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AWADmail Issue 388

December 6, 2009

A Weekly Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Tidbits about Words and Language

From: Anu Garg (words at wordsmith.org)
Subject: Interesting stories from the net

Looking over the Shoulder of the Creator of "A Christmas Carol"
The New York Times

It's Time for English Teachers to Stop Teaching That the Earth is Flat
The Web of Language

The New York Times

From: Susan Gluck (susanjgluck earthlink.net)
Subject: Name change at Ellis Island

Regarding your comment:

"A common misconception... when an immigrant to the US arrived on Ellis Island, the clerk at the registration office often changed a name, from Kwiatkovski to Kay, for example."

I've heard this name-change explanation all throughout my life, from day one, so in one swoop, you're going to make a generalization and claim it's mostly a myth? How could so many people (who heard it from their parents, grandparents and great grandparents) be so wrong, as you state the opposite? What is your source for your claim that Ellis Island name-changing is mostly a myth? I'd like to know.

A number of readers sent their comments on this topic. They shared stories of their ancestors immigrating to the US and having their names changed at the port of entry. An understanding of the paper trail busts the myth. The passenger manifest was prepared at the departing country and it was this document that was used to record the immigrants' information at the port of entry. The immigration clerk had no motivation to change a name. The US Immigration and Naturalization Agency (now known as the BCIS) explains in detail.

That's not to say that some change (such as the omission of accent marks) did not happen at the port (see the email below), but the majority of name changes happened later, and for a different reason. The immigrants changed their names to blend in their new country. Genealogists, people who research families' histories for a living, agree that Ellis Island name change is a myth. In her book A Genealogist's Guide to Discovering Your Ethnic Ancestors, author Sharon DeBartolo Carmack writes:
"This is the myth that an immigrant ancestor's surname was changed by officials during processing at Ellis Island. No evidence whatsoever exists to suggest this ever occurred, and I have challenged countless people who insist their ancestor's name was changed on Ellis Island to provide me with proof. So far, no one has been able to. Even the historians at Ellis Island will tell you this is just a colorful family story."

It's a fascinating topic. Have fun searching passenger records at ellisisland.org I found three Gargs who arrived in the US the late 1890s, from Germany. I came to the US much later, from India, in 1991 as Anurag Garg, and decided to shorten it a few years later during a job hunt while completing my graduate studies in computer science. Another data point in why people change names.
-Anu Garg

From: Bernhard Muller (bfmuller1 yahoo.com)
Subject: Ellis Island

My parents immigrated from Germany in the early 1920s and later met and married here in the US. My mother's German name was unchanged, but my father's name was clearly changed by the official at the dock who did not know or care about umlauts. My father told me this story directly, and I have no reason to doubt it. So, name changing is certainly not a myth. But, as my mother's case indicates, was not universal either.

From: Carol Kuhns (usa1-hermana usa.net)
Subject: Anglicized words

I had an Italian aunt-by-marriage who was named Mabel. I asked why that was an Italian name. When she started school, her name was Maria Bambina. But the teacher shortened it to the less sonorous Mabel.

From: Paul Douglas Franklin (pdf6161 paulfranklin.org)
Subject: name change

Myths or jokes, such as the Ole Svenson's Chinese Laundry, so named because the proprietor was processed immediately after a Swede named Ole Svenson. When the immigration official asked his name, the Chinese immigrant said "Sam Ting".

From: Steve Price (sdprice510 mac.com)
Subject: Immigration name-changes

There is the old Borscht Circuit joke about the Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe who was assigned the name Sean Ferguson. His original name was so hard to pronounce in English that on his arrival at Ellis Island, he anticipated a problem and picked out a substitute. But when he was asked for his name, he couldn't remember it, so he blurted out, ""Oy, shayn fergessn" (pronounced fer-gess'-en" and roughly translated as "I've forgotten the name.").

From: Hugh Saxton (hugh.saxton gmail.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--esprit de corps
Def: A spirit of solidarity.

The story is told of Queen Victoria reviewing a march past on a hot summer's day. As they came past the smell of rank sweat drifted across. She turned to the Duke of Wellington. "Field Marshal, we smell a very peculiar smell." He replied, "Yes ma'am, esprit de corps."

From: Rachel Matthews (bruniquel sbcglobal.net)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--savoir-faire
Def: The ability to say or do the right thing in any situation; tact.

Here's a true story. Once, at a winter craft fair in France, I saw a booth run by a group of iron mongers and blacksmiths. They made lovely wrought iron candlesticks and such like. The business name? Savoir Fer.
[French fer = iron]

From: Robert Payne (dziga68 sbcglobal.net)
Subject: savoir-faire

Every time I hear the word savoir-faire, I'm reminded of a scene from the short-lived World War II sitcom of the mid-1970s, "Roll Out". The scene involved a ventriloquist serviceman performing a routine with his uniformed dummy:
Soldier (to dummy): You have no grace. You have no savoir-faire.
Dummy: With what you pay me, I'm lucky I can afford subway fare.

From: Richard Stallman (rms gnu.org)
Subject: Re: AWADmail Issue 387

Buddha Buck (blaisepascal gmail.com) wrote:

My first introduction to the word apropos was when I first learned the UNIX operating system.
The "apropos" helped with that, allowing you to type "apropos foo" to find all the manual entries which might have something to do with foo.

I invented this feature. In 1976 or 1977 I implemented a similar command, M-x apropos, in the Emacs text editor. Some of the developers of BSD (the version of UNIX you must have used) had previously used Emacs at MIT, so they were familiar with the idea.
Emacs needed this feature because it was extensible; the list of commands was not fixed. Today, GNU Emacs has the same command.

From: Bill Siderski (Siderski hotmail.com)
Subject: Thanks!

I just completed the 2009 NaNoWriMo write a novel in a month. I've enjoyed your emails for years, and I wanted to let you know that I peppered my work with them. Words like acnestis, nihilarian, otiose, and (my favorite) lentiginous will hopefully make it a spicy read!

Bare lists of words are found suggestive to an imaginative and excited mind. -Ralph Waldo Emerson, writer and philosopher (1803-1882)

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