Would Kirk Douglas be a Hollywood legend if he had kept his birth name Issur Danielovitch? Would Bob Dylan have achieved global fame if he had kept his birth name Robert Zimmerman? Would the current Australian treasurer Joe Hockey have had an equally successful political career if his father had not anglicized the family surname from Hokeidonian to Hockey? It is, of course, impossible to know the answer to these questions but it is fair to assume that the answer to these questions is ‘not likely.’
Anglicizing stigmatized ethnic names is often considered typical of an earlier era of immigration when assimilation prevailed. In The American Language (first published in 1919) H. L. Mencken famously observed that European immigrants were likely to give up their distinctive names in America for ‘protective coloration’ in order to escape ‘linguistic hostility’ and ‘social enmity:’
[…] more important than this purely linguistic hostility, there is a deeper social enmity, and it urges the immigrant to change his name with even greater force. For a hundred years past all the heaviest and most degrading labor of the United States has been done by successive armies of foreigners, and so a concept of inferiority has come to be attached to mere foreignness. […] This disdain tends to pursue an immigrant with 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 discreditable – that it wars subtly upon his worth and integrity. […] The immigrant, in a time of extraordinary suspicion and difficulty, tried to get rid of at least one handicap. (Mencken 1919, p. 280)
A recent comparison of the earnings of European immigrants to the USA in the 1930s who did or did not Americanize their names has found that a name change during that period was indeed associated with earnings’ gains of at least 14% (Biavaschi et al., 2013).
But is all this of purely historical interest? How do ethnic names fare today after decades of multiculturalism and in a so-called age of super-diversity?
One thing that contemporary research has shown is that ethnic names continue to constitute a barrier at the point of entry into the job market; i.e. job applicants with ethnic names are less likely to receive a response or be invited for interview than candidates with non-ethnic names. For instance, a 2009 Australian study found that fictitious job applicants with Chinese, Middle Eastern and Indigenous names were less likely to be called back than those with identical CVs but Italian names. Fictitious candidates with Anglo-Saxon names had the highest call-back rate (Booth et al. 2009). A similar Western Australian study comparing accountant job applicants with Middle Eastern and Anglo-Saxon names reached similar conclusions (Pinkerton 2013) as did a German study with Turkish and German names (Schneider 2014).
Conversely, changing an ethnic name continues to pay off for some migrant groups as a 2009 Swedish study found: Middle Eastern and Slavic migrants to Sweden who changed their names in the 1990s obtained a substantial increase in labour earnings over similarly qualified migrants from the same origin groups who did not change their name to a Swedish or neutral name (a ‘neutral’ name is one that is not particularly associated with any particular ethnic or national group) (Arai & Skogman Thoursie, 2009).
These studies all focus on the point of entry into the labour market but we do not know much about how ethnic personal names are talked about in everyday life. Do ethnic personal names continue to matter for those who have established themselves? Do ethnic personal names attract disdain, rancor, enmity or crude burlesque in this day and age?
Questions such as these are usually difficult to research systematically but recent events in Australian politics have provided a perfect corpus of reactions to a non-Anglicized and strongly ethnic name, namely the Polish name Palaszczuk.
Annastacia Palaszczuk is a third-generation Australian who was thrown into the national spotlight last weekend as the leader of Queensland’s Australian Labour Party (ALP) and, in an unexpected election outcome, as the likely future state premier of Queensland.
To begin with, Annastacia Palaszczuk is living proof that it is possible to be successful in Australian politics with a non-Anglo name. She has held her electorate, the seat of Inala, a suburb of Brisbane, since 2006, and the name Palaszczuk must be a bit of household name there because Annastacia’s father Henry Palaszczuk preceded his daughter as the member for Inala and held the seat from 1992 to 2006.
However, outside Inala and certainly outside Queensland, Annastacia Palaszczuk was relatively unknown until last Saturday. In social media, her name became an immediate topic of comments and discussion. These comments provide us with a window into the discursive construction of belonging in contemporary Australia’s multicultural society and I hope someone will analyse this precious corpus systematically. A few preliminary observations include the following.
