I need Ambiguous Names (and more!)
April 4, 2017 5:04 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for names that are ambiguous or even misleading in some way. I am primarily interested in ethnically ambiguous names.

I am secondarily interested in names that could signify someone comes from a very religious family, or could just be run of the mill non religious names (especially last names in this case, because I have a first name tentatively picked out). Gender ambiguous names are fairly easy to come up with, so I don't need any of those unless they have an extra twist to them, like being both gender ambiguous and ethnically ambiguous.

As a related bonus question, I am interested in suggestions for a tribal name for a fictional male character, plus some sort of plausible back story as to how and why he is wealthy and/or powerful. My thought is along the lines of "he is a chieftain's son in a tribe that has a casino," but I honestly don't know how well that works for the scenario I am envisioning.

To try to get the ball rolling, here are some examples of names:

Lee can be white or Asian, first name or last name.

In "A walk in the clouds," the son named Pedro goes by Pete at college, much to his father's consternation.

In an episode of Law and Order, a white officer thinks a girl is being called Dottie, but she is really being called Dadi (sp?), a diminutive of some Latina name.

Speaking of diminutives, I also would like a list of diminutives that can be short for two different names. The more different the long form names, the better.

posted by Michele in California to Writing & Language (91 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Park is another name that could be either Korean or English, primarily a surname in the latter.

Names like Antonio and Carlos are Spanish in origin, but common among African-Americans.

Arabic names can be ethnically ambiguous because of the vastly different cultures that practice Islam. Someone named Mohammed could be Senegalese or Malaysian, or just about anything in between.

The diminutive Ted could be short for either Theodore or Edward (most notably Kennedy).

I might think of more later.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:16 PM on April 4, 2017

There are names (e.g. Leslie) that can be male in one culture (UK) and female in another (USA).

Italian, Spanish and Polish surnames imply Catholicism. I suspect Xavier is very rare among non-Catholics.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:19 PM on April 4, 2017

The man's name Idris is both Welsh and Arabic.
posted by Botanizer at 5:21 PM on April 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

In the novel A Little Life, the protagonists' friend group includes Black Henry Young and Asian Henry Young.
posted by matildaben at 5:21 PM on April 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

The people I know named Kai are either men of Norwegian descent or women of Hawaiian or Pacific Islander descent.
posted by Ideal Impulse at 5:22 PM on April 4, 2017 [4 favorites]

Ooooh, there was a baseball player a few years ago named Khalil Greene. He was white Baha'i, iirc.

And there's the Donna Chang episode of Seinfeld, although I don't think that's really what you're looking for.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:26 PM on April 4, 2017

As a university professor, I get a pretty even gender distribution of Taylor. Others with varying distributions are C/Kasey, C/Kameron, Ryan(n).
posted by k8t at 5:27 PM on April 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Harry can be either Harold or Henry.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 5:28 PM on April 4, 2017

"Long" is a common family name among both Chinese and Irish people.
posted by likedoomsday at 5:29 PM on April 4, 2017

Jody is usually female everywhere but the Deep South, where it's male.

Aubrey used to be male, and now it's becoming female, probably because it sounds like Audrey.

Moishe and Noach would be men from very observant Jewish families. Hyman is traditionally a Jewish male name, but is becoming obsolete in the US for obvious reasons.

When you say a tribal name, I assume you mean Native American, like Wilma Mankiller or Quanah Parker?
posted by scratch at 5:33 PM on April 4, 2017

Georgie can be short for George and also for Georgia, Georgina, Georgette, etc.
posted by scratch at 5:34 PM on April 4, 2017

Naomi is a Hebrew name or a Japanese name.
posted by azalea_chant at 5:35 PM on April 4, 2017

Frankie, short for Frances (female) or Francesca--or short for Francis (male) or Frank.
posted by scratch at 5:36 PM on April 4, 2017

I walked into Kim's Tailoring expecting to see a young woman. The owner was an old Korean man.
posted by FencingGal at 5:39 PM on April 4, 2017

When you say a tribal name, I assume you mean Native American, like Wilma Mankiller or Quanah Parker?

