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American Pie: What's In A Name

…I never cared for my own family name, and unlike many of the immigrants who went before me, when I became a US citizen I was given the option of changing it. At first that seemed like a wonderful opportunity, but the more I thought about it, the more difficult it became to choose a new one that I liked…

Names mean a lot to those that own them, even names which are almost unpronounceable. Guess which name star columnist John Merchant opted for when given the opportunity to choose.

To read more of John’s sparkling words please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/american_pie/

In England, family names are sacrosanct, and this is probably true also of the rest of the British Isles, and of Europe. For the English, it’s all in the spelling – a Smith should never be confused with a Smythe; also pronounced Smith, or a Brown with a Browne; or, with due deference to our esteemed editor, a Hinchliffe with a Hinchcliffe. An old friend in England was very proud that the spelling of his name, “Rutlidge” was not to be found outside of his family, and did not appear in the USA either, to the best of his knowledge.

The early English settlers in America did not have to tangle with the inept bureaucracy of later immigration processing, so the integrity of their family names was not in jeopardy, other than by their own misspelling, or that of the compiler of the manifest of the ship that brought them here. If the misnomer was a problem to them it was easy to correct later. Of course there were those who were only too happy to lose their identity.

The names of the descendents of the original Pilgrim Fathers who settled New England therefore remain today as stringently English as when they left the shores of the mother country: Endicott, Forbes, Holmes, Jackson and Wigglesworth, to name but a few. Carefully maintained parish records have guaranteed their veracity through to the present time.

With the advent of steam powered ships, by the 1800’s the flow of immigrants into the US had become a flood, requiring a more controlled method of entry. In response to this need, in 1892, the government opened the Ellis Island facility in New York Harbor. Thereafter, all immigrants were required to pass through it, where they were recorded and examined for disease and compliance with the regulations.

Unaccompanied children had to be sixteen or over, and no convicted criminals were admitted, or applicants with known debts. Those who did not comply were detained until they could meet the standards, or were repatriated. Ellis Island operated from January 1, 1892, until November 12, 1954, when it was officially closed. In that period, more than 12 million immigrants seeking access to the United States were processed; sometimes as many as a thousand a day.

With that amount of traffic, under-educated immigration inspectors, and applicants who had only limited or no fluency in English, recording errors were inevitable. Names from the Baltic and Slavic countries were particularly vulnerable to arbitrary changes by the officials, who often wrote down a phonetic version of what they heard. In other cases, immigrants who were savvy enough to realize that their names would present pronunciation difficulties in an English speaking country, voluntarily changed or abbreviated them.

For most people, relief at having escaped from economic, racial, religious or political persecution overwhelmed any regrets about loss of identity. But later, due no doubt to strong feelings about their heritage, succeeding generations have worked to re-establish connections with their real family names. Fortunately, the US Immigration Department carefully preserved ship’s manifests, and today, Ellis Island, in its new role as a museum, facilitates research into these records.

Ironically, some children of immigrants who were able to maintain their original names, later sacrificed them willingly on the altar of fame and fortune. Thus, after his father changed his family name from Gershovitz to Gershvin, the son later became George Gershwin. Israel Baline chose to retain a mis-spelling of his name as Irvine Berlin. Asa Yoelson sang his way to success as Al Jolson.

The Hollywood star factory also played a part in obliterating family names. Do you suppose Leroy Harold Scherer would ever have had his name in lights? No, but the reinvented Rock Hudson certainly did. And how about that other darling of film fans everywhere, Doris von Kappelhoff, better known as Doris Day. And whatever happened to Issur Danielovich Demsky and Daniel Kominski? They emerged from their chrysalises as Kirk Douglas and Danny Kaye.

Amazingly, some of the most unpronounceable names survived Ellis Island and have lasted to this day. Immigrants from Poland seem to have had a way of protecting their monikers, and apparently see no need to help the rest of us out by changing the spelling. So we struggle with the sparseness of vowels in such names as Krawczyk and Zdanczyk. If you think they’re too easy, try Zbigniew Brzezinski, the US National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter.

My interest in this topic stemmed from exposure to the names of my wife’s relatives, who were all from immigrant stock. Her mother’s Russian name was Beloserkovsky, later to become Bell. Her father’s family name was Marascavitch, though there is doubt about the spelling, but in any event at some point it was changed to Mark.

I never cared for my own family name, and unlike many of the immigrants who went before me, when I became a US citizen I was given the option of changing it. At first that seemed like a wonderful opportunity, but the more I thought about it, the more difficult it became to choose a new one that I liked. So in the end I decided to hang on to what I was born with. After all, my sister and I are the last ones in our branch of the family to carry the name, and what’s in a name anyway?

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