My surname tells you almost nothing about my ancestry

My surname starts with Mc, and so every few months someone will remark on me being Scottish, or ask whether my name is Irish or Scottish. But my forebear with that surname arrived in America in the late 1680s—from Barbados. More than 60 percent of people with my surname are African-American. The most recent immigrant in my lineage came from Germany around 1860. So I tend to answer Chicagoans, who often come from recent immigrants, by saying the name is American. Indeed, it doesn’t seem to be found with our particular spelling anywhere outside America.

But people take offense when I say that, and immediately backtrack to “you know what I mean.” What’s a better answer for people who never seem to have considered that the various maternal lines in my lineage are just as important as the surname I ended up with?

People take offense? Just tell them that you “honestly don’t know” and that you have ancestors from lots of different places. You’re a mutt, like many Americans. Welcome to the club! :slight_smile:

Just tell them you dont give a shit and to please get out of your face.

We are long past the generations where names actually mean anything. We’re a melting pot full of misspellings and mispronunciations.

My name is Maori, but even New Zealanders don’t get it right. Australians think it’s Greek, which it does resemble. Everyone else wouldn’t be able to guess.

One of the guys I work with – I’ll use Danny Garcia instead of his real name – looks a lot more east Asian than any other ethnicity. His mother is Hmong. She works there too. I am fairly certain his father is not from Latin America either.

To be fair, I can understand people thinking you’re being rather dismissive by saying ‘It’s American’ when your name has a clear Scottish/Irish ancestry.

I’d probably say ‘I know it sounds Celtic, but that must go a heck of a long way back as we don’t appear to have any Celts in the family tree’

People tend to assume I have German in the family, or at least middle European, as my surname doesn’t sound English, even though I know it comes from a town in the South East England, and dates back well over 1000 years. I don’t get upset about it, I just tell them we’re obviously not very good a breeding so the name isn’t very common.

For all too many African-Americans, their last name might at best tell you the origin of their ancestor’s slave owner.

And there’s the Ellis Island effect where names got smushed into something more familiar sounding. Italian? Polish? Well you’ve got an English name now.

Who often might have been an ancestor as well. Keep in mind that virtually all African-Americans have mixed African and European ancestry (at least), with the average European heritage at about 20%. Those genes had to come from somewhere!

That is largely a myth.

I think you said it pretty well in the OP:

Prefaced perhaps with a slightly self deprecating “oh, well, in my case” or something similar. Good luck.

This doesn’t even begin with people who marry into their last names. My current last name was made up by my husband’s grandfather and his brothers when they went into the service. Their horribly long Polish/German last name was frowned upon when they went into the service during WWII, so each of them changed their name to the shortened and more Polish (less German) version of their last name. But those brothers have 3 to 5 generations below them now, so the rather uncommon name, while primarily found only in my area of the world, has spread. People are always asking me, “Hey, do you know Bob Lastnameski out in Podunk?” No. I married into the name, my husband only has one first cousin, who doesn’t even have the same last name. I haven’t met his grandfather’s brother’s great-great-grandson.

Growing in a mostly Hispanic area, you’d be surprised at the number of blue eyed blond people with last names like Hernandez or Garcia. Sometimes it’s a name by marriage, and sometimes it’s not. For example, does this actress strike you as someone who has two Cuban parents?

Indeed. My 5th-great grandfather immigrated to Baltimore in 1826, and kept his decidedly non-English name of “Matej Poskocil” until his death. The only time the name was Anglicized was in the 20s, when my grandfather decided he wanted an “American” name, and changed it. But there are still a handful of Poskocils hanging around the Midwest today.

If you’r talking to someone you just met and are likely not to bump into again, it might just be easier to tell them it’s Scottish than to try to explain it to them.
My great grandparents are off the boat Italians (Sicilian if you want to by nit picky about it). Both my grandparents on that side could, and regularly did, speak fluent Italian, however, when someone hears my last name that don’t believe it’s Italian. When they emigrated, they changed a letter to ‘Americanize’ it, so no, it doesn’t sound as Italian as a lot of others, but some people get awfully annoyed when I try to explain to them why it doesn’t end in an i or o.

