Post # 417 WHAT’S (WHO’S) IN A NAME

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Shakespeare (17th Century) Romeo & Juliet, Act 2, Scene2. “A rose, is a rose, is a rose.” Gertrude Stein (1933).

As a brief respite from the frustrating news of the day, we have elected to power up the time machine, for another sojourn to the 1940’s-50’s world, of the Eastern European Immigrant, recently settled in an exotic, unfamiliar venue, the East New York section of Brooklyn, N.Y. ( U.S.A.) Previous like visits, have dealt with their limited degree of success, in prematurely, trying and failing, to Americanize; such grand and unobtainable goal, being realizable, as a practical matter, no earlier than the next generation. Our writings, on the subject, note the endless number of mandatory adjustments, and the plethora of concerns, relevant to this multi-cultural, international polyglot of humanity; transplanted, at long last, to safety, but nevertheless, retaining, ( eternally, their plight), the feelings of strangers, in a foreign land.

Mercifully, there were no pogroms in the new country, but, there were, trolley cars, traffic lights, elevated trains, automobiles, movie theaters, telephones, unfamiliar foods, and most significantly, an unfamiliar language. As observed, in prior essays, language difficulties as between emigrants from varied national backgrounds, led to the necessity to use Yiddish, as a lingua franca, and at times, usein a nuanced style, which has recently, been acceptedly recognized, in the somewhat popular term, “Yinglish.”

In this transient setting, we are selecting for discussion, one of the most problematic phenomena, the byzantine complications involved in the naming of a newly born child. It might, somewhat further understanding, to be made aware (or, in some cases, reminded) of the folkways, expectations and cultural traditions, attendant upon baby naming, which, in the case of European-Jewish Immigrants, evince a great many eras of ethnic replication.

Many of our readers may be aware of the ethnically, traditional practice, of naming a newborn, after a revered, deceased relative. The practice, while consistent and expected, is not, to our knowledge, founded upon religious law, but is followed, so to speak, “religiously.” Jews, worldwide, never fully accepted in their country of birth or residence, ( for example, Russia), had more than one name; perhaps an official Russian name, but as well a Biblical Hebrew, or a Yiddish name. In the company of other Jews, the Yiddish name, and language, would customarily be employed. A further complicating factor, was the common use of the Yiddish name, as well, in an informal, diminutive, or endearing form. Thus, Igor, born in Russia, might have the Yiddish, Biblical name, David, (“Duvid, in Yiddish) the diminutive of which might be “Duvidl.” The daughter, Rachel, “Ruchel”, in Yiddish,” the diminutive of which might be (phon.) “Rucchalleh.” Her Russian name might have officially, been Sonya. The brother might have the Russian name, Boris, his Yiddish name, “Berel”, the diminutive, “Beralleh”.  It would appear uncomplicated, in the chosen illustrative, cases, to name the American born progeny of such deceased, forebears, “David”,” Rachel” and “Barry,” but things, unfortunately, were too complex for such simple resolution.

To make matters dicier, many members of this ethnic persuasion, bore middle names, which might have been selected, in honor of other deceased relatives, who were not chosen to be memorialized in their first name. In a great many cases, as a further challenge to the uninitiated, the most familiar reference, in casual conversation, was often to the diminutive form, of that middle name.

Now, let us steel our resolve, for the truly Herculean task, of attempting to import, this byzantine, naming tradition, to the New World, specifically, to the subject, 1940’s-50’s Brooklyn, New York. [Please fasten seat belts for the bumpy ride.].

We have observed the impatient desire of this immigrant group, to assimilate and (while maintaining their own religious traditions and beliefs) become fully a part of the American mainstream. Accordingly, their newly born, American children, were given American first names, or in the case of the rare, ambitious desire to aspire to phonetic heights, a British first name. In rare cases, the original, foreign first name, was retained, such as “Dora”, or “Boris,”, if they were seen as unremarkable, in the new culture.

The amicable contest, among the group of natural parents, and the child’s (new) grandparents, as to the selection of the newborn’s name, conceivably, was no different than in the case of the non-immigrant situation. Once a side in the debate gained the day, a new problem, of the prevailing immigrant grandparents, ensued, as to which, deceased relative, would be honored, by the replication of his Hebrew or Yiddish name.

The first letter sound, of the Yiddish name, was normally a guide to the choice of the American name, in an agreed upon, lingual metamorphosis. If the selected European forebear was named, “Avrum” the newborn (retaining for life, his Yiddish name “Avrum,”) might be given the new world name, “Allen.” His expected middle name would, also be taken from a deceased relative (perhaps, on the familial side of the other grandparents); who’s foreign name might be “Mischa”, and thereafter, bear the Yiddish middle name, “Michale”, the diminutive name” “Michaleh,” and the American middle name, “Michael.” Within the interactive life of the ethnos, these Yiddish names would be treated, as permanent and official, as the New York Department of Health Birth Certificate, which would legally, list his first two (given) names as “Allen,” and “Michael.”

In the lives and perceived status, of young male members, within the neighborhood group, the most impactful, was his Street Name. This name, arbitrarily selected by the reigning big kid, in the neighborhood, could be benign, critically descriptive, or, actually, cruel. A neighborhood kid’s name was, in most cases, permanently adopted, in the all-important, street genre of the “guys”. It defined his permanent, public persona, often without justice or basis. One was lucky to be awarded a street name, as often was the case, which was harmlessly founded, on his English, or Yiddish name, for example, a Stewart, might be called “Stew,” ”Stewie.”  “Mike” could be harmlessly, called, “Mikey.” However, a hapless, “Richard,” was eternally, and cruelly, called, “Dick,” regardless of how amiable he was.

The permutations and combinations of the use of ( one of) a kid’s names, appeared to be infinite, depending upon the creativity and inclination, of the authoritative “big” guys. A remembered example of a neighborhood boy, having being assigned, by his aspirational, immigrant parents, the British name, “Sherwin,” was awarded and obliged to bear, the meaningless and euphonious, moniker, of “Geenzie.” Some street names, like the latter, were completely meaningless, and bore no attribution to any of his actual names. Thus, we had,  ”Juice”  “Natty,” “Jitty,” ”Fuzz,” “Stymie,” “Otto,” “the Hyme,” as well as, “Stevo,” “Jo-Jo,” and an entire menagerie of, arbitrary and fanciful, denominative references.

A great many street names in time, underwent (non-Darwinian) evolution. The street evolutionary etiology concerning one of the names, listed above, may be enlightening, as to the procedural dynamics, of street name evolution. In the relevant neighborhood, there were, problematically, two boys, named,  “Jerry.” The wise and august neighborhood savants, creatively, and brilliantly, settled upon the distinguishing names, “Little Jerry” and “Big Jerry.” Repeated use over time, led to an edited, compact version, of “LittleJerry” to the creative iteration of the name, “ Jittlelerry;” an unlimited inclination towards further aesthetic creativity, led to the morphing of “Jittlelerry”, finally, to “Jitty.”

The great Elizabethan Bard asked, “What’s in a name?” to which we would promptly, and humbly, reply,” it all depends upon, who you ask.”

We would, respectfully, leave the memorable, Gertrude Stein, to her beloved, multi- repetitive and incomparable roses, without final comment.


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Retired from the practice of law'; former Editor in Chief of Law Review; Phi Beta Kappa; Poet. Essayist Literature Student and enthusiast.

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