There are many studies about the impact of names and the shaping of identity. From cultural superstitions relating to names and the development of a person’s temperament to stereotyping based on ethnic origins, there is no doubt that our names are our personal calling card to the world—the most rudimentary marker of self-identity.
For Armenians of the Diaspora, bearing an Armenian surname or first name can be a source of pride, a sense of uniqueness, and an opportunity to educate others on the existence and story of the Armenian people.
For others, it is more of a challenge, when the sight or sound of their non-Anglo or non-European name, often with many syllables or odd spelling, is met with a raised eyebrow, follow-up question or a sigh of exasperation. These reactions can be rude reminders that however assimilated into the broader society you are, you must still somehow answer for your name. Fortunately, in many progressive societies today, where diversity is accepted and often celebrated, one can not only take ownership of his or her foreign-sounding first or last name, but also seek to unlock the mysteries and family histories behind it.
What’s in a Name?
The African adage, “Tell me your name and I will tell you who you are,” carries great meaning to peoples the world over. While proper names have been present in the oldest historical records, surnames came into widespread use only later as a way to identify families and differentiate individuals. By the 1600s, most cultures around the world had adopted surnames, especially for administrative purposes.
While the Armenian people have historically identified themselves by their language, religion, and culture, surnames often provide clues about the life circumstances and clan affiliations of the original name holders. Armenian names can tell us where ancestors came from (Marashlian, someone who hailed from Marash, Western Armenia); what they did for a living (Boyajian, Turkish for a user or purveyor of dye or paint); or something about their appearance (Bezdikian, Armenian for a small person), to mention a few examples.
With noted exceptions, one can spot an Armenian surname by its IAN/YAN ending, which simply means “the son of.” Variations include IANS, IANZ, IANTS, IANTZ, YAN, YANS, YANZ, YANTS, YANTZ, ENTS, ENTZ, and ONTZ. Armenian surnames may also end with OGHLU and OV/OFF (Turkish and Russian, respectively).
They may possess roots that are Armenian in nature, such as Vartanian, offspring of Vartan. But Armenian names may also contain Ottoman Turkish vocabulary words borrowed from Persian, Arabic and other languages. For example: Nalbandian (Persian; a blacksmith specializing in shoeing horses), Najarian (Arabic; carpenter) and Ekmekjian (Turkish; bread baker or seller).
Why do Armenians possess so many strange, unusual or uncomplimentary names? According to the late C.K. Garabed, a lay Armenian-American philologist and author of The Dictionary of Armenian Surnames (written in English and transliterated into Armenian with an emphasis on Diasporan surnames), Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, beginning around the 1800s, were frequently assigned pejorative names in Turkish by government officials. For example: Altiparmakian (one with six fingers), Bajaksouzian (legless or a short man), Chirkinian (ugly), Dilsizian (mute or without a tongue), Koulaksouzian (earless or with no ear for music) and Shilkevorkian (cross-eyed George).
Immigration and Reinvention
For many generations, Siirt (near Mardin, Western Armenia) had an abundance of Arabic speakers. The Arabic-speaking Shahinians, a family of merchants, changed their surname to Nassir, which also happened to be the name of the family patriarch. Nassir’s two sons Ibrahim and Ismail Nassir were born in Iraq. For economic reasons, the brothers retained their non-Armenian first and last names—legally, professionally and socially. Ibrahim became a professor of chemistry and Ismail a civil engineer in Iraq. The Nassir family continued to identify as Armenians at home and in the Armenian church they attended. Decades later, they changed their surname back to Shahinian, which means royal falcon in Persian.
Liz Chater is a researcher of Armenian family history in South East Asia. Her ancestor Sir Catchick (Khatchig) Paul Chater (transformed from Asdvad-zadourian to Astwatsachoorian to Astwachatoor to Chater) was born in Calcutta in 1846. His grandparents hailed from the Armenian community of Baghdad, Iraq. By the 1600s, there was a sizeable Armenian merchant community in India. “Armenians were naturally good traders who were trustworthy, reliable and with excellent administrative skills,” says Chater. “Changing their names didn’t necessarily guarantee them better jobs; they got those on their own skills and merits. Rather, Armenians were eager to be part of the colonial way of life and anglicizing their names helped in this regard,” she continued. “Many Armenians in India naturalized to become British subjects as that’s what they wanted to be—British,” Liz concluded. Even so, the Armenians maintained their distinct identity by establishing Armenian churches, newspapers and even the first-ever Armenian constitution.
