Looking in the Cultural Mirror

How understanding race and culture helps us answer the question: "Who am I?"

Jefferson in Brazil

What’s in a name?

Thomas Jefferson
Not Thomas Jefferson. Me.

 Years ago, when I was living in Brazil, I was standing on line and the woman behind me said, “Shut up, Jefferson!” (“Cale a boca, Jeferson!”) It turned out that she was speaking to her three-year-old son.

Brazilians are creative in inventing and choosing names, including those of American presidents. Wilson Fittipaldi Júnior is a famous racing car driver--named for our 28th president (as was his journalist father, Wilson Senior)--and his brother Emerson Fittipaldi, also a famous racing car driver, is named for the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Jeferson ranks 35 among the 100 most popular names for Brazilian boys and Jefferson ranks 90. The arts are well represented: Leonardo ranks 5, Rafael 7, Vagner 60, Emerson 74, and Raphael 77. The dual Portuguese and foreign spellings of Jefferson and Raphael (and the Portuguese spelling of Wagner) also show the choice parents confront, between foreign and local spellings, when choosing a child’s name—as we see in the American names Mary, Maria, and Marie. (Of course some famous names get filtered through popular culture—there are two Brazilian soccer stars named Vagner, not to mention Leonardo DiCaprio.)

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Jefferson Fish
(I discussed a variety of issues related to names in my series of columns, What Do Names Tell Us? The five parts dealt with popular names, last names, race and religion, social class, and gender.)

I just published a new e-book and paperback, The Myth of Race (see here and here). Out of curiosity, and to let people know about the book, I decided to join Twitter, and discovered to my surprise that @jeffersonfish had already been taken by a Brazilian named Jefferson. I contacted him through other channels, and he graciously agreed to change his username to make @jeffersonfish available for me. I tried to imagine how a Brazilian might have chosen my name, and guessed that the explanation might have been that his parent had been a student of mine when I was a professor in Brazil, or that he had been reading me on Psychology Today. Not so. As a kid, his nickname had been Peixe (Fish)!

Meanwhile, back in the United States, I’ve been asked to give a talk this spring in Oregon. It turns out that that state has an ecologically concerned group called the Jefferson Fish Society.

I thought I had an unusual name, but it turns out that it’s a small world.


Image Source:

Thomas Jefferson by Gilbert Stuart

Wikimedia Commons http://bit.ly/XXRIuc


Check out my most recent book, The Myth of Race, which debunks common misconceptions, as well as my other books at http://amazon.com/Jefferson-M.-Fish/e/B001H6NFUI

The Myth of Race is available on Amazon http://amzn.to/10ykaRU and Barnes & Noble http://bit.ly/XPbB6E

Friend/Like me on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/JeffersonFishAuthor

Follow me on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@jeffersonfish

Visit my website: www.jeffersonfish.com


Jefferson M. Fish, Ph.D., a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at St. John's University, has authored and edited 12 books, including The Myth of Race.


Subscribe to Looking in the Cultural Mirror

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.