Home  »  The American Language  »  2. Given Names

H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

X. Proper Names in America

2. Given Names

THE NON-Anglo-Saxon American’s willingness to anglicize his patronymic is far exceeded by his eagerness to give “American” baptismal names to his children. The favorite given names of the old country almost disappear in the first native-born generation. The Irish immigrants quickly dropped such names as Terence, Dennis and Patrick, and adopted in their places the less conspicuous John, George and William. The Germans, in the same way, abandoned Otto, August, Hermann, Ludwig, Heinrich, Wolfgang, Albrecht, Wilhelm, Kurt, Hans, Rudolf, Gottlieb, Johann and Franz. For some of these they substituted the English equivalents: Charles, Lewis, Henry, William, John, Frank, and so on. In the room of others they began afflicting their offspring with more fanciful native names: Milton and Raymond were their chief favorites thirty or forty years ago. The Jews carry the thing to great lengths. At present they seem to take most delight in Sidney, Irving, Milton, Roy, Stanley and Monroe, but they also call their sons John, Charles, Henry, Harold, William, Richard, James, Albert, Edward, Alfred, Frederick, Thomas, and even Mark, Luke, and Matthew, and their daughters Mary, Gertrude, Estelle, Pauline, Alice and Edith. As a boy I went to school with many Jewish boys. The commonest given names among them were Isidore, Samuel, Jonas, Isaac and Israel. These are seldom bestowed by the rabbis of today. In the same school were a good many German pupils, boy and girl. Some of the girls bore such fine old German given names as Katharina, Wilhelmina, Elsa, Lotta, Ermentrude and Franziska. All these have begun to disappear. The Jews have lately shown a great liking for Lee, a Southern given name. It has almost displaced Leon and Leopold, just as it has been substituted for Li among the Chinese.

The newer immigrants, indeed, do not wait for the birth of children to demonstrate their naturalization; they change their own given names immediately they land. I am told by Abraham Cahan that this is done almost universally on the East Side of New York. “Even the most old-fashioned Jews immigrating to this country,” he says, “change Yosel to Joseph, Yankel to Jacob, Liebel to Louis, Feivel to Philip, Itzik to Isaac, Ruven to Robert, and Moise or Motel to Morris.” Moreover, the spelling of Morris, as the position of its bearer improves, commonly changes to Maurice, though the pronunciation may remain Mawruss, as in the case of Mr. Perlmutter. The immigrants of other stocks follow the same habit. The Italian Giuseppe quickly becomes Joseph and his brother Francesco is as quickly transformed into Frank. The Greek Athanasios is changed to Nathan or Tom, Panagiotis to Peter, Constantine to Gus, Demetrios to James, Chasalambos to Charles and Vasilios (Basil) to Bill. The Dutch Dirk becomes Dick, Klaas becomes Clarence or Claude, Gerrit becomes Garrett or Garritt, Mina becomes Minnie, Neeltje becomes Nellie, Barend becomes Barney, Maarten becomes Martin, Arie becomes Arthur, and Douwe becomes Dewey. The Polish Stanislav is changed to Stanley, Czeslan to Chester, and Kazimierz to Casey. Every Bohemian Jaroslav becomes Jerry, every Bronislav a Barney, every Stanislav a Stanley and every Vaclav or Vojtech a William. The Hungarians and the Balkan peoples run to Frank, John and Joe; the Russians quickly drop their national system of nomenclature and give their children names according to the American plan. Even the Chinese laundrymen of the big cities become John, George, Charlie and Frank; I once encountered one boasting the name of Emil.