And…many of them aren’t Italian, I think they’re more annoyed that they couldn’t guess my heritage based on my name and are almost accusing me of trying to trick them.

Sometimes it’s easier to just agree with them ‘you can’t be Italian’/‘I dunno, you could be right, I really don’t know that much about it’ and go about my day. As my dad would say, sometimes you win by letting the other person think they won. I don’t have much interest in arguing with a stranger about where my great grandfather came from.

OK, and I immigrated to the US in 1994, lost two words in my firstname, the first word of my firstname was turned into my firstname, the fourth word of my firstname was turned into my middle name, and the only reason my lastname didn’t get chopped down to its first word (of three) or stuck with dashes (arrrrrrgh!) is that by that point I was already used to fighting for its integrity. Oh, and of course, the only way I could keep my second lastname was by adding yet-another-dash and stick it to the first lastname, hell no.

It wasn’t through Ellis Island, I’ll give you that.

Speaking of Ellis Island and names and so on, if an Icelandic family moves to the US, are they permitted to continue to name their children in the Icelandic way? (e.g. if you’re a girl and your father’s name is Harald then your last name is Haraldsdottir, not your father’s last name)

My surname’s Scandinavian – as is my heritage – but somewhat unusual because it’s monosyllabic and very short.

When pronounced phonetically according to American English convention – Scandinavian pronunciation would involve vowel sounds we just don’t use here – it totally sounds East Asian.

So my surname ends up being actively misleading to lots of people who are making assumptions about my heritage.

I recently took on a Korean client who I could guess was disappointed that I wasn’t Korean – or at least Chinese or something! – once we met in person. (Her facial expression when she answered the doorbell, along with her later comment that my surname “sounds Korean,” made me think that.)

(To be clear: since I was tutoring her first-generation Korean-American child, I’m not particularly offended that she was probably hoping she’d found a Korean-American tutor. Rapport is important in that kind of relationship, and speaking Korean would have been a bonus – as would having experienced the US as an Asian-American generally. It wound up being a good tutor-student-parent relationship.)

I get why the OP felt they must share, in other words. Surnames sometimes give good information about a person, which is why people pay attention to them; but they can also give incomplete or misleading information, which leads to problems.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with merely being curious about where someone’s name “comes from;” curiosity is only human, and can be satisfied without being disrespectful. On the other hand, there are less innocent reasons to want to be able to make a reliable guess about someone’s heritage/ethnicity from their surname.


I’m willing to accept “It happened when we came through Ellis Island” as shorthand for “somewhere between the home village and where we wound up in the US someone for some reason decide to change either the spelling or the entire damn name at some point”.

I have it on good authority that my father’s family did not have surnames in the “old country” (they probably used either the construct “X son/daughter of Y” or the name of their village as an additional identifier when necessary, but it was neither legally nor formally a part of their name). Somewhere between there and here they acquired a surname. Actually, three of them for my paternal grandmother’s family as the siblings came over in three groups, after which they apparently had a meeting or something and all settled on one somewhere along the line.

As Nava notes, those of us who did not have a “conventional” (meaning, conventional in the Anglosphere) name when we came over often DID find our names shoe-horned into a convention, truncated, added to, or otherwise altered.

Hell, I still have problems with 1) having no middle name and 2) now having a hyphenated surname. Given I am no longer married, I am giving serious consideration to dropping my late spouse’s surname but changing one’s name is a hassle, not to mention going forward you will forever having to fill out forms listing “any other name you have been known by”.

Oh - and like the OP, my surname means little in regard to ancestry, seeing as we’ve only had it since around 1900 or so.

Isn’t asking where someone comes from considered a microaggression?

My g-grandfather left the old country with one last name and entered the US with a different one.

Myth, smyth. (Later changed to “smith”. ;))