Saturday, October 2, 2010

What's in a name?

Many immigrants to the United States modify their surnames after they arrive. And in some cases they even change their given name. In most instances, immigrants change names to make them sound more American. I saw this tendency in practice as early as the late 1660s in New York following the British take over of the Dutch colony.

I found the names spelled one way in the records of the Dutch Reformed Church and another way in the English civic records. For example, the Dutch names Teunis, Jacobus, Aefje and Engeltje were written, respectively, as Anthony, James, Eva and Angelica in the English records. The spelling of surnames also evolved as the colonists moved from one colony to the next. Most of the changes in the spelling of surnames in America came about because names were spelled phonetically.

As each wave of immigrants came to America, immigrants modified both the first and last name if it sounded too foreign. My grandmother's father and grandparents came from Norway. In Norway, the family was known as the following: Martin Semmingsen, Mari Amundsdatter, Andreas Martinson, Kari Martinsdatter and Karl Person. Within a few years of their arrival, they were called Martin Simonson, Mary Simonson, Andrew Simonson, Karen Peterson and Charley Peterson, respectively.

Sometimes immigrants would change their name because it was too hard for Americans to pronounce. After years of people mispronouncing his name, a friend of mine named Ashok shortened his first name to Ash. I see this practice extensively with the Vietnamese immigrants. Although most have not Americanized the surnname other than to spell it using the English alphabet, many Vietnamese immigrants have Americanized the given name.

My husband's ancestors came to the United States from Eastern Europe. Unlike my great-great grandfather who made his Norwegian name sound more American, my husband's ancestors in two instances changed the name all together. One side of his family changed the name from Moswz to Klaine, while another side changed the name from Sluszny to Ehrlich. We recently met a second cousin who had some inkling of how that name evolved.

Historically, most names, both first and last, have a meaning. Just do a Google or Yahoo search on your name and there is a very high likelihood that you will find the meaning and derivation of your name. Jack told us that Sluszny and Ehrlich mean the same thing, honest or honorable.

I spent a little time on Google and found that Ehrlich, a German name, does indeed mean honest or honorable. Sluszny, a Polish name, means correct. I happened to come across a similar name used in the Czech Republic, Slušný, that means proper, decent or correct. So I can perhaps see how my husband's grandfather and great uncle got Ehrlich from Sluszny. At this time, I do not know why the two of them changed their surname to a German version.

As I explained the result of my research to my husband, he told me that he could see why someone would like a surname that means honorable. He reminded me that we address judges and Congress people by the title, Honorable. As much as I can see why we would call a judge, the Honorable Judge so-and-so, I am not sure why we should give such a title to many of the people who hold political office.

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