Some thoughts on name-changing after immigration

(Note: I’ll be further discussing some of these issues on my main blog in upcoming posts, “A Primer on Anglicizing Names” and “A Primer on De-Judaizing Names.” I also previously discussed the issue of Hebraizing names on my main blog.)

Though most immigrants in the modern era proudly retain their birth names, that wasn’t always the case. Many people felt they had to change their names (first, last, or both) to become “real” Americans, Canadians, Brits, Australians, Israelis, French, etc. By and large, no one questioned this.

Now we know there’s no one “right” way to be a proud, patriotic member of one’s adopted homeland. By trying to whitewash themselves and pretend they never had any other names and ways of life, people lost vital parts of their heritage and identity.

Changing spelling to reflect pronunciation:

I understand why people would want to do this. Certain letters make different sounds in, e.g., English than they do in the native language. For example, the Hungarian surname Kovács might become Kovach, or the Polish surname Adamczak became Adamchak.

Many Hungarian women named Sára (nickname Sári) have likewise changed their names to Shara or Shari, since most non-Magyarphiles don’t know the Hungarian S is pronounced SH.

Many people gave up the idea of anyone properly pronouncing, e.g., W as V, and accepted a linguistically incorrect pronunciation of a name like Janowski or Korošec.

Removing diacritical marks:

This was extraordinarily common, esp. since many people would’ve had no idea how to pronounce characters like Ń, Ž, Č, Ł, Ę, Ñ, Ü, Ø, or Ő. Even if the diacritical mark makes the difference in correct vs. incorrect pronunciation, most people even now see them as a hindrance or annoyance.

Pedant I am, I like seeing diacritical marks in names of foreign origin. It sets the bearer apart, sends the message that s/he cares about his or her ethnic heritage and doesn’t believe in taking the easy way out. A name like Ramón, Yaël, Léa, Gwenaël, Kálmán, or Irène looks so distinctive.

Changing spelling to conform to host nation’s “norms”:

Examples would include the Hungarian Jakab becoming Jacob, Izabella becoming Isabella, the Estonian Eliisabet becoming Elizabeth, or the Polish Zofia becoming Sophia. Before people were used to seeing certain letters or sounds in names, they would’ve stood out like a sore thumb. But today, those native spellings really stand out beautifully from the crowd.

Many Russians and Ukrainians with -skiy names also changed that suffix to -sky, to simplify the spelling. Sometimes, Poles changed -ski to -sky. If they lived in a region with a lot of people of Russian, Ukrainian, Czech, or Slovak descent, it helped them to blend in better.

Dropping sex-based endings of surnames:

Many names in the Slavic languages denote the sex of the bearer. Russian women’s names end in -a after -ov, -(y)ev, or -in, and -skiy becomes -skaya. Likewise, Polish women’s names end in -ska instead of -ski, and Czech women’s names tack on -ová. In Slovak and Czech, -ský becomes -ská.

It just looks wrong to me to see a beautiful Russian or Polish surname without the feminine ending when the bearer is a woman. It’s grammatically incorrect for a woman to have a name like Jaskolski, Kuznetsov, or Borodin.

“Translating” names to that of the host culture:

It wasn’t uncommon for, e.g., Pavlos or Pavel to become Paul, Katarina or Katarzyna to become Catherine, or Ryszard to become Richard. Even a name like Caterina or Nikolay was considered “too foreign” once upon a time.

Surnames could be “translated” too, such as Schmidt becoming Smith or Molnár becoming Miller. Anything suggesting foreign origin was seen as undesirable and suspect.

This frequently happened when people made aliyah (moved to Israel), as discussed in the above-hyperlinked “A Primer on Hebraizing Names.” Many common Jewish surnames were translated into Hebrew, such as Bergman becoming Harari and Rosen becoming Vardi. Those birth surnames smacked of a people without their own country and language.

Choosing entirely new names:

The name Irving was once quite popular among the Jewish community, as an “American” substitute for Isaac, Israel, and Isaiah. Many of the new names chosen have dated rather poorly, though at the time, they were seen as “all-American” and a part of the mainstream onomastic culture.

Shortening names or putting Anglo twists on them:

This happened both for Anglicization in general and de-Judaization in particular. For example, Garfinkel became Garfield, Rosenkrantz became Rose, Nielsen became Nelson, Feuerstein became Firestone, de Jong became DeYoung, Eisenhauer became Eisenhower.


I’m glad more people now see the beauty in names from a wide variety of cultures, instead of seeing them as an ugly, embarrassing, foreign burden to be shed. Not everyone needs to have names like John and Mary Smith, just as not everyone has to abandon native cuisine, culture, language (as long as one learns the host language), and religion.


Supposedly geriatric names I like

It’s no secret many of the names that are currently quite popular (e.g., Sophia, Isabella, Max, Henry, Emma, Isaac) were not too long ago derided by more than a few people as too musty and geriatric to use on a baby. However, some names still frequently garner scorn instead of an enthusiastic, “ZOMG, that was my grandma/grandpa’s name!”

