Wednesday, December 8, 2010

On 'English' Names

A comment that LOZ made on a different posting led me to this one--the use of "English" or "outside" names. One of the reasons for Klal's continuance is that we didn't change our names to blend into the nations where we found ourselves--Moshe ben Tzvi or Sorah bas Tzvi was a person's "real" name and we didn't lose that practice. However.........in many places and at many times Jews have had and still do have additional "working" names that many parents give their children. Call them "IRS" names if you will.

Some people will take the Hebrew name of their child and give it an anglicized spelling--thus Avraham may become Abraham on the birth certificate. Some will have the anglicized spelling completely follow the Hebrew name, so you'll see Avraham written out on the birth certificate. Some will look at the Hebrew name and see a problem for the future because of the nature of the phonetic spelling of the Hebrew name--let's say Chaya or Yechezkle (native English speakers have problems with pronouncing a chet)--and so they give a somewhat related, at least by some sounds, English name for government reporting purposes.Some Hebrew names are difficult for non-Hebrew speakers to pronounce: Nechemiah for example. We have a nephew, born in Richmond, Virginia, who was called by "outsiders" as Ne-keh-MIYah or Ne-KEE-mee-ah.

Now granted, "ethnic" names are now visible all over, but there are some parents who worry that an obviously ethnic name might be problematic in the future; someone may decide to accept or decline their child's application--whether to university or to a job--based on pre-conceptions about an ethnic name.

Then there is this: some parents are naming their children after others, feel the need to give that name, but are not enamored of the name. Perhaps the name is a Yiddish one, like Shprintze or Faigel or Hertz, and they want to give their kids options for how to call themselves in the outside world.

Some of us in the older generations who immigrated to the US got our English names thanks to the immigration officials when we arrived--something, by the way, that the immigration department kept denying but was so obviously done. Otherwise, how would an Usher Yaakov end up as Eugene, or a Liba as Lydia or a Faygie as Frances?

Every once in a while someone decides to make an issue of this giving of English names. My feeling? What, we don't have enough other important things to worry about that this, too, needs to be put on the agenda? Yes, we have to give our kids Hebrew names and we have to use them for certain Jewish purposes. But we might also consider that there might be reasons for having an easily pronounced English name as well. I had a friend when I was younger whose given Hebrew name was Tzirel Basha. You can't begin to imagine how many mispronunciations and misspellings of her name she suffered through while younger. When she got married she legally adopted a plain, simple English name to use at work.

Each to their own.

10 comments:

efrex said...

People are ignorant fools. Most allegedly "Jewish" names are completely non-Jewish in origin. One of my favorite pieces of "Purim torah:" how come nobody in Persia knew that their queen was Jewish when her name was Esther? Depressingly, I've had several yeshiva boys spend time trying to work this one out. Funny you should list Shprintze as a Jewish name: it almost certainly shares a source with the Spanish Esperanza (hope).

German Jews actually had a separate ceremony called chol-kreish in which the child was given his secular name.

This is, I think, another example of people deifying midrash (the one about how the Jews in Egypt kept their clothes, language, and names separate) at the expense of common sense.

Tuvi said...

Great piece of Purim Torah Efrex. Going to remember that one and use it if you don't mind.

Just keep in mind that some of those English names came out of Hebrew to begin with, a lot taken from Chumash. They were then latinized and finally anglicized. What is Simon if not Shimon, and John if not Yonah or Yonatan?

Kew Gardener said...

There was a rabbi who wrote to Rav Moshe trying to argue that it's utterly prohibited to give your child a non-Jewish name. Rav Moshe writes back to him "dear rabbi so-and-so, who seeks to fix our generation ..."

As you said here; we have bigger things to worry about!

Anonymous said...

Ethnic names are becoming more and more common in the U.S. so there is far less of a stigma - real or perceived, although the spelling challenges remain. What can also be a problem by using a name that is unfamiliar to the listener/recipient is having to guess the gender. In the U.S., a lot of people will assume that a name ending in "y" "i" or "ie" is belongs to a female. So, a Mendy, Yossi or Gavi or Gabby might get a Dear Ms. or Dear Miss, and then the sender will be embarassed when learning the true gender.

ProfK said...

Business writing usage today addresses that problem you mention Anon 11:37. When you are in any doubt about the gender of the person to whom you are writing, you don't address the letter to either Mr. or Ms. but address the letter to the full name--Dear Mendy Shwartz.

tesyaa said...

Mendy, Yossi, and Gavi are almost certainly nicknames and shouldn't be used for formal correspondence anyway - I'm sure they have "real" names such as Mendel, Yosef, and Gavriel.

There are some names that are legitimately confusing - Elisha is a male's name in Hebrew and sometimes a female's name in English. And Simcha is sometimes used for both males and females. But in English names the same problem exists with names like Robin and Dale, and no one freaks out about it.

Miami Al said...

Ethnic names are actually on the decline in America. It follows immigration patterns.

First generation immigrants tend to give their children "traditional" names, their children trend toward Anglicized names, and the following generation tries to merge it with traditional practices.

The use of pure Spanish names has been on a statistical decline the past few years.

Love the Queen Esther issue...

So funny story... discussing the name Alexander with a friend from school. She gave her son the middle name Alexander, which made her father VERY happy. He told her that he was so happy that she went with a traditional Egyptian name (her parents are Egyptian Muslims, FYI)...

Names borrow and switch as people move around. Hence Ashkenazi is a Sephardic name, etc.

Dave said...

Alexander made it into Jewish names as well, as Sender.

And Kalmen is from the Greek Kalonymous.

Sima said...

BTW, the "goyish" name Jessica comes from yiska.

LoZ said...

SIMA:

well i don't want to go off on a tangential rant, but . . .

ask all the day school grads you know to identify yiska.