One of the most common and striking situations in which people will change their original names for new ones is the act, to a greater of lesser degree traumatic, of emigration and subsequent naturalization. A person leaves his or her native country for some reason – often driven out by war, persecution or destitution – and, arriving in another, where very likely a new language is spoken, officially or tacitly starts a new life, assumes a new identity, and takes on a new name to go with it. One of the greatest migrations in history was the mass emigration to America by around 35 million people from all parts of Europe between 1820 and 1930. In their flight from poverty, famine and persecution, inhabitants of Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia, Italy, the Balkans, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, many of them Jews, poured into America in the hope of setting up a new life in a country that seemed to offer refuge and opportunities. And when they eventually reached the immigrant depot at Ellis Island – ‘Heartbreak Island’ many of them called it, for fear of being denied entry – they were faced with a number of questions, of which the first was always, ‘What is your name?’
Immigrant names were a constant source of difficulty. Many of the newly arrived were barely literate and could not even spell their names, with the result that officials frequently simplified or anglicised them haphazardly. This meant that a number of immigrants left Ellis Island with a new name, perhaps not even realizing this, although many, especially the more literate, acquired a new name only in due course.
A well-known story about an ‘on-the-spot’ name change of this kind concerns a German Jew named Isaac. Confused by all the questioning, he replied, when asked his name, ‘Ich vergessen’ [I forget – in Yiddish]. The immigrant officer recorded his name as Fergusson.
Room, A. (1981), ‘Why Another Name?’, Naming Names, p.6–7
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