Anglicisation of names

The anglicisation of personal names is the change of non-English-language personal names to spellings nearer English sounds, or substitution of equivalent or similar English personal names in the place of non-English personal names.

Anglicisation of personal names

Classical, Medieval and Renaissance figures

A small number of figures, mainly very well-known classical and religious writers, appear under English names—or more typically under Latin names, in English texts. This practice became prevalent as early as in English-language translations of the New Testament, where translators typically renamed figures such as Yeshu and Simon bar-Jonah as Jesus and Peter, and treated most of the other figures in the New Testament similarly. (In contrast, translations of the Old Testament traditionally use the original names, more or less faithfully transliterated from the original Hebrew.) Transatlantic explorers such as Zuan Caboto and Cristoforo Colombo became popularly known as John Cabot and Christopher Columbus; English-speakers anglicized and Latinized the name of the Polish astronomer Mikołaj Kopernik to (Nicholas) Copernicus, and the Anglosphere typically knows the French-born theologian Jean Calvin as John Calvin. Such Anglicizations became less usual after the sixteenth century.

Non-English-language areas of the British Isles

Main article: Irish names

Most Gaelic language surnames of Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man have been anglicised at some time. The Gaels were among the first Europeans to adopt surnames during the Dark Ages. Originally, most Gaelic surnames were composed of the given name of a child's father, preceded by Mac (son) or Nic (or , both being variants of nighean, meaning daughter) depending on the sex. These surnames would not be passed down another generation, and a woman would keep her birth surname after marriage. The same was originally true of Germanic surnames which followed the pattern [father's given name]+son/daughter (this is still the case in Iceland, as exemplified by the singer Björk Guðmundsdóttir and former Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson).

Over the centuries, under the influence of post-Medieval English practice, this type of surname has become static over generations, handed down the male lineage to all successive generations so that it is no longer indicates the given name of a holder's father any more than the suffix -son on a Germanic language surname does today. Among English-speaking peoples of Gaelic heritage, the use of Nic as a prefix for daughters has been replaced by Mac, regardless of sex (as per Geraldine McGowan, Alyth McCormack, and Sarah McLachlan). Wives also began to take on the surnames of their husbands.

Another common pattern of surname was similar to that preceded by Mac/Nic, but instead was preceded by Ó or Ui, signifying a grandchild or descendant. Not all Gaelic surnames signified relationship to a forebear, however. Some signified an ancestral people or homeland, such as MacDhubhghaill (son of a dark-haired foreigner; referring to one type of Scandinavian), MacFhionnghaill (son of a fair-haired foreigner; also referring to a Scandinavian people), MacLachlainn or MacLachlainneach (son of the Scandinavian). Others indicated the town or village of a family's origin, sometimes disguised as an ancestor's name as in Ó Creachmhaoil, which prefixes a toponym as though it was the name of a person. As with other culturo-linguistic groups, other types of surnames were often used as well, including trade-names such as MacGhobhainn, Mac a'Ghobhainn or Mac Gabhainn (son of the smith), and physical characteristics such as hair colour.

In Anglicising Gaelic names, the prefixes Mac, Nic, and Ó were frequently removed (the name MacPhearais, by example, was sometimes anglicised as Pierce or Piers, identically to the given name, and Ó Leannáin and Ó Lionáin have both been anglicised as Lennon). Where they were retained, Mac was often rendered Mc, M', or Mag- (the last is seen in renderings such as Maguire for Mac Uidhir) and Ó/Ui became O'. MacGhobhainn, Mac a'Ghobhainn and Mac Gabhainn (son of the smith) were anglicised as McGowan, Gowan, McGavin, and Gavin. In surnames which had been prefixed Mac, the final hard c sound remained when the Mac was removed. As Gaelic spelling rules required the first letter of a name preceded by Mac or Nic to be lenited (unless it was an l, n, or r) with the addition of an h after (silencing it, or changing its sound), and for the last vowel to be slender (i or e) if male, the Anglicised form of a Gaelic name could look quite different. By example, MacPhearais (Mac+Pearas=son of Pierce) has been anglicised as Corish, and MacInnis has been anglicised as Guinness.