Following the Armenian Genocide, many Armenian surnames were lost among those who remained in Turkey. To outwardly homogenize the population of the new Turkish Republic, the Surname Law of 1934 required citizens to adopt Turkish-like last names.
Turkish authorities disapproved of names that connotated non-Turkic cultures, nations, tribes, and religions. Thus, some Armenians publicly concealed their identities by changing their names to ensure their safety and to secure work in a Turkish-dominant society.
Since Diasporan Armenians in the 21st century have the freedom to change their names, why have so many retained unwieldy or uncomplimentary names? “People are attached to their names,” said C.K. Garabed. “Inheriting and preserving their names gives them a sense of continuity and tradition.”
When Armenians were driven from their historic homeland with few tangible cultural objects, many clung to their names as one of the remaining ties to their identities. Of course, others who arrived on foreign soil as refugees following the Armenian Genocide did change their names. There is an ongoing controversy about whether U.S. immigration officials assigned names when immigrants arrived at Ellis Island, the main arrival point from 1892-1954, or whether immigrants willingly changed their names sometime later. Though many U.S. government sources reject the notion, a significant number of U.S. citizens reported that when they arrived at Ellis Island immigration officials did not understand or know how to pronounce foreign names and would record similar sounding “American” names for immigrants.
Chuck Hardy of Racine, Wisconsin relayed the following about his uncle Hovhannes Kherdian who arrived at a U.S. port of entry in Maine from Kharpert, Western Armenia, during the Armenian Genocide period.
Hovhannes conveyed to Chuck how the officials would place impediments in the way of Eastern Europeans and Middle Easterners seeking to gain citizenship. “We don’t understand you. Come back when you can speak better English,” was the response Hovhannes got when he first tried to secure citizenship. He then learned that the English translation for Hovhannes was John. Returning to the immigration bureau, Hovhannes announced his name as John Kherdian. Again, the officials turned him down. During his third visit, Hovhannes noticed that the 7th name listed on a chart of approved immigrants was “Hardy.” Upon introducing himself as John Hardy, he was finally granted citizenship.
Similarly, Mark Arslan, founder of the Armenian Immigration Project, relays that Nishan Buyukian of Trebizond, Western Armenia first arrived in America in 1907 and settled in Fresno, California. “By the time of the 1910 census, Nishan appears with his last name changed to Bacon (a phonetic variation of Buyukian, which means ‘large person’ in Turkish). This name change occurred after his arrival, not at Ellis Island,” said Arslan.
A century ago, avoiding prejudice was a motivating factor for immigrant name changes.
Avedis Tufenkjian (Tufenkji is Persian for rifleman, gunsmith or gun vendor) encountered so much social discrimination in Fresno, California when he arrived from Kharpert that he changed the family name to Gunner. Eventually, Avedis found success in the winemaking industry, and his son Richard became a well-known real estate developer in the region.
Perhaps the most famous example of an Armenian immigrant name change is that of British novelist Michael Arlen, whose birth name was Dickran Kouyoumdjian (surname means jeweler in Turkish). Kouyoumdjian’s family fled Turkish persecution in Western Armenia to Bulgaria. When Bulgaria sided with Turkey during WWI, the Kouyoumdjians migrated to England. Since Bulgarians were seen as siding with England’s enemies, Kouyoumdjian changed his name to Arlen (“pledge” or “oath” in Gaelic). As a literary figure and socialite, Arlen went on to become the toast of high society on both sides of the Atlantic.
Yet, name changes are not always advantageous. City University of New York Sociologist Nancy Foner believes that modifying one’s name doesn’t necessarily avoid discrimination or offer tangible benefits if the individual’s race or ethnicity is readily identifiable by his/her appearance.
Of course, Armenians sometimes alter their names for professional reasons. Pop singer Patrick Fiori was born in Marseille, France to a French-Armenian father (Jacques Chouchanyan) descended from Genocide survivors and a Corsican mother (Marie Antoinette Fiori). Patrick chose Fiori as his stage name for its simple, pleasant pronunciation. He remains close to his Armenian roots, giving interviews about and visiting Armenia/Artsakh, supporting Armenian charities and even performing in Armenian.
When Armenians were driven from their historic homeland with few tangible cultural objects, many clung to their names as one of the remaining ties to their identities.
