Jun 172009

Origins need special attention when you’re leaning to speak ‘merican.

I was in a restaurant where my server was wearing green clothes, a shamrock necklace and sporting a name badge saying ‘Kelly’. ‘Kelly’, I said. ‘You must be Irish’. ‘Why, yes’, she said with smiling eyes, so I asked where she was from.

It turned out that Kelly had been born locally and had never actually been to Ireland, but many years ago one of Kelly’s great, great, great (and maybe another ‘great’ or two) grandparents had immigrated from Ireland to the US. So Kelly felt herself to be Irish. Truth is I think I might have more Irish blood in me than Kelly but it has never occurred to me to think of myself as Irish.

This attention to origins means surnames carry extra meaning here. I’m not sure it works for ‘African American’ because I believe many slaves were given the name of the slave owner, but many surnames signal things like ‘Irish American’, ‘Jewish American’,  ‘Polish American’ and  ‘Italian American’.

codeI don’t fully understand all the connotations that come with the labels, but people seem to look at each other’s surnames and employ them to identify connections and make assumptions. I think they might be rather like old school ties in the UK and there’s a secret code operating beneath the surface here.

 Posted by at 3:15 pm

  2 Responses to “The surname code”

  1. Hi Vicki! You are so right… I don’t know how many times I heard growing up about how we had an English name and a town somewhere in England with the name (I’ve found that it is in Lancashire). It seems that many of us Americans wear our surnames with pride!

  2. Thank you so much for visiting, Holly!
    Well, I’m not that surprised to learn you’re a Lancashire Lass at heart. They’ve had songs, plays and books written about them – an inspiration to all.

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