Gaelic names were also sometimes anglicised by translating the prefix Mac into the suffix son, as per the Germanic practice. MacPhearais, consequently, has been anglicised as Pearson, and MacAoidh (Mac+Aodh) has been anglicised as Hewson (it is also anglicised as McHugh and Hughes). The Gaelic MacSheain or MacSheathain (son of Seán) has similarly been anglicised Johnson (it has also been less thoroughly anglicised as MacIain and MacIan).

The other main changes made in Anglicisation from Gaelic are the removal of silent letters, and respelling according to English phonetics (as Ó Creachmhaoil or Creachmhaoil became Crockwell, and MacDhubhghaill became Dougal). ( Ó Briain has often become O'Brien, Ó Rothláin became Rowland, Ó Néill became O'Neill and some surnames like Ó Súilleabháin may be shortened to just O'Sullivan or Sullivan. Similarly, native Scottish names were altered such as Somhairle to Sorley, Mac Gill-Eain to MacLean, and Mac Aoidh to Mackay. Many Welsh names have also been altered, such as 'ap Hywell' to Powell, or 'ap Siôn' to Jones.[1]

Immigration to English-speaking countries

Anglicisation of non-English-language names was common for immigrants, or even visitors, to English speaking countries. An example is the German composer Johann Christian Bach, the "London Bach," who was known as "John Bach" after emigrating to England.[2]

During the time in which there were large influxes of immigrants from Europe to the United States and United Kingdom during the 19th and 20th centuries, the given names and surnames of many immigrants were changed.

Traditionally common Christian given names could be substituted: such as James for the etymologically connected Jacques. Alternatively phonetical similarities, such as Joe for Giò (Giovanni or Giorgio); or abbreviation, Harry for Harilaos.

The anglicisation of a personal name now usually depends on the preferences of the bearer. Name changes are less common today for Europeans emigrating to the United States than they are for people originating in, or descending from those who emigrated from, East Asian countries. (For example, politician Piyush Jindal, whose parents emigrated from India, is typically known by the nickname Bobby.)

French surnames

French immigrants to the United States (both those of Huguenot and French-Canadian background) often accommodated those unfamiliar with French pronunciations and spellings by altering their surnames in either of two ways: spellings were changed to fit the traditional pronunciation (Pariseau became Parizo, Boucher became Bushey, Mailloux became Mayhew, Cartier became Carter, Carpentier became Carpenter), or pronunciations were changed to fit the spelling (Benoît, pronounced [bənwa], became /bɛnˈɔɪt/). In some cases, it could go either way (Gagné, pronounced [ɡaɲe], become /ˈɡæɡni/ or Gonyea), or something only slightly similar (Bourassa became Bersaw).

Scandinavian surnames

Scandinavian surnames were often anglicized upon the immigrant's arrival into the United States.

Greek given names

For example, besides simple abbreviation or anglicization of spelling, there are some conventional English versions of Greek names which were formerly widely used:[3][4]

Slavic given names

Having immigrated to Canada and United States in the late 19th - early 20th centuries many Ukrainians looked for English equivalents to their given names. In some cases, Canadian or American-born children received two names: the English one (for official purposes) and a Ukrainian one (for family or ethnic community use only).

German surnames

Anglicization of family surnames occurred frequently among American born children of German immigrants. With the American declaration of war on Germany, many German-American families anglicized their names due to the anti-German hysteria of the First World War.

Ashkenazi surnames

See also


  1. Frederick Wilgar Boal, J. Neville H. Douglas, Jenitha A. E. Orr Integration and division: geographical perspectives on the ... Northern Ireland 1982 - Page 42 "Substantial assimilation in the form of the anglicisation of personal names, language, religion, or the adoption of new agricultural practices, house forms, and other aspects of British material culture could only be anticipated in the lowland"
  2. Eric Siblin The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a ... 2011 - Page 234 "Known as the “London Bach,” he travelled to Italy, converted to Roman Catholicism, and enjoyed celebrity status in England, going by the name John Bach. Only fourteen years old when Bach died, Johann Christian apparently occupied a ..."
  3. Mencken, all editions, passim
  4. "Greek Personal Names" , Central Intelligence Agency, 1 June 1962, revised and updated by Anastasia Parianou, 2007


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