H.L. Mencken (18801956). The American Language. 1921.
much as asparagus has become sparrow-grass. So, too, the Wittenachts of Boyle county, Kentucky, descendants of a Hollander, have become Whitenecks, and the Lehns of lower Pennsylvania, descendants of some far-off German, have become Lanes.11 The original Herkimer in New York was a Herchheimer; the original Waldo in New England was a German named Waldow. Edgar Allan Poe was a member of a family long settled in Western Maryland, the founder being one Poh or Pfau, a native of the Palatinate. Major George Armistead, who defended Fort McHenry in 1814, when Francis Scott Key wrote The Star-Spangled Banner, was the descendant of an Armstädt who came to Virginia from Hesse-Darmstadt. General George A. Custer, the Indian fighter, was the great-grandson of one Küster, a Hessian soldier paroled after Burgoynes surrender. William Wirt, anti-Masonic candidate for the presidency in 1832, was the son of one Wörth. William Paca, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was the great-grandson of a Bohemian named Paka. General J. J. Pershing is the descendant of an Alsatian named Pfoersching, who immigrated to America in the eighteenth century; the name was at first debased to Pershin; in 1838 the final g was restored. General W. S. Rosecrans was really a Rosenkrantz. Even the surname of Abraham Lincoln, according to some authorities, was an anglicized form of the German Linkhorn.12
Such changes, in fact, are almost innumerable; every work upon American genealogy is full of examples. The first foreign names to undergo the process were Dutch and French. Among the former, Reiger was debased to Riker, Van de Veer to Vandiver, Van Huys to Vannice, Van Siegel to Van Sickel, Van Arsdale to Vannersdale, and Haerlen (or Haerlem) to Harlan;13 among the latter, Petit became Poteet, Caillé changed to Kyle, De la Haye to Dillehay, Dejean to Deshong, Guizor to Gossett, Guereant to Caron, Soulé to Sewell, Gervaise to Jarvis, Bayle to Bailey, Fontaine to Fountain,
Note 11. Harriet Lane Johnston was of this family. Many other examples are to be found in the pages of the Pennsylvania-German Magazine, especially in the Meaning of Names department conducted by Dr. Leonard Felix Fuld. [back]
Note 12.Cf. Faust, op. cit., vol. ii, pp. 1834. See also A Few Bausman Letters, by Lottie M. Bausman, Pennsylvania-German Magazine, April, 1910, p. 229. [back]
Note 13. A Tragedy of Surnames, by Fayette Dunlap, Dialect Notes, vol. iv, pt. 1, 1913, pp. 78. [back]