On a Name Change

What’s in a name?

My dad’s dad came from Greece to the United States in 1907. His Greek name was Papapistolos, a name so long it would need two mailboxes so all the letters could be seen by the postman. The family lore says that, since my grandfather wanted to work in the steel factories around Pittsburgh, PA, he chose the last name Millson as his “American” name. After all, he wished to be a “son of the mill.” I like that story, even if it’s probably apocryphal.

Families choose to change their names for many reasons. Sometimes, the act represents a new start as in the case of my grandfather. Sometimes, a name can be a tribute to the past or to a particular person or tradition. I’m thinking of some celebrities lately whose families chose more “American” sounding names and have Jewish heritage and who are now choosing to return to a name that reflects that heritage more. Sometimes, names are changed for political reasons.

During World War I, anti-German sentiment in the United States was so high (despite German being the second-largest ethnic group in the US) that many Americans with German-sounding names changed them in order to not have their loyalties to the US questioned at all.

George was one of those on the allied side who felt that his German-sounding last name might cause some to wonder where his loyalties really were. Mary, his wife, while not born in Germany, also had a German last name because both of her parents came from there. The couple discussed the issue at length. Their family was large, and whatever choice they made would have far-reaching impact on generations to come. Yet, anti-German feeling was so strong that there had been news reports of street violence against people who were discovered with names like Schultz or Mueller or Baum. Such stories frightened both George and Mary.

The couple decided to take the step and make the change. They weren’t sure how to go about it. They knew it would require much paperwork and legwork to accomplish, but they were willing to put in the effort. The next thing was for George and Mary to decide what their new family name would be. One man who worked with George suggested that they take the name of a famous nearby building. It sounded distinctly English, and no one could possibly mistake it for anything but. George ran the idea Mary, and she whole-heartedly agreed.

So, on July 17, 1917, King George V and Queen Mary abandoned the last name Saxe-Coberg-Gotha and chose instead the last name Windsor.

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