Thursday, 26 February 2015

What's in a name?

When I was growing up in Adelaide I was well aware that some Lithuanian DP families had shortened their surnames after arrival in Australia in order to make them easier to pronounce in a society and culture dominated by English speakers. For example:
  • Stasiškis became Statkus;
  • Vasiliauskas became Vaskas;
  • Venslovavičius became Vens.
First name simplifications (Antanas to Anton, Pranas to Frank, etc) were even more common. I went through the Australian educational system being known as John rather than Jonas. It was only later that I realised there was also an economic dimension to such name changes; your competitiveness in the jobs marketplace is improved if you have a more local-sounding name.

What was also clear was the fact that many families chose not to dilute their identity and used their 'difficult' Lithuanian names in both the confines of the Lithuanian community and in wider society.


Early Lithuanians and name changes

As with the DPs, many of their predecessors also chose to simplify or anglicise their names. Some did so in Australia, others while they were resident in Britain, North America or elsewhere before arrival in Australia:
Kazys (Key) and Jadvyga Brazauskas (Braz), Sydney
 (source: Metrastis No. 1)

  • Stasys Žygas became Stanley Zygas;
  • Aisikas Segalis became Isaac Segal; and
  • Kazys Brazauskas became Key Braz.

However, the pattern of name changes for early Lithuanians seems broader. There was likely more pressure on them to assimilate or disguise their cultural identity:
  • Jonas Vedrinaitis became John Wedrien;
  • Zigmas Baltrušaitis became Sid Bolt.
Jonas Vedrinaitis/John Wedrien, Sydney
(source: Metrastis No.1)

Others made more wholesale changes:
  • Jonas Zeleniakas became John Green;
  • Kazys Astrauskas became Charles Ashe;
  • Juozas Plaušinis became Joe Miller;
  • Zale Zapolski became Levi Zalman;
  • Lozoraitis became Brown, Petraitis became Patrick, Ruzga became Ross.

Further complications for the amateur historian arise when people are known by or use several variations of a surname, for example:
  • Piliulis/Paliulis/Phillules;
  • Mikėnas/Makeness/Mekenass;
  • Čepkauskas/Capouski/Cepkouski.

Also, even without simplified or anglicised names, some people alternated their names depending on the cultural context they were in:
  • Max Lipschus (a german name) from Memel/Klaipeda was known to the Lithuanian community as Maksas Lipšius;
  • Stanislaus Urniarz (a polish name) from Vilnius was known as Stasys Urniežius.

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