More on names, assimilation, and American identity
thinks I blew it with my criticism of Reuel Marc Gerecht over his unpronouncible name. Here is our exchange.
Correspondent to LA:
In your insistence that there’s something wrong with Mr. Gerecht’s name (which, by the way, is “Reuel Marc Gerecht,” not “Mark Reuel Gerecht”), I think you have failed to pick your fights prudently.
You started with the suspicion that Gerecht was foreign born (even though his name strikes me as a pretty simple German-American name), and when that turned out to be incorrect, instead of saying “Oh, that’s different; never mind,” have been trying to suggest that the man’s name is somehow indicative of insufficient assimilation.
Are you seriously suggesting that, since the officials at Ellis Island failed to anglicize the name of Gerecht’s immigrant ancestors, he needs to do it himself to be taken seriously? Or is your problem with his given name of Reuel (the name of Moses’s father-in-law and various other biblical figures, and one which Gerecht shares with J.R.R. Tolkien)? I would be surprised to hear that you thought that biblical names were somehow not “real” American names. After all, there is a pretty long-standing tradition in our country of giving people exotic Old Testament names. (Just to mention a few bearers of such names who have served in Congress or the President’s cabinet: Caleb Cushing, Elihu Root, Levi Lincoln, Mahlon Dickerson, Hiram Johnson, Josiah Bartlett, Uriah Tracy, Eleazar Wheelock Ripley, Eliphalet Dyer, Elizur Goodrich, Uriel Holmes, Zephaniah Swift, Lemuel Whitman, and Zadok Casey.)
But what’s really far-fetched is that idea that the names a man was given by or inherited from his parents are somehow indicative that he is not a fully assimilated American, or that he hasn’t adapted to our culture. I named my daughter “Zelie” (after the mother of St. Therese of Lisieux), and I dread to think that her first name, combined with her French/Irish last name, would cause anyone to discount her observations on public affairs if she should grow up to be a pundit. Similarly, can we discount the Frelinghuysens of New Jersey, Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa of California, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, John Sununu of New Hampshire, Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, James Abourezk of South Dakota, Tony Coelho of California, or Roman Hruska of Nebraska, because of their names, even if they are “foreign, unrecognizable, [or] unpronouncible for an American English speaker”—and in many cases at least as unpronouncible as that of Reuel Marc Gerecht? (And that’s not even mentioning more obscure Members of Congress, like Edwin Van Wyck Zschau (R-Calif., 1983-86).
I have no quarrel with you on the proposition that people ought to assimilate to American culture, but I’d thought we’d gotten past the idea that a foreign name is a sign that its bearer isn’t “really” American.
Besides which, a biblical first name, a French middle name, and a German last name is, all things considered, really not very exotic at all.
LA to correspondent:
Thank you for writing. I knew I was sticking my neck out on this one, and I expected a fair amount of criticism.
Unfortunately, you seem to have misunderstood my point. I was not complaining about all names that are not perfectly Anglo-form. My complaint is with the fact that the letter combinations that make up the name Reuel do not correspond to any recognizable or pronouncible sounds in our language. Is it “Rehuhl”? “Rooel” “Rel”? “Ral”? Or is it perhaps a German name, to be pronounced “Royal”?
I did look up the name and found it in the Old Testament. So it’s not German but Hebrew. However, all other English transliterations of Hebrew names in the King James Bible are pronouncible in English, including the list of names you provide. The pronunciation of “Reuel” remains a mystery. So it’s an anomaly. Its mere presence in the King James does not assimilate it to the English language.
Also, all the names that you list of historical Americans with biblical names and of modern U.S. politicians with ethnic names are pronouncible. The name of Sen. Inouye may have been a puzzle for a moment, but as Inouye is a politician, one heard his name frequently, and so knew how it was pronounced, and besides, the only adjustment needed is to prounounce the “y” in his name as a “w”. Hruska is a bit strange, but the “h” is simply silent, and the mystery is solved. “Hayakawa,” “Frelinghuysen,” and so forth consist of letter combinations that are readily pronouncible in English. Not so “Reuel.”
The bottom line is, one looks at this name appearing in the by-line of an article and hasn’t the slightest notion of how to pronounce it. It is strange and foreign looking, and does not correspond with any familiar sound in our language. To impose such a name on one’s readers, without even giving them a notion of how it is to be pronounced, is offensive in my opinion. It is not respectful to the common language of our country.
Furthermore, while the modern politicians you’ve listed have ethnic, non-Anglo surnames, they have familiar, English first names such as Samuel, Daniel, John, Paul, James, and Anthony. It is understandable that people’s family names will be more foreign depending on their background, but first names are generally chosen to fit the culture of one’s country. Thus Daniel Inouye or Samuel Hayakawa. Does the first name “Reuel” strike you as remotely an American name? Or will you say—you almost seem to be saying it—that there is no such thing as an American name, that all names are equally American?
Also, as I explained, Gerecht appears to have been raised in the Midwest and is probably not an immigrant. However, I believe that if people, whatever their background, want to participate in the mainstream culture of our country they ought to assimilate to it, including its language. If that means making adjustments in the spelling of one’s name, so be it.
Lots of people change their name. The given name of my father, whose parents had immigrated to this country from Eastern Poland, was Israel. In high school, in order to fit more into America, he changed his name to Irving, a common Anglo-Saxon surname that many Jewish men of his generation had as their first name. The original name of Kirk Douglas, born in the same generation as my father, was Issur Danielovich. Should he have sought an acting career, or any prominent mainstream career, in America with such a foreign name, or did it make more sense to adopt a name that fit the language and culture of this country?
Another political writer with an unpronouncible first name is Srdja Trifkovic. I wrote to him once asking how his first name was to be pronounced. He told me “serd-yuh.” Thereafter, whenever I have mentioned him at VFR, I have included a parenthetical comment, “(pronounced ‘serd-yuh’),” after his first name. This accomplishes two things. It helps readers make sense of a name that, with its absence of vowels, is opaque and indecipherable to English speakers. And it points to the fact that Trifkovic, who publishes at the paleoconservative magazine Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, presents a name to his fellow American readers in a spelling that they won’t be able to pronounce. This does not show much respect for the language and common culture of our country, which Chronicles supposedly champions. There is an alternative form of Srdja, Serge, which Trifkovic has used occasionally, but he continues to use Srdja as his main name.
Thanks again for writing.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 22, 2005 10:03 PM | Send