My parents emigrated from Hungary to the United States, and when I was simply named after my father when I was born. In Hungary, my father’s name was Berger Ferenc (Hungarians always place the surname first) pronounced something like Bairgair Fairains in Hungary, but in America he became Frank Berger, and I became the junior variety of that name. He chose Frank over Francis because he thought it sounded more manly. It took him a while to learn that when most Americans heard his new, Anglicized name, all they could think of were barbeque meats.
Think about it. Frank. Berger.
How are the franks, Bob?
They’re done, Dick, but the burgers need a few more minutes!
Well, let’s have another Pabst Blue Ribbon then!
But I really can’t complain. My poor sister had it worse. My parents named her Anita.
Anita Berger. Say it fast.
I need a burger.
My parents raised us both as best they could and provided everything we needed, but in the name-giving department, they messed things up big time, God bless them both.
I bloodied many noses and had my nose bloodied many times defending my name when I was growing up because whenever kids heard my name, the hamburger jokes were quick to follow.
Do you come with a side of fries?
I saw you yesterday in a Happy Meal!
What’s your middle name? Cheese? Bacon? Double? How about chicken?
Yeah, I pretty much heard them all. Naturally, the taunting diminished as I grew older, but even as an adult, I could tell my name still inspired mild amusement among fellow adults. No matter where I went, I was confronted with thinly veiled expressions of bemusement and lightning flash grins whenever I introduced myself.
Reverting my given name back to Francis instead of Frank when I was a young adult in an effort to differentiate myself from my father and put a stop to the endless confusion about which Frank the caller wished to speak to every time the phone rang at the house carried its own set of problems. I cannot tell you how many times I showed up places and introduced myself as Francis only to discover people had been expecting a female instead of a male.
Some Germanic names like Berger simply do not translate well into English. My ancestors were originally from Austria and the name Berger means mountaineer or of the mountain. The root of the word still exists in English words like iceberg, but people in modern Anglo-speaking countries do not take such etymological subtleties into consideration when they hear the name Berger – for most the word epitomizes a grilled beef patty on a sesame seed bun. Nothing less; nothing more.
The only group in North America that does not find my name instantly amusing – German and Hungarian-speakers aside – is Jewish people. I guess it’s because the Jews have enough Rosenbergers, Goldbergers, and Schwartzbergers among them. In fact, Jewish people sometimes assumed I was Jewish after they heard my name, and I must admit there were times I wished I had been born a Radelberger, a Silverberger, or even a Freiberger instead of just a plain-old Berger without a side of fries.
As I was growing up, I was acutely aware of the many reasons why people changed their names. I knew why Hollywood actors like Bernard Schwartz decided to become Tony Curtis, and why writers like Marie-Henri Beyle felt more comfortable writing under the pen name, Stendhal.
A person's name is a calling card to the world. It transmits unconscious messages and signals that attract or repel, invite or dissuade, comfort or distress, impress or amuse, enchant or disenchant. This quality extends to everything, not just people. Consider this - corporations and marketing agencies spend countless hours and billions of dollars agonizing over names. As much as we hate to admit it, names matter.
Oddly enough, despite the minor hardships I endured growing up, I never seriously considered changing my name after I matured. I knew a few people who had. There was one chap I knew when I lived in Budapest who, like me, had been born with a rather unfortunate Teutonic name, and he changed it to something more Anglo-sounding when he became an adult. He never told me about this personally. It was something I stumbled upon inadvertently years later, and when I discovered his original name and the changed name he had chosen in its place, I was reminded of James Gatz’s transformation into Jay Gatsby.
When I was a teenager, I sometimes told girls my name was Jim Steele, borrowing the name of Holden Caulfield’s alias in Catcher in the Rye. I was stunned to discover that most girls reacted considerably more positively to Jim Steele than they did to Frank Berger. Maybe as Jim Steele I gave off the allure of a Ford Mustang, while Frank Berger reminded them more of an AMC Gremlin?
Though I never considered changing my name, I remember wishing many times that I had been born in France rather in New York City. This first occurred to me when my grade six French teacher, who was a lovely young lady I secretly adored, gave all of her students’ names a French flair. Thus, the Marys became Maries, the Johns became Jeans, and I became – brace for it – Francois Berger.
Not Francois Burger, but Berger, with a soft g, pronounced Bershay – ah, Bershay - the sound of a seductive spring breeze; the soft rustle of silk on bare skin; a romantic whisper in the dead of night.
Even in grade six I understood that Francois Berger was one hell of a sexy name. Every time my French teacher said it I imagined myself as the fourth muskateer in some swashbuckling novel. Even then, I wondered how my life might have been different if I had been born in a French-speaking country rather an English-speaking one.
The name Francois Berger oozes style, sophistication, class, and poise. It’s like a brand name within itself. I knew I could join the ranks of Louis Vuitton, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Coco Chanel. I had never been into fashion, but I was certain that with a name like Francois Berger I could sell myself as anything – especially as a writer. As I matured, I seriously contemplated moving to Quebec from Ontario just to use my French name. I was sure Francois Berger would have it much easier and better than Francis Berger ever could.
Yet I never moved to France or even Quebec, and Francois Berger has remained a name that never was – at least not for me. For the past four years, I have been living in Hungary. Here I am officially Berger Ferenc. Hence, I have reclaimed the name my father cast aside when he moved to America so many years ago.
Neither my surname nor my Christian name elicits as much as a chuckle from anyone here in Hungary. There is no implicit connection to any kind of grill meat – patty-shaped, tubular, or otherwise. If we remain in Hungary, my son will never know what it is like to be teased for his name. He may have to bloody some noses or have his nose bloodied for other things – but never for his name.
As for me, I am happy being Francis Berger and Berger Ferenc, though most of my friends and colleagues simply refer to me as Frankie, even here in Hungary.
If and when I travel back to the US or Canada, I am sure the customs agent will look at my passport and smile, but this no longer bothers me in the slightest.