Here are some of these unpopular, supposedly geriatric names which I’ve always liked.


1. Ernestine. I’ve absolutely loved this name from the very first time I saw it!

2. Irene. As I said recently, I don’t think of this as an old lady name, in spite of its greatest popularity being quite some time ago, because it didn’t explode in popularity overnight and then sink just as rapidly. It’s still used somewhat regularly.

3. Justine. I’ve always loved this name, as well as the variations Justina and Yustina.

4. Ida. I don’t understand all the hate this name gets, though I agree the English pronunciation isn’t as soft and pretty as it is in all the other languages with this name.

5. Beatrice. It’s hardly a secret I adore this name, after how many posts I’ve written about it! Like many other name nerds, I was worried it might suddenly get trendy and overused after Paul McCartney and that gold-digging second wife of his used it on their child, but that fear thankfully wasn’t realised.


1. Stanley. Yes, I’m biased because this was the name of my favouritest comedian, Stan Laurel, but it’s still a very distinguished, charming name. I also love the cute nickname Stan.

2. Harold. I’ve adored this name for years, long before I became a fan of the great comedian Harold Lloyd. I’m also very moved by the section of the Bayeux Tapestry declaring, “Here sits Harold, King of the English.” The people knew who their real king was, even under foreign occupation.

3. Leon. This name has such a charming, snappy ring to it. It’s short and to the point, like Ida.

4. Leonard. My main reason for liking this name is probably the fact that it was Chico Marx’s real name. It’s been said Chico is the one who sneaks up on you, since he tends not to be the one most people are immediately hooked by. But then, over time, you’re more and more drawn to him.

5. Philip. This name feels both sweet and serious to me, evoking a kind, quiet, caring, intelligent fellow.

Original ways to name a child after someone

While I’m a very strong advocate of giving kids original names you love, and only naming them after someone if you’re truly moved to do so for your own reasons, the pull of culture can be very strong. I know a lot of people in the Jewish community who feel like they HAVE to name their kids after deceased relatives if they’re Ashkenazic, or after living relatives if they’re Sephardic.

Sometimes, that special older relative you want to name your baby after has a name you’re not wild about, a name that’s too common for your liking, or a name that stands out like a sore thumb in the modern era. Here are a few ideas to use a namesake in a roundabout way.

1. Use a similar-sounding name. E.g., Micah instead of Michael, Helena instead of Ellen.

2. Use the middle name instead.

3. Use a variation on the middle name.

4. Think of something that was really important to this person, either a concrete thing or an intangible quality. E.g., if s/he loved donating to charity, you could name your baby Charity or some name that means “charity.” Someone who worked tirelessly for peace organizations could be named Shalom or Miruna.

5. Use another language’s form of the name, or the original form. E.g., since the name Adolf is taboo and even illegal in many countries, you could honor your great-grandpap through the original form Adalwolf. Or if you’re concerned about how trendy Alice is becoming, you could honor your great-grandma through a form like Alisa or Adelina.

6. Find another name with roughly the same meaning as that person’s name. Perhaps you’re not keen on how common David is, or you don’t like the feminized form Davida. In its place, there are a number of other names meaning “beloved,” such as Cara, Carina, Shivali, and Erasmus.

7. Perhaps name the child after someone who was a huge hero and inspiration to that relative.

8. If that person were really proud of being from a certain country, state, province, or city, consider using a symbol of that area which could work as a personal name. E.g., Amethyst for Ontario’s provincial gemstone, Lilac or Rose for New York’s state bush and flower, or Hibernia after the national personification of Ireland.

9. If s/he were Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, use his or her patron saint’s name.

10. Perhaps use a name s/he always wished s/he’d been called instead.

11. If the person had a pen name, consider using that.

12. You could also name the baby after one of that person’s favorite literary characters.

Names to avoid in an Anglophone country

Over the years, I’ve come across names which, let’s be honest, just wouldn’t work in a modern Anglophone country. These names might sound beautiful in their native languages, not even pronounced like they’d be in English, but the spellings or connotations still are what they are. Bullies will find a way to make fun of any name they don’t like, but these names stand out all by themselves.

No offense is intended to people who do have these names! There are plenty of English names which must look or sound funny in other cultures.

1. Semen, the most common Ukrainian form of Simon. I shouldn’t even have to explain why this name is a no-go!

2. Urinboy. I found this while researching my post on Kyrgyz names on my main blog, and at first thought it had to be a joke or vandalism. It really is a legit name.

3. Bích, a female Vietnamese name meaning “bluish-green.” It’s pronounced BEEK, but we all know how everyone will assume it’s pronounced.

4. Dong, a male Chinese name whose meanings include “beam, pillar” and “east.” It’s pronounced DOONG. However, I don’t think the Scottish name Dongal should be avoided. I honestly didn’t realize what the first four letters spell in English until it was pointed out some years after discovering the name.

