Over the course of researching a story about the scientific impact of unusual names, I stumbled across a fantastic, but rather suspect, data point. According to information posted on BabyCenter.com—the self-proclaimed "#1 parenting and pregnancy digital resource"—there were roughly seven baby boys in the United States named Penis in 2012. If we are to believe the statistics, the name supposedly hit a high of 23 in 2010. It struck me as a hilarious and dark-vaudevillian absurdity, but the fact-checker in me dug a bit more into the story before I declared this oddity a truth. Everyone I told—my colleagues, my dad—reacted in the same visceral way: a rare mixture of initial shock and momentary mirth, sometimes punctuated by a deep and sorrowful sympathy. Poor Penis.
As Richard Zweigenhaft, a psychology professor at Guilford College, explained to me for the original story, unusual names can actually translate into increased chances of success, "when the reasons for them are thoughtfully and clearly communicated to the child," but others, "thoughtlessly given, might lead a child to feel odd, or weird." When I reflected on the distinction between thoughtful and thoughtless, Penis was filed immediately and unmistakably into the worst reaches of the latter category. Even Vagina is more linguistically fluent, somehow less grotesque.
I had a host of questions for this imagined man. What sort of parent would confer you this name? How has your life been affected? How much have you had to overcome?
Whatever the case, it seems that the purest form of the Penis given name is likely just another case of an urban legend (and my own warped hopes) run amok. All we can really say definitively is that he "probably" doesn't exist.
However, an initial spot check of the Social Security Administration's data, which goes all the way back to the 1880s, revealed no such name, so I dropped the tidbit from the original story. Besides, there were plenty of other bizarre alternatives that actually showed up in the official record, including Espn, Arsen, Jedi, Bj, Dragon, Magic, Gamble, Vice, and Gin. But upon further inspection of the numbers, I also noticed that the least common names in the SSA database always occurred at least five times, indicating that the dataset wasn't exhaustive. Perhaps the number of Penises didn't reach some kind of formal threshold for inclusion, so I set about trying other ways to find one.
IN RESPONSE TO AN inquiry about the veracity of the name listed in its databases and about whether, if they believed it to be accurate, the team could potentially point me in the direction of an actual person bearing this name, Nicole Centinaro, a spokesperson for the BabyCenter site, provided an evasive, boilerplate answer. "BabyCenter's baby names lists are based on the names of more 555,000 babies born to moms who registered on BabyCenter," she wrote in an email. "In 2013, the list contained 23,000 different boy names and 26,000 different girl names." When pressed for an explanation of why a particular name like Penis, which the site suggests occurred north of five times in 2012, would not show up in the SSA's records, Centinaro did not respond.
Was there a more inclusive and reliable dataset I might be able to get access to? Perhaps the SSA itself could disprove the existence of a Penis with a top-secret trove of really, really unusual names. I laid out the basics of my conundrum in an email to the SSA's press office: was there any way to search names that had less than five occurrences, and, if so, would there be a way to check for the presence of a Penis? A reply hit my inbox less than two hours later:
Yes, we restrict our list of names to those with at least 5 occurrences to safeguard privacy.
I can confirm there is no record of such a name occurring more than 5 times in a given year; however, that's as far as we go.
William "BJ" Jarrett
National Press Office
Social Security Administration
Jarrett left open a critical window. Though the BabyCenter users could have easily exaggerated its popularity, there remained an outside possibility that, each year, there were more than zero (but less than five) sets of parents who felt bold enough to provide their baby the ultimate male moniker, therefore excluding it from the formal data. A Penis could still be out there, I thought.
I SET OFF INSPECTING other records. Ancestry.com's offerings indicated many instances of the name Penis in the historical record. But upon a closer look, these were probably either results of hasty handwriting, miscommunication between census workers and subjects, or one-time jokes. In the case of Penis Miller, who is listed in a 1905 Wisconsin state census, the alleged "n" looks more like two sloppy "r's" in "Perris." Something tells me the normally named Rudolph and Genevieve Miller, the parents of the Austrian immigrant family, wouldn't have drawn such attention to their son. Plus, the name doesn't show up again, at least not in the same way. In a 1940 state census, a man born in Austria with the same last name, living in the same town and county in Wisconsin as Penis—and very close to the age we'd expect him to be by then—appears as "Paris," or "Peris." The handwriting isn't totally clear.
Similar suspicions arose around a handwritten late-1800s U.S. Indian census conducted in Dakota territory. A man named Eating Bull allegedly fathered a son, then 19, named "Skins His Penis." Whether the man was making a crude joke or the census worker misheard the name remains unclear, but the name never shows up again, before that year or after.