The Puritan influence, in names as in ideas, has remained a good deal more potent in America than in England. The given name of the celebrated Praise-God Barebone marked a fashion which died out in England very quickly, but one still finds traces of it in America, e. g., in such women’s names as Faith, Hope, Prudence, Charity and Mercy, and in such men’s names as Peregrine. The religious obsession of the New England colonists is also kept in mind by the persistence of Biblical names: Ezra, Hiram, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Elijah, Elihu, and so on. These names excite the derision of the English; an American comic character, in an English play or novel, always bears one of them. Again, the fashion of using surnames as given names is far more widespread in America than in England. In this country, indeed, it takes on the character of a national habit; fully three out of four eldest sons, in families of any consideration, bear their mothers’ surnames as middle names. This fashion arose in England during the seventeenth century, and one of its fruits was the adoption of such well-known surnames as Stanley, Cecil, Howard, Douglas and Duncan as common given names. It died out over there during the eighteenth century, and today the great majority of Englishmen bear such simple given names as John, Charles and William—often four or five of them— but in America it has persisted. A glance at a roster of the presidents of the United States will show how firmly it has taken root. Of the eleven that have had middle names at all, six have had middle names that were family surnames, and two of the six have dropped their other given names and used these surnames. This custom, perhaps, has paved the way for another: that of making given names of any proper nouns that happen to strike the fancy. Thus General Sherman was named after an Indian chief, Tecumseh, and a Chicago judge was baptized Kenesaw Mountain in memory of the battle that General Sherman fought there. A late candidate for governor of New York had the curious given name of D-Cady, and a late American ethnologist, McGee, always insisted that his first name was simply W J, and that these letters were not initials and should not be followed by periods. Various familiar American given names, originally surnames, are almost unknown in England, among them, Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Columbus and Lee. Chauncey forms a curious addition to the list. It was the surname of the second president of Harvard College, and was bestowed upon their offspring by numbers of his graduates. It then got into general use and acquired a typically American pronunciation, with the a of the first syllable flat. It is never encountered in England.

Americans, in general, manifest a much freer spirit in the invention of new given names than the English, who remain faithful, in the main, to the biblical and historical names. Dr. Louise Pound, that most alert observer of American speech-habits, lists some very curious coinages, among them the blends, Olouise (from Olive and Louise), Marjette (Marjorie+Henrietta), Maybeth (May+Elizabeth), Lunette (Luna+Nettie), Leilabeth (Leila+Elizabeth), Rosella (Rose+Bella), Adrielle (Adrienne+Belle), Birdene (Birdie+Pauline), Bethene (Elizabeth+Christine), Olabelle (Ola+Isabel), and Armina (Ardelia+Wilhelmina). Even surnames and men’s given names are employed in these feminine blends, as in Romiette (Romeo+Juliette), Adnelle (Addison+Nellie), Adelloyd (Addie+Lloyd), and Charline (Charles+Pauline). A woman professor in the Middle West has the given name of Eldarema, coined from those of her grandparents, Elkanah, Daniel, Rebecca and Mary. In some parts of the United States, particularly south of the Potomac, men’s given names are quite as fantastic. Hoke, Ollie and Champ are familiar to students of latter-day political history In the mountains of Tennessee one encounters such prodigies as Lute, Bink, Ott and Gin. The negroes, like the white immigrants, have a great liking for fancy given names. The old-time Janes, ’Lizas and Jinnies have almost disappeared. Among the ladies of color who have passed through my kitchen in Baltimore during the past twenty years have been Geneva, Nicholine, Leah, Celeste, Evelyn, Olivia, Blanche, Isabelle, Dellott, Irene and Violet.

In the pronunciation of various given names, as in that of many surnames, English and American usages differ. Evelyn, in England, is given two syllables instead of three, and the first is made to rhyme with leave. Irene is given three syllables, making it Irene-y. Ralph is pronounced Rafe. Jerome is accented on the first syllable; in America it is always accented on the second. In diminutives there are several differences. The English Jem is almost unknown in the United States and so are Hal and Alf. The English, on the other hand, seldom use Peggy, Teddy or Beth. In general there has been a tendency to drop diminutives. When I was a boy it was rare, at least in the South, to hear such names as Charles, William, Elizabeth, Frederick, Margaret and Lillian used in full, but now it is very common. This new custom, I believe, owes something to English example.