It does not necessarily have to be Native American. It could be from indigenous peoples of another part of the world. If you know some situation or back story where indigenous people still own the land and their lives are still influenced by tribal traditions, but they aren't just dirt poor, that could potentially work. I know that in Australia and Papua New Guinea, laws are different from how the U.S. simply stuck natives on reservations, then willy nilly moved them if the land turned out to be valuable. But I am not super familiar with how that works. I have research to do.
posted by Michele in California at 5:42 PM on April 4, 2017

Biblical names--the more obscure, the more religious the family. Ex. Philemon, Hosea, Melea. (Obscure compared to your Marys and Esthers and Josephs and Davids.)
posted by scratch at 5:42 PM on April 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Sorry, Michele, can't help you there :-\
posted by scratch at 5:43 PM on April 4, 2017

In places where there are many mixed-ethnicity marriages, many people end up with a last name of an ethnicity that is different than the ethnicity they visually appear to be, either due to marrying into a family or resembling one parent more than another. So, someone could have blond hair, blue eyes, pale skin, a Boston accent, and have a last name of a prominent family that has none of those characteristics.

names that could signify someone comes from a very religious family, or could just be run of the mill non religious names

Some last names are common in certain religions, but of course people do leave the religions they were born into. And they don't always change their names. So, pretty much any last name that's common in a particular religion would do.

I am interested in suggestions for a tribal name for a fictional male character, plus some sort of plausible back story as to how and why he is wealthy and/or powerful.

Tribal? I'm guessing you are talking about Native American tribes, by your reference to casinos. It really makes no more sense to come up with a "Native American" name than a "European" name -- different tribes have very different sorts of names, so if you don't want this person to seem like a stereotype, you should research the specific tribe -- or language groups of a particular area if you want to create some sort of fictional tribe. Note that in some cases different language groups coexist in the same area. Just like if you were creating a European character you'd want to know more about what part of Europe, or if they were Roma or Jewish or a recent immigrant, before you picked a name.

If you want the name to be ethnically ambiguous, Native Americans don't necessarily have names that are specific to their ethnicity. So Steve, or Bill, or Dave...

Perhaps he's powerful because he's a prominent politician, or maybe he's rich because he created a startup and it sold for a lot of money. There's no reason a plausible reason for him to be rich or powerful would need to be very different from someone who isn't tribal.

If you do want the reason for him being rich and powerful to have specifically to do with his tribe, and a casino, you might want to do some research on tribes that have very few members but have casinos. Chieftain sounds somewhat dated, so you probably want to look at current government structures.
posted by yohko at 5:44 PM on April 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

In my experience, "Lee" is the most generic name of all time.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:46 PM on April 4, 2017 [4 favorites]

If you know some situation or back story where indigenous people still own the land and their lives are still influenced by tribal traditions, but they aren't just dirt poor, that could potentially work.

You might find Alaska Native Corporations of interest. Check the "see also" section for groups in Canada.
posted by yohko at 5:48 PM on April 4, 2017

Yoder is a last name that implies Amishness.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:01 PM on April 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ellie is a name in itself, but it can also be a nickname for Ellen, Eleanor, Elizabeth, Elspeth, Elizabeth, Elle, etc. It could also be

Kate / Katie / Cate / Cait etc are nickname for Katherine / Katheryn / Catherine / Kaitlyn / Caitlyn etc. - or even Kate Lyn(ne).

Jan can be a first name for a man or a woman, a nickname for Janet / Janice, or a last name.

Liu/Lu is a relatively common Chinese last name and Lou is a common nickname for Louise or Louis.