A glance through the original typewritten California voting registration records—where, besides Canada (I excluded my search to the United States), Ancestry.com indicates the most Penises are found—actually reveals even more empirical evidence of mistakes. Although the system indicates matches for the name, the results are the consequence of a faulty computer scan of the outdated type. Instead, the original papers, which are harder to misinterpret because they are typewritten rather than scrawled, seem unimpeachable: Denis, Persis, Pettis, etc. None of the Penises seem to approach any kind of credibility.
Internet phone listings turned up obvious jokes or really unfortunate machine errors: Penis Wrinkle, Penis Butts, Penis McFly, among others. One stood out as a definitive possibility because of the realistic surname: Penis Rabinowitz, who supposedly lives in New York City. It seemed possible, but why then did his relatives have banal names like Harold and Sondra? I called the number listed anyway. I reached a voicemail, and in it, the man clearly pronounces his actual, boring name: Bruce.
Besides, there'd have to be a record of Rabinowitz somewhere else besides these creepy people-finder websites. And there wasn't. In fact, the only thing I could find was a dumb parlor joke buried in a playwriting book, featuring a script from 1993. The line comes from a character named Dennis, and perhaps it was the inspiration for the listing, or perhaps not: "What was Cock Robin's name before he changed it to go into show business? Penis Rabinowitz. (Stone-faced. Shrugs.)"
I AM NOT THE only one that has gone down the penile-nomenclature rabbit hole, so to speak. Laura Wattenberg, a baby name expert who runs the website Baby Name Wizard, had a similar research experience when it came to combing through historical records back in 2007. In fact, she says, many of the names on Ancestry.com's worst names list seem to be fake. When they do appear in one year's Census records, they often vanish in the next. "Anyway that you would try to confirm the existence [of a Penis] ends up disconfirming the existence of an individual example," she says. Even in the most promising cases, she says, it could be that the census worker simply took the name down wrong. That's what she suspects happened in the case of the name Vagina, which she concludes was a misinterpretation of a Southern-drawled utterance of Virginia.
Others have noted similar problems. Cleveland Kent Evans, a name expert and psychology professor at Bellevue University, once grew so desperate to find the much-celebrated twins Orangejello and Lemonjello, that he put out a sort of bounty on the proof. (Either $25 or a credit in his paper; he can't remember which.) And though Evans was told that the twins played on a high school golf team in Memphis and had been spotted in a Oklahoma yearbook, no one furnished any solid evidence.
These urban-oddball name legends are so popular that Wattenberg says they now follow a kind of script. First, the teller of the funny-name story has usually never met the person he or she swears is real, but instead has heard about an encounter the individual allegedly had with a close friend or relative. More often than not, that person works in a profession—like nursing or public school teaching—that places them in a unique position to interact with a colorful mix of demographic backgrounds. Lastly, the character in the narrative always double-checks for proof, such as a school yearbook or driver's license. "Part of the standard script of telling a crazy name story is that you anticipate your audience's skepticism and try to overcome it," she says. "The claims of truth are just part of the fable."
Wattenberg says people will often go to great lengths to prove their claims, often leaving clues for skeptics on websites like BabyCenter. In fact, she's somewhat surprised that someone hasn't just gone through with it and named their baby the unthinkable on the basis of the legend itself. Or to prove their point.
"All you can do is look for proof of their existence," Wattenberg says, "and keep looking and keep looking. And all you can say is if there's no proof, they probably don't exist."
Hearing all this got me down, so I reached out to one more person, Cleveland Kent Evans himself, who has spent countless hours researching all kinds of bizarre American names. Maybe he would have a potential lead. In an email, he revealed a kind of half-victory:
I do not know of any example of a boy named "Penis". I do know, however, that there was a Native American tribe along the Colorado River (the Chemehuevi) who had two traditional male names that translated into English as "Rat Penis" and "Fish Vagina". In their culture these names were derived from religious myths and did not sound as ridiculous as they do in modern English.
This might also explain Skins His Penis, or maybe not. Whatever the case, it seems that the purest form of the Penis given name is likely just another case of an urban legend (and my own warped hopes) run amok. All we can really say definitively is that he "probably" doesn't exist.
That, or perhaps he's a man who enjoys his privacy and has managed to escape all matter of formal record-keeping. Perhaps Penis lives as a recluse, deep within a remote stretch of forest in the West Virginia backcountry. We may never know. If you're out there, Penis, please get in touch.