Americanization of Names

Yes, it is inevitable. Our ancestors arrived in this country in a culture that prized the idea of a "melting pot". Unlike today’s immigrants who strive to maintain their culture and uniqueness, immigrants of generations past worked very hard to shed their cultural identity and quickly assimilate into America. Signs of "Irish need not apply"….."No Catholics"…."No WOPS"….were quick reminders of the need to become an American as quickly as possible.

Some of immigrant and migrant ancestors took their ethnic given names and just translated them to English. Giuseppe Verde became Joe Green. Wladislaw Kowalski became Walt Smith. Catherine de Koenig became Kate King.

Several websites and books are great resources for translating names into English. Keep in mind that some of these names have new translations today that they might not have had 160 years ago. Also keep in mind that different parts of a European country would have had different names for the same "American" name. For example: in Austrian Poland (Galicia), Elizabeth would translate to Elzbieta. But in German Poland (West Prussia), Elizabeth translates to Leocadija. Try them all and work with them like pieces of a puzzle until they finally fit together.

Other ancestors seem to have tried valiantly to maintain their proud family names, but probably got tired of correcting people’s mispronunciations and misspellings. They seem to have finally given in and just "adjusted" their names to make them easier for their American neighbors. Bouthillette became Boutiyette or Boutyette. It is phonetic and lacks the aesthetics of the original French name, but it got their neighbors to pronounce the name correctly. So, Boutyette it is.

Couple the Americanization of names with a problem we will discuss later, that of sloppy record keeping, and we have a recipe for bitter frustration.

In the early-1990s, I finally broke through the barrier of my Hugo ancestors. This time, instead of bad family historians, I simply had a lack of family historians. Those who had grown up knowing my immigrant great-great grandparents were still alive, but claimed no one ever talked about where they came from or where people ended up.

Who was this "Henry Tacey" listed as a French Canadian in the 1870 federal census of Michigan? For years we could only guess, since "Tacey" isn’t a French name. Well…it is, but not in Canada or France…just in Bay County. Instead, we find the name Tacey is American for Tessier-Lavigne, a name as old as Montreal itself.


When confused by a strange name, there’s a wonderful trick to get a fresh perspective. Play "the name game" with a couple of young children. Unlike adults, children have no preconceived notions on what things are supposed to be. Instead, they are taught to use cues in words to figure out pronunciation and to spell things as they hear them, not as they see them. So take a funky name that makes no sense and ask a couple of kids to play with it. Have them sound it out and hear the cues for yourself. Have them spell it as they hear it, rather than looking at the spelling you have now. Have them figure out where syllables break and where the emphasis would be put on different syllables.

© 2006 Jan Nearing, LaMere Consulting, Midland, Michigan. All rights reserved.


Copyright © 2012 all rights reserved Jan Nearing
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