Daisy is a nickname for Margaret (just mentioning because it sounds nothing at all like Margaret.)
posted by insectosaurus at 6:08 PM on April 4, 2017

Sasha, Russian mens name, American girls name.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 6:14 PM on April 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

The last name Levy could be Jewish or Scottish. And a lot of last names perceived as stereotypically Jewish in the US (e.g. Rosenfeld, Schwartz, Eisenberg) are actually German/Austrian.
posted by theodolite at 6:16 PM on April 4, 2017

Ali is a common Arabic name and also short for Alison.
posted by theodolite at 6:18 PM on April 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

Aaron and Erin sound identical in most American accents, but one is a Hebrew-origin male name and the other is an Irish-origin female name.
posted by theodolite at 6:26 PM on April 4, 2017

Mi(y)a, for Miyako (Japanese) or the biblical short version of Miriam.

A lot of gen x Asian-American names are out of decade -- for Chinese-American girls the parents immigrated in the 90s but were raised on older media that had made it through to China, so you get a lot of Tiffany, Sharon, and Lucy among people who are like, 25 now. Their US cohort would be named Alison, Stephanie, Madison..
posted by batter_my_heart at 6:36 PM on April 4, 2017

Oh! The first time I ever saw a Yuengling I thought it was a Chinese beer.
posted by theodolite at 6:36 PM on April 4, 2017 [7 favorites]

Another great thing about Lee is that it's a homonym with Leigh, which is a female first name.
posted by ethidda at 6:47 PM on April 4, 2017

Kiana is Irish, Persian, Hawaiian . . .
posted by meemzi at 6:55 PM on April 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've had male and female colleagues with Dana as a given name.

Evelyn Waugh is a famous British male writer & a contemporary of the Mitford sisters.

Alex/Lex has a wide range of given names.

Kim as a given name has a full gender spectrum. As a surname it's likely Korean.
posted by childofTethys at 6:56 PM on April 4, 2017

This one might not be what you're looking for, but:

My friend's birth name isn't really Xianying Liu, but it is obviously Chinese. She goes by Charlotte. She married and took her husband's last name, which isn't really Schwarzenegger. Now her name is Charlotte Schwarzeneggar. When people meet her, they're surprised to see that she's Chinese.
posted by meemzi at 6:58 PM on April 4, 2017

I have a friend whose name is Laetitia, and the coworkers who interacted with her only by email were very surprised to meet her in person one day and discover she was a French woman, when they expected an African-American woman.

Likewise, my name is Sarah, and it's a run-of-the mill name in the US, but my French family-in-law were convinced for the longest time that I was Jewish.
posted by Liesl at 6:59 PM on April 4, 2017

I knew a Korean-American guy who changed his name to Warren from Wan because he hated when people misheard it as Juan. (he was pretty racist.)
posted by changeling at 6:59 PM on April 4, 2017

freedman is both a Jewish and black last name. In my neighbourhood, cohen and koen seem to be popular non Jewish boys names, where I'm used to seeing cohen as a Jewish last name.
posted by Valancy Rachel at 7:12 PM on April 4, 2017

'May' is an English female name. 'Mei' is a Chinese female name that sounds almost exactly the same.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:44 PM on April 4, 2017

Some people use "Peg" as an abbreviation for "Margaret". (I don't understand the connection).
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:49 PM on April 4, 2017

Variants of Mary- Maryam, Miriam, Maria, and Mariam- are all pretty common in any culture dominated by an Abrahamic religion. (Well, the Jewish Miriam doesn't allude to the Virgin Mary like the others, of course, but as a totally uneducated guess I assume it still comes from a common root linguistically.)

Seconding Sara/Sarah- though the average American reader probably won't be aware of this, it is an extremely common Arabic name (pronounced slightly differently: SAW-ruh is as close as I can transliterate).
posted by perplexion at 7:50 PM on April 4, 2017

In my experience, "Lee" is the most generic name of all time.

Note that among Chinese, this spelling indicates Taiwan or Hong Kong, but the customary Pinyin spelling of this family name on the mainland is Li.
posted by Rash at 7:52 PM on April 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Kira means:
- dark haired (Irish)
- leader of the people (Russian)
- glittery, shiny (Japanese)
- beam of light (Hindi and Sanskrit)
- like the sun god, Ra (Egyptian)
posted by Gomez_in_the_South at 8:02 PM on April 4, 2017 [7 favorites]

Asian/Arabic names historically can have multiple transliterations into Western languages (Chung/Zhong/Cheung/Choong or Zhang/Chang are examples Wikipedia gives).

