of the field that is commonly called “onomastics, ” the science of names and naming.

Our cultural history in relation to names extends as far back as the Book of Genesis in the Bible where, we may recall Adam named the woman made out of his rib “Eve.”  And he was also charged by God (was he not?)  with naming all of the creations of God that were in the Garden of Eden.

One linguist has pointed out that the naming task is especially critical to our higher thinking skills,  for only then are we able to distinguish clearly between the “Me” and the “Not-Me.”   However,  the practice of naming everything around us may result in the fixation of feeling/thinking that the name is the same as that to which it refers.  When the referent and the name are regarded as identical,  superstitions, fetishes, and taboos may cloud our thinking.

All I ask for now is that you read the exchanges between Jessie M. and me and offer any suggestions that will help to cast light on the subject(s) raised so that we may better understand and deal with it/them.

Many thanks,  Jessie, for your contributions.

RJR (Keep in mind that these exchanges progress from most to least recent.  So you may want to begin at the end and move to the top!)

Dear Jessie M.

Sometimes, as I observed a while as if Shakespeare had me in mind (except for the name, which I have changed) when he penned this quotation from Julius Caesar:  “Yon Rundus has a lean and hungry look;  He thinks too much:  such men are dangerous.”

It would be difficult for some of us to feel comfortable dealing with this topic.  Nonetheless, we do know that many African-Americans or blacks have changed their names as one kind of act that frees them from an unpleasant past perhaps.  The outstanding examples would probably be in sports:   Cassius Marcellus {two “Roman” names, interestingly] Clay becomes Muhammad Ali; Lew Alcindor become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and so on.  But perhaps “Malcolm X” set the stage.  [Later: he was once known on the street and in the ‘hood as “Detroit Red.”  And he became educated by studying in prison a dictionary from front to back.]         I will  paste and copy this exchange into my blog and see what those collective and individual minds think about this tendency (or perhaps “issue”).
Thanks again for your interest and contributions!

P.S. What prompted my thinking about the names beginning with “Mc” that African-Americans or blacks have in their heritage was a presentation I attended in UNCP’s Library yesterday morning by Dr. Shelby Stephenson, whom you perhaps know and may have studied under.  Dr. Stephenson’s most recent book–and his most challenging, I think–is entitled “Family Matters: Homage to July, The Slave Girl.”  The historical event that prompted his interest was the actual buying by his great-great-grandfather George Stephenson of a  ten-year-old slave girl in Harnett County in 1850.
At that time, I believe, most slaves did not have a surname (an exception might be Alex Haley’s “Kunta Kinte,” which was the Gambian name, I believe, of the central figure of interest in his search for his African ancestors in his marvelous book “Roots”).  Did Reconstruction bring about the greater use of surnames for emancipated blacks?  I ask out of ignorance, not because I have a credible answer.

—–Original Message—–
From: jessie mcneill
Sent: Mar 18, 2009 10:58 PM
To: raymond rundus
Subject: Re: [Getting a Better Grip on Reading and Writing] Comment:

v\:* {behavior:url (#default#vml);} v\:* { BEHAVIOR: url (#default#vml) }

Dr. Rundus,

Thanks for responding.

I, too, have wondered about the girding of the loins. Each time I hear it I get a different picture of what one is doing.

I think the “Mc” name would be a very interesting subject  for the bloggers. There have been many discussions on the name in my presence, but I have never heard of one who had thought about changing his name.

When I read your email, I posed the question to my sister(McLean),a friend (McAllister) a neighbor (McGrady). None of them could remember anyone in the family who did not love that name and would never think of changing it. They thought it would be an interesting subject to blog.

When I worked in Hoke County, for many years  I was the only African American McNeill on the staff. There were several white McNeills. We all pretended that we were related and the children believed us for years. I thought it was so funny.

I am going to ask this question to my book club members.

What am I doing to spread my knowledge and skills? I work part-time as an  AIG consultant with the Cumberland County Schools.

I do not get bonuses as the real AIG folk do.

 ——-Original Message——-

From: raymond rundus

Date: 03/18/09 18:15:20

To: jessiej@nc.rr.com

Subject: Re: [Getting a Better Grip on Reading and Writing] Comment:


You are very kind–and overly generous–in your comments. But what did said did warm the cockles of my heart,  wherever and whatever they are.  I also sometimes wonder about the Biblical reference “gird your loins.”  I’ve never been certain either about what and where my “loins”  are.  Any relation to the “tenderloin” part of a pig or a steer?

What are you doing now to spread your knowledge and skills?

Best regards,


P.S.  Were you a student that was very interested in the contemporary “Romance Novel”?  It so happens (sometimes coincidences seem too much so to just be accidental) that I was thinking just this morning of a class (not yours: I believe it was a sophomore-level class) in which I had several African-American or “black” students whose names began with “Mc,”  such as yours.  It caused me to wonder whether, if I were black and had such a name, if I would want to change it as it probably harks back to slavery days and the taking on of the last name of “Massa,” the owner of slaves. I was planning to introduce that topic to my “blog” readers,  but I am concerned that it may be, for some, too sensitive a topic to see addressed that widely.  What do you think?

—–Original Message—–

>From: Jessie McNeill <garciame@fayobserver.com>

>Sent: Mar 18, 2009 3:41 PM

>To: rjrundus@infionline.net

>Subject: [Getting a Better Grip on Reading and Writing] Comment: “Yes!  The “Golden Trashery of Ogden Nashery””


>New comment on your post #42 “Yes!  The “Golden Trashery of Ogden Nashery””

>Author : Jessie McNeill (IP: ,


>Dr. RJR,

>I do enjoy your literary expressions. I was in one some of your graduate classes at Pembroke when the graduate program in English began. I enjoyed your classes so much and we still talk about your interest and knowledge of our language.


>You can see all comments on this post here:





4 Responses to “Would “McNeill” By Any Other Name . . . ?”

  1. Frank B Maness,Jr. Says:

    Jessie did you pass?

  2. Tammy Stephens Says:

    My maiden name begins with Mc. We are from a Scottish heritage. I grew up as your family name is your current family, and to be proud of your family and to stick together. If a person is that uncomfortable, than yes, they should do what they feel is right. I think it is an individual decision.

  3. Marshall Faircloth Says:

    My GGgrandmother was a McKinnon. Her father was born in Isle-of-Skye, Scotland.

  4. Jessie Says:


    I did not pass. I have always been comfortable with me as an individual. i could not have passed if I had been insane enough to try it. Only the students kept the relationship alive.

    I do know someone who “passed” when it was to his benefit. I will not reveal the last name.

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