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Spanish King Shoots Drunk Bear
When the Spanish King visited Russia recently he was taken on a bear hunt. But apparently "hunt organizers, keen to make the King of Spain's chances of killing a bear easier, provided a tame one drunk on vodka." Sad. But the last paragraph of the story is even more pathetic: "Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had trouble with his aim in his later years. Some of the animals he liked to stalk were either tied to trees or plied with booze." (Thanks, Big Gary)

Ich Vergessen
Here's an urban legend I'd never heard before: "German immigrants arriving at Ellis Island were asked their names, and might respond 'Ich vergessen,' meaning 'I forgot,' if they couldn't understand English. The officials would then mark down that the name was 'Ferguson.'" This doesn't make any sense to me at all. The German and English words for 'name' are almost identical, so I think German immigrants in particular would be able to understand a request for their name. But even if they didn't, why would they respond 'I forget'?

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Posted on Mon Oct 23, 2006


"Ich vergessen" is not even correct German for "I forgot". That would be "Ich vergass" or "Ich habe vergessen". Provided, of course, that you can forget your own name.
Posted by Christophe Thill  on  Mon Oct 23, 2006  at  03:18 AM
Not only is "Ich vergessen" totally incorrect German, phonetically it's not even close to "Ferguson". If someone pronounces "vergessen" correct, it would be very hard to think that person actually meant "Ferguson".
This is an urban legend obviously, and one that's easily debunked too.
Posted by robert.wood  on  Mon Oct 23, 2006  at  03:44 AM
The name thing is funny...Even if a bad ear thought they were saying "Ferguson" why would you reply IN GERMAN "I FORGOT" to someone asking you questions in English?? Wouldn't you say "I don't know" or "I don't understand". I talk to a lot of spanish speaking people...and their common reply is "No se" which is like "I don't know". I could be asking their name & if they say "no se" it's not likely they don't KNOW their name...they don't know what I'm saying.

The hunting thing is sad.
Posted by Maegan  in  Tampa, FL - USA  on  Mon Oct 23, 2006  at  08:50 AM
ich vergessen: maybe the germans were trying to reply in english, but forgot the right words.
Posted by smilespray  on  Mon Oct 23, 2006  at  10:36 AM
I think a more likely response by a German who doesn't understand the question would be "Ich verstehe nicht," ("I don't understand"). By the same token, Spansh-speaking people who are addressed in English are likely to say, "No comprendo" ("I don't understand") or "No hablo Ingles" ("I don't speak English"). They don't say, "Se me olvido" ("I forgot") unless they do understand the question but don't remember the answer.

Be that as it may, it seems that most, if not all, of the legends and family traditions about names being changed at Ellis Island are false. I visited the Ellis Island Museum a couple of years ago, and the curators there said they have been looking for instances of such capricious name changes, but have never found a verifiable example of it. The clerks at Ellis Island were provided with passenger manifests from the arriving ships and just checked off the names as they interviewed the immigrants. So in cases where names were written wrong, it more likely happened on the other side of the Atlantic. Also, Ellis Island employed a large translator corps, and in most cases the translators were native speakers of the immigrants' languages.

However, many immigrants did change or simplify or Anglicize their names at some point in their assimilation to America, for a wide variety of reasons. Since "Ellis Island" symbolically referred to the whole experience of arrival in America, later generations frequently referred to such name changes as having happened "at Ellis Island."

Oddly enough, I have a friend whose last name is Ferguson, although her heritage is Greek on her father's side and Hungarian on her mother's. I asked her how she came to be named "Ferguson," and she said that roughly a century ago in Greece there was a huge fad for using Irish names. Her father's family had a name that sounded a lot like "Ferguson" (unfortunately, I don't remember their Greek name), so they started spelling and pronouncing it "Ferguson." In this case, the name change was an intentional decision inspired by a desire to be trendy. They did this in Greece, even before some of them immigrated to America. Improbable, but apparently true.
Posted by Big Gary  on  Mon Oct 23, 2006  at  10:45 AM
Which explains my good friend Nick Verstay.

Nick used to go by Nicholas, but I knew him long before that when he was just Penniless.

What with inflation, in the '90s he was Quarterless, but eventually found a home.
Posted by JoeDaJuggler  in  St. Louis, MO  on  Mon Oct 23, 2006  at  12:34 PM
I know my family dropped the O' from their name after arriving...to make it sound less Irish. This was during the time when the Irish were not quite so popular. The Germans never changed their names.
Posted by Maegan  in  Tampa, FL - USA  on  Tue Oct 24, 2006  at  09:01 AM
Many German immigrants did change their names, especially during the first and second world wars, when being German was sort of ... shall we say ... out of fashion. Also, a number of U.S. towns with (formerly) German names changed their names during those years, and quite a few German-language newspapers ceased publication because people were afraid of being called enemy spies if they were seen reading something in German. My high school (which existed during WWII, though I didn't) stopped offering German classes during the war, and didn't resume them until many years later.
Posted by Big Gary, MoHDCiCoF  on  Tue Oct 24, 2006  at  05:13 PM
My great great grandmother's name was Civia. She spoke yiddish and when she gave her name at Ellis Island, they transliterated the v sound from the vav as a W. So, her official name until she died was Ciwia, even though that is kind of ridiculous and we always called her Civia.
Posted by Razela  in  Chicago, IL  on  Thu Oct 26, 2006  at  06:59 PM
I took German in high school for two years and was stationed in Germany for six. There is no way the name story could be real. There are very few documented cases where people had their name changed at the immegration desk. Germans who didn't understand what the the clerk said probably would have something along the lines of: "Was?" (pronounced vas). However, as mentioned earlier, the German and English words for name are too similar for there to be confusion, at least not very often.

And on the drunk bear, remember the legend of Teddy's Bear. It's been happening for decades.
Posted by Christopher Cole  on  Fri Oct 27, 2006  at  01:28 PM
I just looked at my copy of A DICTIONARY OF ENGLISH SURNAMES The Standard Guide to English Surnames by P.H. Reaney and R.M. Wilson. Guess what? Ferguson is listed as "The son of Fergus." Fergus is listed as being derived from the Gaelic Fearghus or Fergus meaning "man-choice" which does not prove that the story never happened, the other comments about it do that I think, but it does add to the discussion. There is a real reason for Ferguson as a surname, this story is folk etemology.
Posted by Christopher Cole  on  Sat Oct 28, 2006  at  04:45 PM
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