Wednesday, June 17, 2009

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.


Jordan McCollum said...

Oh, man, I've done that whole "being right is more important than family unity" thing.

Sometimes I worry my in-laws think I'm a shrew. (Sometimes I worry they're right, LOL.)

Randi said...

Fascinating de-bunking!!

And yeah, I've learned that sometimes it's better to Shut Up and Blog.
Hey, that sounds vaguely familiar.

Kristina P. said...

Very interesting! I always thought it was the big mean government.

Erin said...

Unfortunately (and embarrassingly), I don't care for history. I have to admit I didn't even know that people thought their names were changed at Ellis Island. I just assumed they would want to acclimate to the new country they moved to. (Yes, that sentence ends in a preposition and no, I don't care :)) I wonder if being naive occasionally pays off?

Sher said...

I've often wondered how names can have so many derivatives. I like to believe that my last name Shepherd is the true spelling: spelled just like the profession, and the biblical spelling. You'd think that would always be people's first choice! it's not.
And my maiden name is Jensen. My ancestors are Danish. I assume that our spelling is a derivative of Jenson. As in Jen's Son. it would be interested to go through our geneology and find out exactly where the change happened.

Anyway, just my thoughts. Your WNW posts always stir ideas in me.

Summer said...

Well I love history and it's a good thing because I need to know a lot of it in my genealogical research. Especially the history of epidemics and wars as I try to figure out what happened to my ancestors based on when and where they were last recorded. I've got a whole heap of ancestors who changed their names over time. It makes my research so much harder!

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...


My father's family elected to change their last name from Mueller to Miller because Mueller sounded too German after the war.

Lara Neves said...

I had always understood that it was because the people at Ellis Island couldn't spell the foreign names, so they wrote it down how they thought it should be. But that never made much sense to me, because the people were right there to show them. Unless they had a different alphabet, that really didn't seem like a good explanation.

Thanks for clearing it up!

Laura said...

My early relatives came to America with the last name of Maidenfort. It turned out that one of the sons couldn't spell his own name and it ended up Madenford. Not quite as nastolgic as Ellis Island, but that's the story they've been telling about our name for generations.

Anonymous said...

Oh, WNW! How I have missed thee! How did I make it through last week? I've got to get me that book about debunking the myths. It just sounds awesome!

Kaylynn said...

Sometimes it's difficult when you know so much to keep it inside. I'm glad you share it with us on your blog!

Julie Wright said...

funny. I believed the myth and now stand properly educated

Unknown said...

Definitely going to ask for that book for an upcoming holiday/birthday/whatever . . . sounds great. I think it is so interesting, the name changes back a ways in our geneologies. My maiden name, Weatherspoon was changed from Witherspoon (yeah somewhere along the line I'm distantly related to Reese). Most of the Weatherspoons, other than my grandmother's family, are black and living in the south. I sense an interesting story there. I am curious how my branch ended up in Oregon!

LisAway said...

Okay, this is hard for me to swallow. Seriously! It makes sense that they couldn't officially change people's names etc., but like Lara said, I thought they pronounced their name and the people wrote it how they thought it should be spelled. Hmm. I believe you, though. I think.

I do know that bajillions of people change their own last names. My Syrian friend who has 1,200,000 (you're supposed to read that "twelve hundred thousand", not "one million, two hundred thousand") cousins has the last name Muchamel. Her cousins' last names are Mooshamel, Mushamal, Machamel etc. etc. I think it's SO funny to look at her list of facebook friends and see all the different spellings.

(I hope you appreciate that I didn't exaggerate any of the figures in this comment.)

Josi said...

Fascinating, as usual. I can't wait til my next family reunion! :-)

Fiauna said...

My mom loved telling me that our family named changed from Royce to Rice at Ellis Island. I guess she was wrong, huh.

Heatherlyn said...

That was interesting. I think that's almost always what I say about your blog posts, but it's true. And, yes, some information is better reserved for blog posts than family reunions. :)

LeeAnn said...

I wondered about that one because my family name was a "victim" of that. Later research showed that he was illegitimate and ashamed of it so he changed the spelling on coming here.

Chas Hathaway said...

That's fascinating! I've always been curious about word and name origins. Funny thing is, my name has different origins than I have always assumed. I always assumed Hathaway was old English - Hath a way.

It's still possible that this is the case, but most histories suggest that the name came from Heath-way, or someone who leaved by a heath. Weird!

But now I'm starting to hear that it had some origins in war... which is confusing to me.

But hey, cool post!

- Chas

Jo said...

I need that book! Those kinds of word stories are my favorites. I love knowing where words and idioms come from.


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