“Nick Nicholas”

By: | Post date: May 13, 2009 | Comments: 5 Comments
Posted in categories: Personal

Surnames, they’re a labile thing. Not everywhere is Iceland, where your patronymic lasts a generation; but not everywhere has the self-same string of letters identify a lineage for a millenium, either. Crete switched to a new patronymic suffix en masse, -akis, in the mid-19th century. Well, the Christian Cretans did. The Muslim Cretans didn’t, but they don’t live there any more. The Jewish Cretans didn’t, and they don’t live at all. (The one Jewish Cretan left did: Nicholas Stavroulakis.) So until recently, when Greeks, and later on non-Greeks, restored some demographic diversity to the island, there were districts where 98% of the names in the phone book ended in -akis. But there’s not many -akis‘s before 1800. The Who’s Who of Cretan Renaissance Literature (quatrocento to settecento) reads: Sachlikis, Della Porta, Choumnos, Falier, Picatorio, Bregadin, Sklavos, Achelis, Cornaro, Chortatzis, Troglio, Foscolo, Bugnali. (Yes, I’m keeping the Italian names Italian. When they were dealing with the authorities, so did they.)

Things are labile in Cyprus too. The dominant pattern in Cyprus is for surname to be archaic genitives of proper names—making them straight patronymics. And people would switch their patronymics to surnames.

I know little about my father’s side; my grandfather went by ο Νικολής του Πούτρου in the village. “Boutros’s Nick”. That’s Boutros, as in Boutros Boutros-Ghali—or more informatively, as in the Arabic for “Peter”. Does that mean I have links to Lebanon? Probably not immediately, although Greek Cypriots seem to be more sanguine about lack of racial purity than Greece Greeks; it just meant that names lingered and travelled.

But Boutros’s Nick was not written down as Boutros’s Nick. He was written down as Nicholas of Mark-the-Pilgrim, Νικόλαος Χατζημάρκου (or Χ″μάρκου, because Χατζη- was a damnably frequent surname prefix, and people would save themselves the penstrokes when they could). And when he was Englished, he was Englished as Nicolaos Hadjimarcou.

As an Englishing, “Hadjimarcou” tells you stuff, which is why I took the <dj> across in opoudjis. It tells you that he was a Cypriot, so he pronounced the prefix as /xadʒi/, the way it came across from Arabic hajji via Turkish haci, and not as the alveolar Hatzi- of the mainland. It wasn’t the only such Englishing in Cyprus: the other day I noticed a brandy distillery, trading since the 1880s as Haggipavlu. But Hadjimarcou is not really an Englishing of /xadʒiˈmarku/ at all: it’s a Frenching. Which I guess shows that French was the default foreign language for the English colonial administrators.

Boutros’s Nick had five sons and two daughters. Four of those sons ended up in Launceston, Tasmania. The first left for Australia six months after the birth of the youngest (who has remained in Cyprus). George did not at first go to Launceston; he went to Sale, Victoria. And in 1947, noone in Sale, any more than anyone in Launceston, felt like pronouncing Hadjimarcou.

The second son had already made his patronymic switch to Chris Nicholas by the time he arrived in Launceston. And when the third son arrived (my father, Stavros—Steve to those who speak to him as I write to you, in English), he followed suit, and so did Andrew the fourth son: it would have been awkward to have brothers in the same town with different surnames, particularly a surname awkward for the locals. The fifth son, Savvakis (or Markantonios according to his christening) has stayed in Cyprus, and has stayed Hadjimarcou.

This was assimilation, of course, and it was compounded by the inevitability of me being christened Nick, after both my grandfathers. My father only officially changed the surname when we left Tasmania for Greece, so his papers would be consistent with the rest of the family’s: I’ve never been called Hadjimarcou, except that one time in First Year Uni when I wrote a letter to the editor.

Once or twice my father has expressed mild regret on the name change—”Nicholas” is a name, not a surname, he noted. The double whammy of my name being my surname? The birth certificate says Nick Nicholas, not Nicholas Nicholas; at any rate, with all the patronymic surnames, double whammy names are unremarkable in Cyprus. So no, despite what people often assume when I’m introduced to them, my parents have never expressed regret to me about calling me Nick Nicholas.

I myself wasn’t particularly attached to the name, though, and when I used Hadjimarcou as a nom de plume, I was considering making it a nom de deed poll. Twenty years on and with a crap memory for anything past last week, I’m not sure, but I don’t think it was out of some nationalist imperative to recover my roots: I’ve never particularly identified myself as Cypriot outside of the occasional overlong [n] when I speak Greek. It was more that “Nicholas” is a name, not a surname.

But I didn’t change it when I cared to; and by the time I was establishing first a scholarly and then a professional identity, I certainly didn’t care enough to. I answer to Nicholas (though not as a first name), I defend its authentic post-mediaeval misspelling, I even asked that someone’s coinage of Nicholasian referring to my writings be Greeked to Nicolaic. But I don’t bask and glory in the surname: it’s just a signifier.

