Did anyone ever call out Ashley Montagu on his pretentious name?

The acclaimed anthropologist Ashley Montagu was actually born Israel Ehrenberg. (Why is it that Firefox’s spellchecker is OK with the word “Ehrenberg” but not the word “combinations”?) But as a young man he started going by “Montague Francis Ashley Montagu.” Now, Jews changing their names to sound less Jewish is nothing new, but to change it to something so pretentious - Montagu is one of the most aristocratic English names in history, and to use it for both your first and last names? - seems like a bit too much. It seems like he was begging for people entrenched in the upper-class academic world of the 1920s to deride him as an outrageous upstart and poseur. So did anyone do this?

i think you just did

It appears from what little I can find online that he changed his name sometime in the early 1920’s, while he still lived in the U.K. He moved to the U.S. to do his Ph.D. in the early 1930’s. I suspect that in the U.S. nobody cared about his change of name. They just thought, “Here’s another British-born academic with one of those pretentious accents and pretentious names.” I suspect that as usual there were both people who found his accent and name cute and people who found them tiresome. Since in American academia there are significant numbers of both professors who are Jewish and professors who are British-born, I doubt that he felt out of place. While he was still in the U.K., there probably were people who looked down on him for being Jewish, and his having changed his name probably didn’t add much to their dislike for him. Has anyone ever written a biography of Montagu? You might read it to find out more.

I’m fairly well-read and I’ve enjoyed some of his books and I’ve become a historian of popular culture.

And yet I never knew till now that he had changed his name.

That he had popped out at me from your post so I’m sure that I would have remembered if I had ever seen this before. I’m just one data point but the fact that I’ve never heard this probably is pretty good indication that it comes up almost never.

Why shouldn’t a man be able to choose what name he is called by without being considered “pretentious”? Of all the things that one should have control over, that should be the first thing!

He wouldn’t be the first person to have the same first and last name. I remember an opera star from my childhood whose name was Thomas L. Thomas. I’m sure there are hundreds of thousands.

And maybe he chose the name “Montagu” because of Shakespeare. One of my English professors named his daughter Juliet. Was that pretentious?

I would not have associated the name “Montagu” with the aristocracy at all. Americans aren’t all that atuned to who is “in” and who isnt. The most familiar European name is actually a Jewish name – Rothschild. Sounds terribly pretentious, but it isn’t.

One obvious problem with that argument is that not all surnames of major aristocratic families have automatic aristocratic connotations. Neither Campbell nor Murray ‘sound’ posh, yet they are the surnames of two ducal families. Even Howard, the surname of arguably the grandest of all English noble families, doesn’t necessarily scream poshness. You can’t just assume that Montagu would have been thought pretentious or aristocratic at the time he changed his name.

Indeed, one could equally well argue that Montagu then, if anything, sounded Jewish. That would have been because of the prominent Montagu banking family.

Maybe you wouldn’t have associated Montagu itself with aristocracy, but I think most Americans especially in the 20s and 30s would see “Montague Francis Ashley Montagu” and his fine clothes and cultivated manner of speaking and assume that he was part of the English aristocracy.

Samuel Montagu, of the Montagu banking family, was born Montagu Samuel. Realize that even in this first naming of him, his parents were probably trying to give him an upper-class sounding name similar to how American Jews in the early 1900s started having first names like Morton and Seymour and Sidney. These first names, which you now hardly ever see on anyone but Jews, were originally upper-class English surnames.

Then he switched his name around and became Samuel Montagu, putting the aristocratic moniker in place of his surname, which is taking it to a whole other level by, in effect, proclaiming him to be part of the Montagu family which goes all the way back to the Norman aristocracy in England.

Ashley Montagu chose his name long before he came to the U.S., so he didn’t do it to impress Americans. The Americans in academia that he mostly associated with (once he got to the U.S.) wouldn’t have thought that he was from the aristocracy. A professor at an American university would have met a few Brits during his career and would know that there was nothing particularly aristocratic about his accent, name, or manner of dressing. He was presumably considered to be just one more British academic who ended up teaching in the U.S.

During his time in British academia, he didn’t study at Oxford or Cambridge. At the level of academia just below that, there were doubtlessly a number of other Jews. If some of the people there looked down on him for his Jewishness, it’s not clear that he cared. In any case, he left the U.K. in his twenties and spent the rest of his life in the U.S.

It’s also worth noting that Montagu was one of the forerunners on “fighing ignorance.” His Prevalence of Nonsense and “The Spoor of Spooks” by Bergen Evans were some of the earlier compendia of well-known beliefs, urban legends and so on.

Yes, but Samuel Montagu remained conspicuously Jewish and, as a politician, his son, Edwin Montagu, struggled against vicious anti-Semitism throughout his career. That their surname was not actually Jewish is therefore irrelevant. Rather that surname had since gained Jewish connotations it had not had when Samuel adopted it and it had acquired those connotations precisely because Samuel had adopted it.

Thus, in 1920s England, when Israel Ehrenberg changed his name, ‘Montagu’ as surname would not have sounded unambiguously aristocratic (despite the fact that the bankers had actually been raised to the peerage). It wouldn’t even have sounded unambiguously non-Jewish. I doubt that Ehrenberg, as a young Jewish man, would have been unaware of this nuance.