Meghan Daum’s opinion column appeared on June 21 in the Los Angeles Times. Her concern was American names.
She wrote: “I’ve long believed that the deepest divide in American society is ... the gulf between people who have normal, easily pronounceable names and those who don’t.”
A few years ago I was a guest lecturer for an American government class. The topic was one I knew would intrigue the students, immigrants seeking citizenship. Their surnames were wonderful and, with practice, easy to pronounce.
On this July 4th weekend, it is important to remember that the original residents of North America were not Anglo or Spanish. They were Iroquois, Navaho, Mohawk, Seminole, and people of other nations living here long before the Italians, Vikings or Chinese “discovered” America. And aboriginal Americans were also immigrants, coming from Asia.
American Indian names were spoken in their native language, not the Anglicized versions we hear today. Jesse Long Watcher of the Algonquin nation would be Jesse Askuwheteau in his ancestral language. Now that’s a real American name.
Outside of our borders you will find that most countries are homogeneous. In China, you see Chinese. In Korea, Koreans. Each has a distinctive look and language. Egyptians and Sudanese look and sound different, though their countries share a border. Kurds and Turks do not mix. In Mexico, those with Mayan or Aztec ancestry rarely mix with Mexicans with European ancestry. This is true for most nations on this planet. The major exception is the good old U.S. of A.
I strongly suggest that you visit Ellis Island, nestled in New York harbor. Read the names inscribed on the wall, all immigrant and now, all the third and fourth generation citizens. Most names are something other than Anglo. They are Irish, Polish, Italian, German, Russian, and the others representing all of Europe, all immigrants passing through this best known port of entry, along with immigrants entering through San Francisco, Houston and Boston, where my maternal great-grandmother entered the United States.
Then there are Americans whose ancestors came to this country as slaves and indentured labor with names from West Africa and China. Most lost their names to slave owners and history. Some have rediscovered their name, regaining a lost identity.
Many European names were changed either before or after the European immigrants entered the U.S. Try to guess the origins. My paternal grandfather’s name was changed three or four times. Roizeman was most likely the original spelling from Poland. Does Roizeman sound American? Does Rosman? Sure they do.
In 1776, 16 languages were spoken in New York City (Manhattan). Now, according to a January 2000 report titled, “Queens: An Economic Review” done by the New York Comptroller’s office, there were over 135 languages spoken just in the borough of Queens. This could mean surnames from over 135 countries. By the way, “borough” is Dutch.
Even here in the middle of Middle America, German surnames prevail, reflecting immigrants settling in the Great Plains.
Even our foods reflect the immigrants of this nation. There is a running joke that for a New York Jew, Sunday means Chinese food. Last weekend, I went to an American restaurant, owned by a Turk, selling Italian spaghetti, Greek gyros, with Mexican hot sauce on the table as a condiment. My favorite Mexican restaurant in Denver is José O’Shea’s. Then there is O’Rourke’s Chinese Kosher Pizzeria in Brooklyn.
What does an American look like? Like our names, there is no answer. Americans are not all of Anglo decent. We are white and black, yellow and red. Our hair is straight and curly, blond, red, brown and black. Our voices and language reflect the many immigrants that are now Americans.
So tell me, Ms. Daum, what is an American name; only those that you can pronounce? In California, in Texas, even in Iowa, Hernandez and Garcia are as common as Smith and Brown. By the way, Los Angeles and California are Spanish. As Shakespeare said, “That which we call a rose by any other name...”
Happy birthday, America. By the way, Ms. Daum, “America” is Latin.
David Rosman is a business and political communications consultant, professional speaker and instructor at Columbia College. He welcomes your comments at ProfDave1011@netscape.net.