Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

On things that really hurt

I have managed two rather painful and absurd injuries today. One, at church this morning I hurt my foot and ankle doing cartwheels. Inside the church. Because one of the other kids was doing it and it looked like fun. Because I am in no way an adult who discourages children from doing cartwheels in church.
Also, I just smacked Jeremy and hurt my arm in the process. And then he apologized for my having hurt myself smacking him. Believe me, he deserved it. I think. The pain has made me forget what it is he did.
Neither of which has anything to do with Ellis Island and the things that didn't go on there. What didn't go on there, you ask? Name-changing, according to David Wilton's Word Myths. Immigration officials were forbidden from changing anybody's name because it presented a security risk, letting people into the country under assumed names. Immigration officials looked at a ship's manifest, then confirmed the names with the passengers who came ashore.
Not Ellis, or any other island

The story is that the officials at Ellis Island often didn't speak the language of the immigrants and couldn't understand what they said, so they'd just write down whatever they felt like. The reality is that these officials were often immigrants themselves, selected for their positions because they were fluent in both English and the language of whatever group of immigrants they were charged with processing.
That seems impossible; everybody knows somebody whose names were changed at Ellis Island. O'Rourkes became Roaches. Goldsteins became Golds. Schwartzs became Blacks, and so on. Often, it was the immigrant family themselves who changed the name - to better fit in, to make it easier to spell, to make it easier to pronounce, to hide their true ethnicity. 
So how did Ellis Island get the blame? According to Wilton, people often used "at Ellis Island" to mean "when our family first came to America"; sort of like how we say "at the turn of the century" even when we aren't referring to something that happened at midnight in the year 1900. Or 1901, depending how touchy you are about the technicality. Because have you noticed that when we use the expression "turn of the century," we're nearly always referring to the turn of the last century? Nobody says "turn of the century" to refer to things that happened around Y2K. But I digress. 
In Made in America, Bill Bryson tells us that Hollywood was very fond of changing the names of their stars "because they were too dull, to exotic, not exotic enough, too long, too short, too ethnic, or too Jewish." 
For example, John Wayne was born Marion Morrison. For his first Western, the director wanted to give him a more rugged name and suggested Anthony Wayne. The studio, however, thought Anthony sounded too Italian, so the director and studio exec agreed on John Wayne. According to Wikipedia, John Wayne wasn't even present for his renaming. 
Judy Garland was born Frances Gumm, which sounds like the name of a particularly dull Hufflepuff at Hogwarts, or perhaps some faceless bureaucrat at the Ministry of Magic. And it was a lot less acceptable to be a wizard at the time, so studio execs decided to pass her off as a mere Muggle.
Bill Bryson says that the first actress known to have changed her name to better fit her image was Theodosia Goodman. Back in 1914, the studio thought she needed an exotic name to fit her exotic looks, so they came up with Theda Bara, an anagram for the words Arab and death
Boris Karloff would likely have been a bit less intimidating had he not changed his name from William Pratt. It may have been difficult to sell Veronica Lake as a sex symbol if she'd stuck with Constance Ockleman. Clifton Webb fits a lot better on a marquee than does Webb Parmelee Hollenbeck. And Walter Matthau might not have been such a household name if people had to try and pronounce Walter Mattaschanskayasky. Of course, tell that last bit to Zach  Galifianakis (who introduced himself at the Oscars as Zach Gabisivinathis, which is the name that always comes out of my mouth when I try to say Galifianakis).
Incidentally, Britney Spears was born Britney Spears, but her name is an anagram for Presbyterian, which are both anagrams for best in prayer.
My name is an anagram for Bard Cyborg Kiwi, for what it's worth. I do not think I will use that as my stage name.
So what's your stage name?


Anthony said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anthony said...

One of my name's anagrams is Humanity Born Angel. Which is too pretentious even for a stage name.

Brigid Daull Brockway said...