5. Dũng, a male Vietnamese name meaning “brave.” It’s pronounced like the English word “yum.” If you like the meaning that much, you could use the Chinese and Korean form, Yong, or one of the Japanese forms, Yuu or Isamu.

6. Foka, the Russian form of Phocas/Phokas, which means “a seal” (the animal). I’m not sure where the stress falls, but if it’s on the A, the name would be pronounced Fah-KAH, not FOH-kah.

7. Gaylord. This poor boy would be so bullied.

8. Gay(e). This poor girl would likewise be bullied, though once upon a time, this was a lovely name. We can’t predict how the language will evolve.

9. Osama. I’ve heard this name has been outlawed in some countries, and we can all understand why.

10. Adolf/Adolph. This name is likewise outlawed in many countries with naming laws. If you want to honor a special older relative or friend who was born before the name took on its modern association, what about the original form Adalwolf?

11. Titty. There’s a reason this is no longer a nickname for Letitia!

12. Tit. Pronounced TEET (still awful in English!), this is the Russian form of Titus.

13. Arseman. This was the name of a female character on the early Nineties Nickelodeon show Fifteen, as well as the real-life name of the young lady who played her. Given what “arse” means in the U.K., Ireland, and Australia, this is a no-go!

14. Arsen, a male Armenian name derived from the Greek Arsenios. It sounds like “arson,” and it’s also only two letters shy of “arsenic.” I personally wouldn’t use this name or any of the other forms of it, particularly if I lived in a place where “arse” is the spelling for one’s rear end.

15. Hardman, the Old Germanic form of Hartmann (brave man).

16. Jerker, a Swedish form of Erik. The J is pronounced like a Y, but the spelling in English is what it is. Another form of this name is Jerk.

17. Harm, a Dutch and Frisian nickname for Herman.

18. Violâte, a Jèrriais name which seems to be a form of the Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish Violante, which may in turn be derived from Yolanda. Both Violâte and Violante are too close to the word “violent,” and it’s obvious what Violâte spells in English. The similar-looking Violet, however, has never conveyed that connotation for me.

Are there any other names you’d add to this list?

Ten reasons I love onomastics

While plenty of people only choose names for their children, pets, and characters because they like the sound or think it’s cool, I’ve long been drawn to the history, culture, and etymologies behind names. I tend to choose meaningful names (both forenames and surnames) for my characters. It’s been years since I chose names from lists in the encyclopedia or the old baby names booklet my mother had when she was pregnant with me.

Some of the reasons I love onomastics include, but aren’t limited to:

1. It reminds me of how the world’s languages (Indo–European or otherwise) are more closely linked than many people assume. For example, the Kazakh name Akhat means “one,” which is very similar to the Hebrew word for one, echad. The spelling of the Etruscan name Egnatius was changed to Ignatius to resemble the Latin word ignis, “fire,” which is likewise very similar to the Sanskrit agni.

2. It helps me with learning other languages. If I’m doing a post about names with a certain meaning, I’ll quickly grow to recognise certain elements. The next time I see those elements, in either a name or a word, I’ll know what part of it means. For example, the Persian element Gol- means “flower” or “rose,” and appears as Gul- in many Georgian, Turkic, and Urdu names, while Ay means “Moon” in the Turkic languages.

3. It says so much about the culture and society those names come from. For example, many Slavic names have meanings relating to love and peace, while many Germanic names relate to war. Some languages, like Chinese, modern Hebrew, and Korean, also have many unisex names, instead of names which are traditionally only for one sex or the other.

4. It’s neat to see how a name is adapted into other languages. Not all languages share the same alphabet and sounds, so they have to substitute others. A B in one language could be a V or P in another; a T could be an F; and a W could be a G or Y.

5. I love seeing how other languages form their nicknames!

6. It shows what kinds of cultural osmosis has taken place in certain languages. For example, while Bosnian is a Slavic language, many of its names are of Arabic, Persian, and Turkic origin. Russian likewise has several very old names which are of Norse origin, like Oleg and Igor.

7. It leads me to discovering a love for names from languages I hadn’t paid much attention to before. While looking up names with a certain meaning, I might find some lovely names from a language I was never particularly interested in before, and will start exploring these names more in-depth. I might want to look up a name from a certain language for a character, and discover so many lovely names to choose from.

8. I like seeing what kinds of names were popular in other eras, and how what’s popular has shifted over time. Names that are now widely considered geriatric were once very trendy and fashionable, while other names have stayed consistently popular over many decades. Some names which are now seen as dated may be more popular in other languages, as people try to copy American culture.

9. It’s neat to see what kinds of invented names exist. In English, well-known invented names include Jessica, Pamela, Vanessa, Wendy, and Miranda. Invented Hungarian names include Csilla, Jolánka, Kincső, Enikő, Tímea, and Tünde.

10. It’s also fascinating to see how surnames are most commonly formed. Once you know the most common suffixes, it’s easy to identify someone’s ancestry or ethnic origin based on the surname.