And I used to encounter people who had changed birthdates or inadvertantly misentered birthdates when moving countries (MM/DD/YY vs DD/MM/YY).

And add a misunderstanding of first name/last name protocols across languages, growing use of last names as first names in the USA and now we're really having fun trying to match international medical records! Well, I am at least.....
posted by beaning at 8:09 PM on April 4, 2017

Jean tends to be assumed to be a woman in the US and assumed to be a man in Canada.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:11 PM on April 4, 2017

Kiran is an Indian name that sounds like the Irish name Ciarán

Sasha is a Russian man's name (short for Alexandar) but more often a woman's name in North American English (i.e. Natasha "Sasha" Obama)

The names Tasha, Simone, Tonya, and Anthony are about equally likely to be the names of Black or white people to my ear

Oh is a common Korean surname that hyphenates to sound Irish or Italian (Oh-Lee or Lee-Oh)

Khadijah, Ayesha, Jamila, Kareem, Abdul, and many other Arabic / Koranic names are very common among African-Americans

Sunny is a common Korean-American female name that sounds like Sonny which I associate with Italian men for some reason.

Jojo is a male name from Ghana (it's a "day name")

Nana means "Grandma" in some English dialects but it's also a female name in Ghana (another day name)

Ken is a Japanese and an English name. Interestingly they are kinda almost homonyms- Ken can mean "research" in Japanese and "knowledge" in English. Ken also means "yes" in Hebrew.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:16 PM on April 4, 2017

On another forum a discussion about the TV show Black-ish revealed that when many people see the name "Andre" they assume the individual is African-American because they associate it with "Dre." But there are famous people like Andre Agassi, Andre the Giant, and Andre Previn, all of whom are/were White and received their names before the advent of rap and hip hop music. Presumably it's mostly people younger than a certain age who make the Andre = African-American connection.
posted by fuse theorem at 8:35 PM on April 4, 2017

Names that belong to people of different ethnicities that I've met include Nina, Mira, Maya, Lila, Sonia, Tanya, Talia, Anamika, Natasha, Arya, Sheila.

Last names: Pai (Chinese and Native American), Gilani (Italian and Sindhi -- the -ani surname ending is popular, particularly in the Mediterranean and Northwest India/Pakistan for independent reasons, so there may be other examples), and surnames that end in -an are typical of Tamilians and Armenians.

Neel is an Indian-American name that means blue in Sanskrit, but no one in India has that name. I assume Indian-Americans started using it because it sounds like Neil.
posted by redlines at 8:35 PM on April 4, 2017

Sal could be Salvatore (Italian male), Salvador (Latino male), Sally (Generic female).

Lola is an old school female nickname, but also means grandmother in Tagalog.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 8:45 PM on April 4, 2017

Ariel is primarily a woman's name in English-speaking cultures (at least ever since 1989 with the release of The Little Mermaid) but a man's name in Israel.
posted by phoenixy at 8:50 PM on April 4, 2017

Evelyn was a popular British name that the Chinese appreciated when the British were operating businesses in the country. When they were choosing English names upon immigration to North America, they would often choose this name. At the time, this name /
was pronounced /Eev-lin/, rather than /Ehv-lin/, so it would often be shortened to Eve.

As for North American First Nations peoples, they believed that a person's name had power and honour. When they first met the trappers who worked for the Hudson's Bay Company (Canada, if not also part of America, as they weren't fully developed countries at the time) - they would often trade with them in exchange for the use of the person's name. You will find many surnames on the West Coast in the Nuu-cha-nulth, Coast Salish, and many more tribes who have surnames such as: George, Sam, Dick, etc. You'll also hear a number of Scottish and other trappers' surnames being used, such as MacDonald or McNutt.