The predominant theme that emerged was around the difficulty of the name as in the following examples:
Might have to learn how to pronounce Palaszczuk at this rate. #qldvotes
— Tanya Ashworth (@ordinarytanya) January 31, 2015
The whole of Queensland just realised they’re going to have to learn to spell their new Premier’s name. #qldvotes
— A whole new Wes (@therevmountain) January 31, 2015
Solutions to the problem of pronouncing or spelling a difficult name were also offered, such as the following mnemonic or the suggestion to use a nickname instead:
— Andrew Casey (@AndrewSCasey) January 31, 2015
@therevmountain it's Queensland. They will give her a nickname
— ChristopherPatterson (@Christo45046444) January 31, 2015
Most of the comments related to the difficulty of the Palaszczuk name are good-humoured and self-deprecating. At the same time, the very fact that the name and its difficulty is topicalized points to the fact that for these commentators the name is still remarkable and noteworthy as one that does not index a ‘normal’ or ‘default’ imagined Australian identity. That legitimate belonging is tied to the name becomes even clearer in comments that exaggerate the difficulty of the name through intentional misspellings, silly syllable counts or suggestions that it will be impossible to learn:
|Luke Bradnam (@LukeBradnam)|
|31/01/2015 23:09Can’t believe Amanda Palacxzhksxshay is looking likely to be our new Premier #qldvotes|
|Andy Procopis (@AndyProcopis)|
|31/01/2015 23:21Why is it taking so long to name @AnnastaciaMP as QLD’s new premier? Because her name has about 17,656 syllables. #qldvotes #auspol|
— Nathan Kneen (@nathankneen) January 31, 2015
And then there are the passive-aggressive comments about her name such as this one:
Cate: Dear Annastacia Palaszczuk,
Can we call you Anna? or do you prefer AP? (Couriermail)
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t
While comments such as the above are concerned with belonging in Australia, another theme can be observed around authenticity and the fact that the name is not pronounced in the original Polish fashion. Annastacia and her family apparently pronounce their name /ˌpælǝ’ʒeɪ/, as do the Australian media. Commentators were quick to exhort ‘us’ (i.e. the Australian public) or Annastacia herself to learn how to pronounce her name ‘correctly:’
— Marcus Kuczynski (@cuscus1) February 1, 2015
— Mitch (@HEELAussie) February 2, 2015
Wendy2: Well you don’t pronounce her name Pala-shay to begin with. Why does everyone do that? Has the media been given notes telling them to pronounce it that way? Palaszczuk being a Polish name would be pronounced Palaz-chook. I can’t imagine why Ms. Palaszczuk would not want to use the traditional pronounciation of her family name, some may even suggest a sort of cultural cringe. It makes me think of Keeping Up Appearances’ snobbish character Hyancinth Bucket who insisted on her surname being pronounced Bouquet. How facile and false. (Couriermail)
What’s in a name?
We’ve come a long way since H. L. Mencken’s time when having a non-Anglo name laid migrants open to rancour, disdain, enmity and crude burlesque. Or have we?
Annastacia Palaszczuk and her father have been successful in Queensland politics since 1992. So, after taking the entry barrier, clearly a lot is possible for bearers of a non-Anglo name. At the same time, the chatter about Annastacia Palaszczuk’s name that could be observed on social media in the last few days also demonstrates that a non-Anglo name continues to ‘raise difficulties’ in contemporary Australia. Beyond being remarkable and noteworthy, such names also continue to be the target of cheap jokes and insults.
The latter seem to come more frequently from anonymous commentators in the comments’ sections of newspapers than from identifiable tweeters. This would suggest that there are two forms of stigma now: having a strong ethnic name continues to carry some stigma but openly questioning the legitimacy of its bearer now attracts stigma, too.
Arai, M., & Skogman Thoursie, P. (2009). Renouncing Personal Names: An Empirical Examination of Surname Change and Earnings Journal of Labor Economics, 27 (1), 127-147 DOI: 10.1086/593964