What's in a name?

By David LaVigne, PhD candidate in History at the University of Minnesota, IHRC Affiliated Faculty

A popular idea often heard about the United States’ most famous port of immigration, Ellis Island, is that immigrants commonly had their family names changed there. This, however, is a myth: inspection agents at Ellis Island and other ports of entry rarely changed immigrants’ names. For immigrants to be admitted to the United States, they needed detailed documentation that proved their identity. These papers were filled out in the country of emigration—often by professional clerks—and adhered to the spelling patterns of the local language. Passenger ships used the travel documents to compile accurate passenger lists at European ports of debarkation. If all this were not enough, Ellis Island employed hundreds of interpreters who interrogated immigrants in their native languages. In short, immigrants were likely to begin their lives in the United States with their names spelt correctly. (American Names)

That said, the practice of immigrants changing their names after settling in the United States was—and continues to be—a bit more common. Statistics quoted from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service indicate that today 16 percent of immigrants who become citizens change their names. An unscientific poll by the Boston Globe adds that name changes are especially common amongst Asian, Arab, and Muslim immigrant groups. The reason for changing one’s name depends on the individual. In the Boston survey, for instance, immigrants who recently completed the process for becoming United States citizens offered various reasons: the desire to avoid embarrassment and frustration when others can’t pronounce one’s name, the need to adapt to American culture, the benefits that an American-sounding name offers for advancement at work and in society. (Welcome Candy, Sam and George: Immigrants Change Countries and Their Names)

Name changes have been particularly popular among those individuals who aspire for careers in entertainment or politics. Bob Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman, abandoned the family name inherited from his Jewish immigrant grandparents. Similarly, former vice president Spiro Agnew modified his Greek-American birth name of Spiro Anagnostopoulos for political advantage. When another political hopeful, Barack Obama, announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination this past week, the on-going debate over whether Americans would elect a black President flared up anew. One journalist from Maine’s Sun Journal mused tongue-in-cheek that voters will not vote for Obama simply because of his foreign-sounding name (Obama is, of course, the son of a native Kenyan). The writer recommended that Obama reclaim his college nickname, Barry, because “Americans like presidents with simple, short, familiar names.? (Pop 20: What's in a Name?)

The motivation for an immigrant to change his or her name is often influenced by prejudices and discrimination encountered in the United States. “No Fly Lists? and “FBI Name Check? lists, for example, affect many individuals who not coincidentally also happen to be immigrants. The consequences can be maddening. A recent article in Minneapolis’s Star Tribune noted that immigrants with common last names are more likely to become entangled in security checks that can delay one’s hope of becoming an American citizen. (Immigrant entangled in post-9/11 checks) Indeed, disgust over “FBI Name Check? lists led to the filing in San Francisco during the past week of a class-action lawsuit against the federal government. The eight plaintiffs in the suit had all completed the requirements for citizenship, but their applications had been held up for over two years as a result of the security check process. ('Name Checks' for citizenship hopefuls trigger lawsuits)

It seems then that despite the historical inaccuracies concerning Ellis Island, the prospect of a name change has been and continues to be a significant decision that many immigrants face at some juncture. Immigrants change their names for myriad reasons, not the least of which is the need to feel as if one fits into American society. But at the same time, to give up one’s birth name is, in a way, to give up a major part of one’s personal and cultural identities. “Becoming American?—through name change or whatever means—is hardly an easy business. William Shakespeare famously contemplated the significance of a name when he told the story of the star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. The Capulet and Montague family feud aroused his heroine Juliet to ask “What’s in a name?? The experiences of immigrants, both historical and contemporary, suggest that the question still carries great relevance, even though it is not easily answered. Names are an element of culture and, as a result, closely related to the politics of identity.

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David LaVigne is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Minnesota and a member of the IHRC Advisory Council and Collections Council. His research studies the changing meaning of race and ethnicity for European immigrants during the twentieth century, with particular focus on the white ethnic revival during the 1960s through the 1980s.

Contact information: lavig004@umn.edu

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dan Ott published on February 16, 2007 11:41 AM.

The Erosion of Immigrant Rights was the previous entry in this blog.

What’s Faith Got to Do with It?: Immigration and Religion in the U.S. is the next entry in this blog.

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