H.L. Mencken (18801956). The American Language. 1921.
extraordinary rancor when he bears a name that is unmistakably foreign and hence difficult to the native, and open to his crude burlesque. Moreover, the general feeling penetrates the man himself, particularly if he be ignorant, and he comes to believe that his name is not only a handicap, but also intrinsically discreditablethat it wars subtly upon his worth and integrity.27 This feeling, perhaps, accounted for a good many changes of surnames among Germans and Jews of German name upon the entrance of the United States into the war. But in the majority of cases, of course, the changes so copiously reportede. g., from Bielefelder to Benson, and from Pulvermacher to Pullmanwere merely efforts at protective coloration. The immigrant, in a time of extraordinary suspicion and difficulty, tried to get rid of at least one handicap.28
This motive constantly appears among the Jews, who face an anti-Semitism that is imperfectly concealed and may be expected to grow stronger hereafter. Once they have lost the faith of their fathers, a phenomenon almost inevitable in the first native-born generation, they shrink from all the disadvantages that go with Jewishness, and seek to conceal their origin, or, at all events, to avoid
Note 27.Cf. Reaction to Personal Names, by Dr. C. P. Oberndorf, Psychoanalytic Review, vol. v. no. 1, January, 1918, p. 47 et seq. This, so far as I know, is the only article in English which deals with the psychological effects of surnames upon their bearers. Abraham, Silberer and other German psychoanalysts have made contributions to the subject. Dr. Oberndorf alludes, incidentally, to the positive social prestige which goes with an English air or a French air in America. He tells of an Italian who changed his patronymic of Dipucci into de Pucci to make it more aristocratic. And of a German bearing the genuinely aristocratic name of von Landsschaffshausen who changed it to a typically English name because the latter seemed more distinguished to his neighbors. Why is a French surname regarded as aristocratic in America? The question has never been investigated. [back]
Note 28. The effects of race antagonism upon language are still to be investigated. The etymology of slave indicates that the inquiry might yield interesting results. The word French, in English, is largely used to suggest sexual perversion. In German anything Russian is barbarous, and English education hints at flagellation. The French, for many years, called a certain contraband appliance a capote Anglaise, but after the entente cordiale they changed the name to capote Allemande. The common English name to this day is French letter. Cf. The Criminal, by Havelock Ellis; London, 1910, p. 208. In France a sharper is called a Greek, as drunk as a Pole is a common phrase, and one of the mainstays of low comedy is le truc du brésilien. See Xenophobia, by Rufino Blanco-Fombona, in his La Lámpara de Aladino, pp. 431440. In most of the non-Prussian parts of Germany cockroaches are called Preussen; in Prussia they are Franzosen; in some places they are Schwaben. [back]