Ellis Island in perpetuity

Tl;dr: When speaking about a Greek male, use his name including the final “s” in his name. When speaking to a Greek male, address him by omitting the final “s” in his name. When you ask a Greek male “What’s your name?”, expect him to include the final ”s” in his name. When you ask a Greek male “What do they call you?”, expect him to omit the final “s” in his name. All these rules follow from the Greek language grammar and are valid for both first and last names.

I think that you must be very puzzled after reading the title and the abstract (tl;dr). What does Ellis Island, perpetuity, and some obscure Greek grammar rules about name calling have to do with each other?

Well, let me explain.

When I watch American movies or American TV series, I sometimes look at the credits. And sometimes I find Greek names there. And other times I find names that might as well be Greek, but I am not sure. Obviously, Greek names are spelled according to the grammatical rules of the Greek language. If I find small discrepancies and deviations from the Greek grammar in a name, I cannot be 100% sure this is a Greek name.

But I have a theory as to why some of these names, that might be Greek, actually are.

Let me use an example. Suppose I watch a movie and in the credits I see the name “John Athanasio”. In such a case, I immediately start shouting: “Ellis Island! Ellis Island!”. Why do I do that and what do I mean?

To cut a long story short, I make the assumption that in the old days, a Greek person whose first name was “Athanasios” came to America crossing the ocean in a boat, being miserable, tired and malnourished. Before arriving at the States, he was taken to Ellis Island to be examined and to be given new identification papers.

Athanasios, unable to speak the English language, barely understood what was happening around him. At some point, the officers there wanted to provide him with identification papers, in order to release him to New York, his new home.

So, they the officers called an officer or interpreter who spoke Greek, to help them communicate with Athanasios.

Perhaps, there was no officer there who actually spoke Greek. There might have been someone there who only knew how to formulate the most basic questions in Greek.

Anyway, the translator would try to communicate with Athanasios. So, what would the translator ask Athanasios? The translator would first ask for Athanasios’ name.

Well, here we have a problem. How would the translator ask Athanasios about his name?

He could ask Athanasios in Greek: “What’s your name”. Or he could ask Athanasios in Greek: “What do they call you?”.

In English, the most common phrase to ask for the other person’s name is “What’s your name”. If Athanasios was literally asked that in Greek, he would answer “Athanasios”.

In Greek, the most common phrase to ask for the other person’s name is “What do they call you?”. If Athanasios was literally asked that in Greek, he would answer “Athanasio”. Please note the omission of the final “s”.

I assume that the translator had asked a Greek person how to say “What’s your name”. The Greek person told him to say “What do they call you?”. This answer is correct in the respect that, the most common way to say that in English is translated to the most common way to say that in Greek.

But the answer is incorrect in the respect that it is not literal.

“What is your name?” literally translated in Greek yields the response: “Athanasios”. “What do they call you?” literally translated in Greek yields the response: “Athanasio”. Again, please note the omission of the final “s”.

To yield the desired response, the translator should have been literally asking “What is your name?” in Greek, which, by the way, in Greek, is less frequent and more awkward than “What do they call you?”.

Suppose we have a Greek male whose name is “Athanasios. ”When another native Greek wants to find this male Greek’s name, they ask him: “What do they call you?”. He will answer: “Athanasio”. Then they will know that his name is ”Athanasios”.

I suppose that level of sophistication eluded the translators in Ellis Island. Perhaps they had a few “canned” questions translated in many languages. And, unfortunately, the person that translated “What’s your name?” in Greek, should have had the foresight to insist on translating not the question “What’s your name?” but the question “What do they call you?”.

This is because “What do they call you?” yields the correct name, instead of “What’s your name?”, which yields the name without the final “s”.

So, poor Athanasios, disoriented and tired, at some point in his Ellis Island stay, heard a few words in his native language: “What do they call you?”. Rejoicing, he replied: “Athanasio!”.

Scribble, scribble, scribble… Inscribed. Papers ready.

Now, you might think that my fictitious story is quite unrealistic.

First of all, you would think that the officers in Ellis Island did not only want the first name of Athanasios, but also his last name. And, of course, you would be right in your thinking. I just used only the first name as a tool to make emphasis. Writers are allowed to do that.

Ok, so more realistically: Suppose Athanasios full name is Athanasios Samaras, a common first name and last name in Greece. So, they ask Athanasios: “What do they call you?”. Rejoicing, he replied: “Athanasio Samara!”.

Scribble, scribble, scribble… Ok, you know the rest.

Please notice the absence of the final “s” from both the first and the last name of Athanasios.

By now, you might have guessed how the story ends and you might also have another objection.

Athanasios goes out into the world (of New York) and after many years of struggles, he manages to become a respected member of the community. But everywhere he went, people looked at his papers and told him not to confuse them: “Don’t confuse us! You said your name is ‘Athanasios’, but your papers write ‘Athanasio’. Be careful, or we might think you are a liar.”

So, poor Athanasios, desperately trying to fit in, would gladly accept what his papers were saying and would also gladly repeat it.

And after many years, he had children and grand children and so on, and they inherited his legacy and story and name, and yes, first name as their last name!

This might have been your objection all along: How come a first name can become a last name?

Obviously, most probably, the descendants of Athanasios would have inherited his last name: “Samaras”, or rather, “Samara”, as it was erroneously written down in Ellis Island. But there is also the chance that Athanasios was so important to his family tree and to others in the community, that knew his family tree, that his family tree started being identified by him. After all, he was the first one in America.

So, sometimes it just so happens that the family may also change its last name in order to denote the first name of the man who started the family tree in America.

Recapitulation: The correct way to write and say the name is “Athanasios Samaras”. The question: “What’s your name?” in Greek, yields the answer: “Athanasios Samaras.” The question: “What’s your name?”, yields the answer: “Athanasio Samara.” So, when a Greek hears the response “Athanasio Samara” they know that his name is “Athanasios Samaras”. The problem is that, usually, the question in English for someone’s name is “What’s your name?” and the question in Greek for someone’s name is “What do they call you?”.

I just want to add that it is nice to have foresight and empathy. It is nice to think ahead and above and beyond. If a Greek person was asked to provide canned questions to the officers at Ellis Island, this person should have had the foresight to go against the normal way to speak Greek, providing the phrase “What’s your name?” in Greek, instead of the phrase “What’s your name?” in Greek.

But people aren’t usually so perceptive or caring.


About Dimitrios Kalemis

I am a systems engineer specializing in Microsoft products and technologies. I am also an author. Please visit my blog to see the blog posts I have written, the books I have written and the applications I have created. I definitely recommend my blog posts under the category "Management", all my books and all my applications. I believe that you will find them interesting and useful. I am in the process of writing more blog posts and books, so please visit my blog from time to time to see what I come up with next. I am also active on other sites; links to those you can find in the "About me" page of my blog.
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