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Friday, July 08, 2005

What’s in a Name?

Genealogy is one of the most popular uses of the internet. Millions of people around the globe are exploring their family histories. I suspect that most folks are desperately trying to find some familial link to some old queen or other, to some quasi-famous historical figure, no matter how harshly we may now judge their pseudo-ancestor. In our celebrity-obsessed world, most people would rather be related to a famous despot than a good-natured nobody. Everyone wants to be related to Charlemagne or Henry VIII or have a great-great-great grandfather who came over on the Mayflower. Good luck with your search, your Excellency.

I suppose all of this desire to have powerful ancestors can be filed under the “the apple falls close to the tree” fantasy. If you choose to believe that you have the DNA structure required for world domination just because you have some incredibly tenuous link to some European monarch--dead now for centuries--that is your business. I would just like to remind all of those out there mining the deep shafts of their genealogy with the hope of discovering gold, that most of the people who have inhabited this planet were—and continue to be—trash.

Just out of curiosity I did a bit of research into my family’s origin. As you may already know, most European names are derived from a person’s occupation. Examples that come readily to mind are Smith, Cooper, and Goldsmith. As it turns out, my name in the original German form means not the actual guy on a road construction crew who waves cars by with a flag. Not that guy, but the guy who traditionally stands next to the flag guy, leaning on a shovel and regaling the flag guy with stories about how drunk he got the night before, and how he probably could have scored with some chick except he got thrown out of the bar before he could close the deal. Then he asks the flag guy if he can sleep on his couch for a few weeks because he got evicted. The English translation, I admit, is a bit long-winded but the Germans—sticklers that they are for details—actually have a
word for this guy, and that word is my last name.

It is probably a good thing that the people in my family got thrown out of Germany in the early 1900’s. Had they been around for the Nazi era who knows where these idlers would have ended up—either in a camp or promoted straight to the top. They came to America and continued their ignoble traditions. But let’s face it; compared to Nazis, being simple white trash is a badge of honor, an honor I wear with pride and a certain degree of distinction.

I tell you this because I want people to be prepared for what they may find if they decide to climb around in their family tree. It is more likely that your European antecedents cleaned out public bathrooms than led armies across the continent. There is no reason to be ashamed of humble origins, just as there is no call for pride just because your kin once ruled over others. Before you sneer at the trash you may find in the branches of your family tree, think about how disappointed your future legacies will be when they discover that you are a relation.

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