WNW: The Ellis Island Myth
One of my favorite Word Nerd books I borrowed from my good friend Lu Ann Staheli, who knows just what a freak I am about these things. She knew I'd love it, and I did. I still haven't bought my own copy, but I really, really need to, because the book is so dang cool.
It's called Word Myths, by David Wilton.
The author did a ton of research to track down the sources of many things we think we know about English and English phrases, but many of which are downright wrong. Some of these are often seen in e-mail forwards and some of which even get passed down in university English classes as truth.
He digs around and then find the truth, where possible. In many cases, he debunks the myth. Then he tells us where a phrase really came from.
In some cases, he debunks the myth and then has to admit that we really don't know where a phrase originated. Such is the case with phrase, "the whole nine yards." There are a good dozen possible explanations, and he debunked every one. None of the theories holds water. The source of that phrase is an ongoing mystery.
One of my favorite debunked myths from the book dovetails with history (shocker, huh, being that I'm both a word nerd and a history junkie).
We all know that during the Ellis Island years that a lot of family names were changed, generally made more easily pronounced by American standards. That often meant spellings were altered and sometimes entire names were changed.
Because of this, we see sad, identity-crisis moments portrayed in such movies as An American Tail, where Fievel and his family end up with all new first and last names (which, of course, makes finding each other later that much more difficult when they're separated in the film . . . sniff).
My own (maiden) last name is an Americanization. My grandfather and his parents came to U.S. in the early 1920s from Switzerland. Their last name at the time was Lűthi. It was changed to Luthy.
But here's the catch: WHEN did the name change occur?
According to Wilton, NOT at Ellis Island, because here's the thing (and frankly, it makes a lot of sense):
The U.S. agents running Ellis Island lacked the authority to change people's names.
Duh. What kind of government would allow that kind of thing? The records they took matched the ships' manifests and other records. Nothing was ever changed.
So then how did all those names get changed?
The people did it themselves later on. Many immigrants came to the U.S. looking for a fresh, new life. They wanted to feel American. As a result, they changed their own last names after arrival to look and sound more American. To feel like they belonged.
Doing so was their choice, and it always took place sometime after their visit through Ellis Island.
There were no sad, tragic moments of families losing their identities. Name changes were their own choice, a sign of embracing their new homeland.
(There were plenty of other sad, tragic moments at Ellis Island, like sending back a sick family member so a disease wouldn't spread to the U.S. or turning away someone because they couldn't read, but those are for someone else to post about.)
I tend to be a bit opinionated (shocker, huh?), and I get excited when I learn new things.
Shortly after I read this book, a brother-in-law started telling me about how his family name had been changed at Ellis Island and how sad that was. I jumped in and told him that nuh-uh, he'd been told a fake story his whole life.
Yeah. I think I took the wind out of his sails a tad.
I really should shut up sometimes. These kinds of trivia bits belong on blog posts, not at family reunions.