As for backstory, I know of one family who lives quite remotely due to geographical and topographical considerations. Being of the chief's lineage, they own and operate the transportation services in and out of the area. The business is quite popular with tourists, as well as being a necessary life-line for such an isolated small community.
posted by itsflyable at 9:16 PM on April 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

You might work with Filipino names with a Spanish background. I know a lot of Filipinas with names like Gonzales, Herrera, Brillo, Marcos, Ventura, etc.
posted by SLC Mom at 9:17 PM on April 4, 2017

"Sandy" can be a nickname for "Sandra" or "Alexander".
posted by Lucinda at 9:27 PM on April 4, 2017

Many Sikh names are gender neutral: Rupinder, Jaspreet, Sundeep etc all can be used for both genders (however many Sikhs still exclusively use Singh as a last name for men and Kaur as a last name for women). More info here.

I find a lot of Ojibwe first names to be gender neutral, although ikwe and inini and kwe can be used to show gender (falling slightly out of favour due to awareness of two-spirited people): Cedar, Anibiish, canoe/Kinew, Bear, Wabiigwan, Chi/Big, Eagle etc.
posted by saucysault at 11:14 PM on April 4, 2017

My name is one of the most common women's names across the Muslim world, so I sometimes get taken aback when travelling in staunchly Catholic countries and encountering the assumption that I'm named after Our Lady of Fatima.
posted by tavegyl at 11:39 PM on April 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

Your thought of a "tribal name for a fictional male character, plus some sort of plausible back story as to how and why he is wealthy and/or powerful" reminded me of an interesting (and ongoing) story about the Moapa Paiutes. It is told on pp 289-291 of Boundaries Between: The Southern Paiutes, 1775-1995 By Martha C. Knack. You can read some of that here.

The basic story is that western Indian tribes in the U.S. have always been encouraged by the BIA to become 'farmers' but of course the land and water they are given is invariably completely craptastic and incapable of supporting even 1/10th of their actual population via farming. So in the late 1960s the Moapa Paiutes hired a business planner who encouraged them to ditch that bad idea and move more towards light industry and commerce. He suggested simple commercial opportunities that could be run by tribal members inexperienced in business, which then would generate income, then re-invest some of that in a slightly more advanced business, and basically pyramid their way up, while also helping various Moapas gain experience in different trades and also in business management. So, they did this, moving from manure sales to running a convenience store, some light manufacturing (leather cases for CB radios, as I recall?), and eventually a major greenhouse operation that was supplying most of the fresh tomatoes and other fresh produce to the nearby Las Vegas market while also employing a whole lot of tribal members in good paying jobs.

Pretty soon they became known as the 'wealthy tribe' and, as success tends to breed success, they received a lot of interesting support and were branching into various successful side businesses.

Then a freak hailstorm came through the area and destroyed the greenhouses in about 30 seconds flat. This was maybe in the 1990s? Anyway, no insurance (or maybe just not enough), the greenhouses--their main income producer--have never re-opened, and they have had trouble getting back to that same level of business success in the succeeding years. Though they are still working on various business schemes to this day--some of them quite successful I believe.

When you think of the various American Indian groups, "entrepreneur" is not exactly the first word likely to spring to mind, but that is exactly what the Moapas (and, increasingly, a lot of other American Indian groups across the U.S.) are.

Here's some info about current Moapa Band Chairman William Anderson.

Here is another Southern Paiute business venture.

And another (also discussed by Knack in the same chapter she discusses the Moapa greenhouse hail disaster). This is sort of a tribal casino venture but quite different from the typical such venture if you dig into the background and operations a little.

Anyway, maybe a fictionalized version of one of these situations (maybe imagining a little bit how this could have turned out minus the 30-second hailstorm episode) could give you a character who is relatively wealthy and powerful in his own family & group but is maybe in a way that is a little less stereotypical than some other options . . .

