FEATURE | OCTOBER 2015
“Cut-a-Louse-Key” (or Anglo-mangling)
by Robert Strybel
Ever since the first significant numbers of Polish immigrants began arriving in America in the latter half of the 19th century, many of them came into contact with a hitherto unknown situation which we might refer to as “Anglo-mangling.” Back in the Old country Nowak was NO-vahk, Przybyszewski was Pszi-bi-SHEF-ski and Borecki was Bo-RET-ski. Now, all of a sudden they were being called things like NO-whack, Priz-bi-SOO-ski and Bo-REK-ee.
When Mrs. Strzyżewski’s turn came up, the receptionist in the doctor’s waiting room might say: “Mrs. Stirs..., Striz., Strish...how DO you pronounce it?” Time and again they would be asked: “Could you spell it?” In the army the drill sergeant would shout out to PFC Czyżykiewicz: “Hey alphabet, get your butt over here!” In public school little Johnny Dombkowski would be taunted with things like. “Does your dumb cow ski?” People with names like Brzoszkiweicz, Baraniak and Byczyński oftne ended up being called “Mr, B.” And a John Przybysz was sometimes humorously referred to as “Johns needs some vowels.”
Many PolAms meekly accepted the distorted version of their family names. But whenever he heard her last name mispronounced, Chicago bank employee Cynthia Wróblewski would reply: “Rob a loose key? Hell, I wouldn’t even rob a tight key!” The Anglo-mangler often turned red and muttered. “You mean that’s not how it’s pronounced?” She then patiently explained: “It’s vroob-LESS-key. Everyone can pronounce that.”
Polish immigrants and their U.S.-born descendants dealt with the problem in a variety of ways. Some corrected the Anglo-manglers: “Its MA-CUFF-ski (Makowski), not Ma-COW-ski.! But what if the name was Chrzęszczykiewicz or Szczebrzeszyński?!
Although to the Polish ear, names ending in -ski have traditionally had a classy, ennobling ring to them, in America to many it was only an added headache. Some PolAms shortened their names without obliterating their ethnic origin so Bednarkiewicz became Bednarek, Kołodziejczak got trimmed down to Kołodziej and Nowakowski to Nowak.
“Many PolAms meekly accepted the
distorted version of their family names.”
At times, Polish surnames were respelled to make them more pronounceable. For instance, since the letters “j”, “w”, “ch”, “cz” and “sz” were pronounced differently in Polish and English names such as Jabłoński, Chomiński, Czajka, Witek and Szymański were respelled as Yablonski, Hominski, Chayka, Vitek and and Shymanski. Those with the nasal vowels (“ą” or “ę”) were often respelled from Bąkowski and Dębkowski to Bonkoski and Dembkoski. Incidentally, dropping the “w” from the “-kowski” ending got rid of the “cow.” Without the “w” Makowski, Borkowski and Lubkowski came out sounding exactly as they should: Makoski, Borkoski and Lubkoski.
Then there were those who chose a similar-meaning equiavlent. Nowak, Zimiński, Lato, Bednarski, Pietrzak, Andrzejewski, Kwiatek, Mikołajczyk, Piekarski, and Szymczak became Newman, Winters, Summers, Cooper, Baker, Peters, Andrews, Flowers, Nicholson, Baker and Simpson. There were also similar-sounding choices. In this group Szutkowski > Sutter, Kupczak > Cooper, Rogacz > Rogers, Obrycki > O’Brien and Malarczyk > Mallory.
To end things on a positive note, probably the best off are those who didn’t have to do a thing about how they are called. Surnames such as Adamiak, Bosak, Dobek, Duda, Dudek, Klepka, Kudela, Sobek and (with the exception of the trilled “r”) Borsuk, Krata, Kurek, and Rudek are pronounced almost identically in both languages.
Please send all questions and comments to: strybel@interia or airmail them to: Robert Strybel, ul. Kaniowska 24, 01-529 Warsaw, Poland.
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