Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Name Game

I went on a lunchtime cruise of New York Harbor yesterday, and as we passed Ellis Island I thought about my paternal great-grandfather, who when he passed through there wound up changing his last name from the hard-to-spell Russian original to a squat and very common Jewish name meaning the equivalent in Yiddish. I never liked that name, changed by marriage relatively early, and have stayed with it as my nom de guerre despite a second marriage.

When I was a child, my family lived in Chile for a year and rented a house, complete with enormous apricot tree and golden retriever, from an American couple. The wife's maiden name was the same as that Russian original, and it turned out we were distantly related. That was a long way to go to find a cousin.

We become our names in some way. My maternal great-great grandfather, for instance, evidently didn't like his family name of Fish. He changed it to Moskowitz.

I was originally supposed to have a Russian name in a nod to my father's heritage, but I was born during the Cold War and my parents thought better of it, instead opting to give me what was then a fairly common name (though it hasn't been for some time, according to this, where several commenters on my name page observed that "everyone who has that name is old"), but to spell it in an unusual way. That resulted in my becoming a fanatically good speller.

To ultimately show respect for the surname I changed, I always use it as my middle name/initial, dropping the middle name I was given at birth. My name has become me, or is it the other way around?

I didn't get a shot of Ellis Island, where all those names are in the registry (my first name is included in the list of donors for the island's cleanup some 20 years ago), but I did snap Lady Liberty, "a mighty woman with a torch" (thanks, Emma).

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