Also note names (Benny Tso for the Las Vegas Paiutes and William Anderson for the Moapas) and that they are called Chairmen, not "Chieftains" or whatever.
posted by flug at 12:51 AM on April 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Here is a long and strange list of (mostly) names unique to Utah. It is long and strange enough that many of them are pretty ambiguous and misleading in some way . . .
posted by flug at 1:10 AM on April 5, 2017

Simone and Andrea are coded male in Italian and female in German.
posted by meijusa at 3:47 AM on April 5, 2017

Nicola is a man's name in Italy, and generally a woman's elsewhere.
Benedict is a man's name or surname in English speaking countries. In french (with an additional e at the end) is only a woman's name, the male form is Benoit.
posted by multivalent at 4:31 AM on April 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Mohan is both an Irish last name and an Indian male first name or last name.

Also, Kiran, mentioned above, could be male or female in India, but Kieran/Ciaran is always male.
posted by peacheater at 4:35 AM on April 5, 2017

I came to echo tavegyl. To name specific countries where it's prevalent, Fatima is very common in Morocco/Algeria as well as Portugal. I know lots of Portuguese Fatimas. There may well be a Moorish connection behind that too.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 5:18 AM on April 5, 2017

I know at least three people named Molly with given names:

1. Molly
2. Margaret (which has a lot of nicknames, including Muffy and Peg and Meg, which make less sense than Maggie)
3. Mary

Mimi is used as a nickname for many names/languages. I know a Miriam (Hebrew) Mimi and a Kamini (Hindi) Mimi, but I'd have thought it was French (and it is).

Sally never made sense to me as a nickname for Sarah - it is used more often as it's own name these days.

Chip is a nickname for Charles, but it's also use as "Junior" (my uncle Matthew Jr. is called Chip by his family).

"Trey" can be a name, but it also means "The Third."

Elizabeth has a million nicknames, some more intuitive than others, and many of them are used as names on their own (Libby, Lizzie, Liz, Lissy, Beth, Betty, Betsy, Bitsy, Biz...).
posted by Pax at 5:53 AM on April 5, 2017

Maybe this one is less important, but Ben can be short for Bennett or Benjamin. I've known people called Jay who are Jason and Jeremy (but the latter might have just been saying "J," which could apply to anyone with a J name.

I've also always sort of been fascinated by the other letter names: Bea, Dee, Kay.

Women named "Vi" can have given names of Violet or Viola.
posted by Pax at 5:56 AM on April 5, 2017

At a given points in high school, I knew each of the following

1. Mimi (Kamini)
2. Mandy (Amanda)
3. Muffy (Margaret - she now goes by Maggie)
4. Molly (Molly)
5. Molly (Margaret)
6. Missy (Melissa)
7. Missy (Valerie - she is a "junior")
posted by Pax at 6:03 AM on April 5, 2017

I also knew a male Mandy (Armando). English doesn't really have the masculine form of Amanda.
posted by Pax at 6:04 AM on April 5, 2017

Another great thing about Lee is that it's a homonym with Leigh, which is a female first name.

And a male first name too.

Evelyn Waugh is a famous British male writer

And his first wife's name was also Evelyn [real]. Supposedly, his friends sometimes referred to them as Hevelyn and Shevelyn for clarity.

Ohara might be Irish or Japanese.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 6:11 AM on April 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

My daughter's name is Isabeau, which is often abbreviated to Issey. Issey can be a male Japanese name, or the name of a 5thC female Irish/Cornish saint (also known as Yse or Ida). Her second name is Mei, which (as mentioned by a previous commenter) is a common Chinese or Japanese girl's name (we're Totoro fans), or the month of May in my native Afrikaans spelling (uncommon as a name in Afrikaans though). Isabeau is a French name. Our ancestral mother was a French Hugenot who came to South Africa in 1688.
posted by snarfois at 6:31 AM on April 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

In Israel, Noam recently went from a popular boy's name to a trendy girls' name.

For religious names that you might not know are signifiers, Lubavitch Chassidim (Chabad) will often name their first born son after the late rebbe, Menachem Mendel (and often girls for his wife, Chaya Mushka). It can lead to some funny classroom issues for kids, where half of the class will all have the same name.
posted by Mchelly at 7:00 AM on April 5, 2017

Amir is equally likely to be Israeli as Persian. Theoretically Arabic too but all the ones I ever knew were Israeli or Persian.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:46 AM on April 5, 2017

"Ed" is usually assumed to be a nickname for Edward, but it's also a nickname for Edmund.
posted by seesom at 8:35 AM on April 5, 2017

There's Hannah and Hana (flower; Japan).