It’s been convenient, having an Anglo-compatible name, I won’t deny that. I haven’t felt alienated from this country, to seek to define myself against it; then again, by my time, I wasn’t particularly compelled to define myself with it: switching to Hadjimarcou wouldn’t particularly have cost me here either. Those that needed to know I was Greek, knew it; that was enough for me. Identification, after all, is a labile thing too.

That “Nicholas” was labile when we went to live in Greece. The Australian papers may have said Nick Nicholas, but my parents have always left that to the papers, and called me Nikos. It’s just a signifier, it was a translation of Nikolaou to begin with, so the switch to Nikos Nikolaou passed without comment: that’s what my Greek papers said. (Well, they said Nikolaos Nikolaou: the State does not allow for shortened names, it’s Europe.) The village schoolteacher knew me as Nikos Nikolaou, and so did the town priest.

It’s less labile now: my identity is bound to papers written in English, and passports in English, and profile pages in English. In my 1995 trip to Greece, I started getting Νίκολας in Greek, and Νικ. I got more of it in 2000, and 2004, and 2008. And identity may be labile, but I’d have liked it to be labile on my terms—meaning I get a Greek identity, and an Anglo identity. Being given an Anglo identity in what Greeks call me, with an English name I don’t use in Greek, means that someone else is telling me I’m not one of them. That, I don’t like.

And yet, I say “in Greek it’s Nikos” with some hesitation. I’m not one of them, that’s the truth. And even if I was, I publish in linguistics under an English name (including, fatefully, my papers in Greek, because professional identities don’t get to be as labile). I have an Australian accent that takes weeks to wear off when in Greece, and I don’t get to spend weeks in Greece. I comment on the magnificent Nikos Sarantakos’ blog as “Nick Nicholas”—because I registered with WordPress for my day job blog, and I’m not particularly driven to put a wall up between my linguist online identity and my business analyst online identity. But if people see “Nick Nicholas”, and work out that I’m not a local, of course they’ll call me Νικ Νίκολας; what was I expecting? At least when they script-switch to Nick Nicholas in the middle of Greek script, it doesn’t look as obvious. (That happens a fair bit, btw, because transliterating is now out of fashion in Greek.)

OTOH, “NickNick” annoys me in English (and at least one friend uses it because she knows it annoys me)—but ΝικΝικ as used by the other bloggers chez Sarantakos is welcome. It is a spontaneous abbreviation of the kind you see a lot there, and it joins Ηλε-Φουφούτος becoming Ηλέφ or Ηλεφού, Μπουκανιέρος becoming Μπουκάν, Φαροφύλακας becoming Φαρό. Unlike the way I perceive Νικ Νίκολας, I perceive as inclusive, because it assimilates me to that community’s norm. Of course, they’re just doing it to save keystrokes—the same reason Boutros’s Nick got written down as Χ″μάρκου. But I’ll take my communities where I can find them.

This all was prompted btw by the intriguing thread launched by Άδωνις ο παραχαράκτης ή Άδωνης ο παραχαράκτης; It ranges far from the intended topic, like good comment threads do, and there’s stuff there I disagree with but can’t articulate a cogent refutation of—again like good comment threads do. There’s a couple of linguistic observations which I may pass on to Hellenisteukontos; but I’ve got to finish off the list of omicrons misspelled as omegas that I’ve saddled myself with for the past month.


  • My Nicholson family were from Greece. They settled in England before coming to America. I always "assumed" the name was something lie Nikopoulas. Any suggestions would be great!

  • matternal says:

    My grandfather changed his name to Nikolaou after his return to Greece. The reasons still remain a mystery to me. And I have heard a lot of folklore about it…
    It is also ironic that my uncle had a straw-hut on a tree right by the beach for years, known to all bypassers as "Η καλύβα του Καψοκαλύβα". It was our favorite playpen for my brother and me during the summer. Pity we tore it down to build a "summer house" in the seventies…


    Μιχάλης Νικολάου

  • opoudjis says:

    @matternal: Thanks for stopping by! Did your grandfather switch surnames because of Ellis Island, or in Greece? I get the impression Cypriots switch off even in Cyprus, and Cretans tweaked their -akis surnames in living memory, but I don't know whether this happened in the rest of Greece.

    I get the impression most Greeks in the world have a relative somewhere in Melbourne. 🙂 As it happens, I am stopping by Houston next month—but alas, I won't be setting foot outside the airport.

    Niko Niko's, Houston. Someone go there and have a gyros for both of us!

    (To everyone else: the context is that Matternal's surname is also Nikolaou, and I remarked on it at Sarantakos' blog.)

  • matternal says:

    Nick, Νίκο,

    I enjoyed reading your text very much.

    Quite concidentally, my grandfather´s name was not Nikolaou either. It was Kapsokalyvas (Καψοκαλύβας), before it was switched to Nikolaou, my father´s surname. (What's in a surname?)

    My grandfather immigrated to the US in 1905 and returned to Greece since he was drafted during the Balkan Wars in 1912. The Ellis Island Foundation has all details of his arrival, complete with the ship manifest and everything.

    BTW, I had a distant uncle in Melbourne. And there is a Greek restaurant in Houston called "Niko Niko's". If you happen to be in the area it's my treat!

    G´d day!

  • opoudjis says:

    George Nicholas, 1926–2009. Requiescat.

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