Yeo is an old family name from the south of England — and also in China. You may have seen Yeo’s soy milk in the store.
posted by scruss at 8:48 AM on April 5, 2017

Further to pseudostrabismus's example and maybe more strikingly for your purposes, Nana can be a man's name in Ghana, too. (E.g. this prominent example.)
posted by col_pogo at 9:02 AM on April 5, 2017

I just came across a story here about two women with the same name and birth date in NYC. (Problems ensue.)

There are cultures where some names are so common they are useless for distinguishing one person from another. Per Wikipedia, 40% of Vietnamese have the family name Nguyễn.

When I was working for Pepsi, I came across the fact that in some country (Singapore?) there are very many people with the name Ng (some something close to that, plus minor variants). This put the kibosh on a plan to give a discount to people who could spell their name with letters printed on the bottom side of the bottle caps.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:35 AM on April 5, 2017

Related to col_pogo's example, Yaya can be a Greek grandmother or an Ivorian man.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:40 AM on April 5, 2017

These are resources I found while researching part of this question a few days ago:

What is the least gender/race/ethnicity specific name combination we can come up with?

I need a character name with an ambiguous racial/socioeconomic/religious/ethnic background

16 Racially Ambiguous People Who Successfully Pass For Black

I'm ethnically ambiguous and I'm tired of hearing these things

And in the Stupidly Obvious But I Missed It category, we will include my recent FPP now that it has been left-handedly pointed out to me as relevant.
posted by Michele in California at 9:56 AM on April 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

In Texas, it is not uncommon for white people to have Spanish nicknames, which creates confusion.

Example: Congressman Robert "Beto" O'Rourke is a white man from El Paso who many people think is Hispanic based on his nickname, which he's had since childhood.

Further examples: Non-Hispanic man named Jim being called Jaime, or suffix "-ito" or "-o" being added to a non-Hispanic person's name -- I worked with a Collinsito (African American man named Collins) and a Timo (white guy named Tim).
posted by *s at 10:21 AM on April 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

In the US, Robin is a pretty common name for both women and men. I don't know if there's a regional divide, but when I was little and in NY I named my boy dog Robin, as in Batman and, but when we moved to SoCal I only met girls named Robin.

Also in the US, Stacy is most commonly a woman's name but not always, eg actor Stacy Keach. ( Whose full name Walter Stacy Keach.)

I've had male and female colleagues with Dana as a given name.

I once knew brothers named Dana and Stacy.
posted by Room 641-A at 10:22 AM on April 5, 2017

In certain WASPy social strata in the American South, it's fairly common for daughters to be named after their fathers, or with double names after their mothers and their mothers' fathers, or after their mothers' maiden names. Examples (these all function as first names):

Bruce, the girl named after her father, Bruce
Ann Bruce, named after her mother Bruce, in the line above
Mary Harvard, named after her mother (same name) and grandfather, Harvard
Mary Hugh, named after her father, Hugh
Wallace, named after her father, Wallace
Anne Douglas, named after her mother, Douglas, who was named after her father, Douglas
Mercer, who was given her mother's maiden name
Walker, also her mother's maiden name
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 10:37 AM on April 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

I thought my neighbor -last name Chin must be adopted by Koreans. Looked it up - also Medieval Europe surname.
posted by cda at 12:07 PM on April 5, 2017

yohko: If you do want the reason for him being rich and powerful to have specifically to do with his tribe, and a casino, you might want to do some research on tribes that have very few members but have casinos. Chieftain sounds somewhat dated, so you probably want to look at current government structures.

Two points: casinos aren't automatic money-pots for tribal entities and their members. Some tribal entities were given raw deals by casinos, in such that the casino companies get most of the money, because it was the casino company who built the specific casino. And then there are tribal entities or individuals who find other ways of making money, as flug mentioned upthread. At least one Pueblo in New Mexico runs a number of different operations on their land, including limited "fully organized" hunting expeditions (I was told, half-jokingly, that they do everything but shoot the gun) that cost thousands of dollars per hunter, which the Pueblo members now operate on their own.

And as to the names for leadership, Depending on the official title a band uses, a tribal band's recognized leader may be called: chairperson, chairman, president, chief, governor or spokesperson. Some tribal entities have leadership that is familial, while others have limited terms and are elected into leadership positions.

In 2012, each of the 480 members of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Tribe in Minnesota received about $84,000 per month, and Seminole Tribe of Florida, who some analysts say are worth several billion dollars, purchased the Hard Rock Café from the Britain-based company Rank Group PLC for an estimated $965 million, but those are fairly unique situations, with the official poverty rate on reservations at 28.4 percent, compared with 15.3 nationally. There is also the possibility of being an internationally recognized Native artist, whose work would be quite valuable. Navajo sand paintings area beautiful and require a lot of talent, and some Pueblo pottery is rare and valuable.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:51 PM on April 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Rene/Renee and Ainsley can male/female ambiguous.
posted by porpoise at 1:10 PM on April 5, 2017

Ronit is a girl's name in Israel and a popular boy's name in India.
posted by Coffeetyme at 3:09 PM on April 5, 2017

Sam can be short for Samuel or Samantha.
Chris can be short for Christopher or Christine.
Jules is a traditionally male name but has become a popular nickname for some women named Julie.
posted by Room 641-A at 6:13 PM on April 5, 2017

I often call my husband Matty, as a diminutive for Matt, but we've met a few tiny girls also called Maddy, (for Madeline or Madison,) said aloud the same way. There's also Nell (not used as much these days as a nickname) which can be short for Helen or Eleanor.
posted by Margalo Epps at 10:01 PM on April 5, 2017

Referencing posts above:

Ellie can also be short for Danielle.

Kai can be short for Malachai, which is a Biblical name. My youngest nephew was adopted from China by my upper middle class sister and bil, who are devout Protestants. His new first name is Kai. His middle name is his birth name, and his last name is very Irish.

Chris/Kris can also be Kristina, Christian, Kirsten, Christen, Kristianne, Kristoff, or Chrissy.

Mandy - short for Amanda - is also the name of the actor/singer Mandy Patinkin.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 12:24 AM on April 6, 2017

This may be a stretch, but when I was little I thought I had an Uncle named Michelle. I then learned that he was Uncle Michel, as in the French version of Michael.
posted by Room 641-A at 1:18 AM on April 6, 2017

I often call my husband Matty, as a diminutive for Matt, but we've met a few tiny girls also called Maddy, (for Madeline or Madison,) said aloud the same way.

Also Paddy (male - Irish-only, I suspect) vs. Patty (female - not limited to Irish).
posted by Pax at 5:16 AM on April 6, 2017

Ashley is also a gender-ambiguous name.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 5:26 AM on April 6, 2017

Michele is the Italian version of Michael. It is spelled the same as my name, but pronounced differently.
posted by Michele in California at 10:37 AM on April 6, 2017

More gender-ambiguous names: Cody and Dakota.
posted by Room 641-A at 11:09 AM on April 6, 2017

Jerry is usually short for Jerald, but I know two men named Gerard and two woman named Geraldine who use it (spelled Geri by Geraldine) .

I've also known a couple people from an area of India that had been colonized by the Portuguese, and they had Portuguese last names (Gomes, Hernandez) . I'm sorry I'm blanking on the region or city name.

Smucker is another often Amish last name (SE PA) .
posted by sepviva at 7:43 PM on April 9, 2017

There's Randy, traditionally male, and the female Randi (like talk show host Randi Rhodes.)
posted by Room 641-A at 8:25 PM on April 9, 2017

Lindsey (Buckingham, Graham) and Lindsay (Lohan)
posted by Room 641-A at 1:43 PM on April 11, 2017

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