Armenian first names often give us clues into past religious, cultural, and political influences and circumstances. Ancient Armenian names, culled from the Urartian period, yielded royal names such as Arkishti, Biaini, and Menua. These names are still in use in present-day Armenia/Artsakh. Before Armenia converted to the Christian faith, pagan names such as Anahid (a fertility goddess) and Vahakn (a warrior god) were common and still are.
During the Crusades, Armenian interaction with European liberators introduced names such as Zabel (Armenianized from Isabelle), Alidz (from Alice) and Levon (from Leo/Leon) that were adopted by Armenian nobility.
During the Soviet period, names such as Lentrosh (Vladimir Lenin’s flag) and Karlen (a combination of Marx and Lenin) became popular as did names such as Hamlet and Ophelia, reflecting Armenia’s fascination with the plays of William Shakespeare.
We even see differences between traditional Armenian names (such as Garo, Knar, Talin, Vahe) preferred by Diasporans whose ancestors hailed from Western Armenia as compared to traditional names preferred in present-day Eastern Armenia (such as Nuneh, Garineh, Gagik, Gor).
Inevitably, people of all immigrant groups become distanced from their ethnic origins with the passing of generations. Yet, as sociologist Anny Bakalian pointed out in her book Armenian-Americans: From Being to Feeling Armenian, “assimilation and maintenance of ethnic identity go hand-in-hand.” She means that one can integrate into a dominant culture while still preserving certain aspects of one’s heritage.
We’re happy that our kids’ names were embraced in the American community where they grew up—a nice way to share a bit of their ethnicity with peers.
Nowadays, we even see first names modified to have the proverbial best of both worlds. Yonkers, NY couple Antovk and Ani Pidedjian named their eldest son Kyle which retained the Armenian meaning (Kayl in Armenian means wolf). They also chose the name Daron (a region of historical significance in Western Armenia) for their second-born knowing that American society might associate it with the more familiar Darren. The co-founder of the Land & Culture Organization, Kegham Kevonian, spells his name Keram to accommodate the guttural “r” used in France, where he lives, to ensure that his name is pronounced in traditional Armenian fashion.
Alternatively, some Armenian names haven’t fared as well in Diasporan circles because of linguistic and cultural clashes. We know of at least two Diasporan Americans whose given names are Dork. While fifth century Armenian historian Movses Khorenatsi states that Dork was a prince of the Angegh region of Western Armenia, the same name in English describes a socially inept person. Similarly, Armenian males migrating from Yerevan to the West may encounter public confusion about their gender if they spell their names Karen rather than Garen.
Following the U.S. Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, even though established American notions of discrimination and discomfort over foreign names relaxed, name changing for new Americans still remained relatively common.
Indeed, one study conducted in 2014 indicated that many immigrants who Americanized their names earned 14% more than their counterparts who did not. Another study published in 2022 by economists at the University of Chicago and Harvard University indicates that résumés with more American-sounding names received far more callbacks
Yet, with the rise in acceptance for multiculturalism, ethnic diversity and even affirmative action in North America, exotic sounding names are not only accepted but sometimes preferred. For some, antiquated Armenian names have come back. Second-generation American-born Armenians Zohrab and Holly Khaligian of Kenosha, Wisconsin named their children Areknaz, Arakel, Azniv and Alidz. “We wanted our kids to not only have Armenian names but uncommon ones,” said Holly. To nip pronunciation issues in the bud, the Khaligians shared the phonetic enunciations for the children’s names with their teachers starting in pre-school. “We’re happy that our kids’ names were embraced in the American community where they grew up—a nice way to share a bit of their ethnicity with peers.”
Armenians retain their names to honor their ethnic origins, ancestors, homeland and immigrant stories. But are there practical advantages to having an Armenian surname? Thanks in great part to Genocide refugees who were scattered to the four corners of the earth, a determination to rise again and become model citizens in their host countries earned Armenians a solid reputation around the world as honest, talented, industrious people. And in the decades that followed, wherein Armenian employees were appreciated for their sought-after attributes, Armenian surnames became coveted identity markers.
Gavoor: A Family Badge of Honor
Armenian-American Professor Mark Gavoor recognizes that his surname is a Turkish slur for “infidel” or non-believer in Islam (also spelled giavur). “Our surname used to be Eflian, but family lore informs us that the name Karagavoor (black infidel) was assigned to an ancestor by a Turkish sultan who observed our industrious Kharpertsi family complete a long day of harvesting into the night lit only by bonfires,” says Gavoor. Why did Gavoor’s grandfather Aram shorten the name? “He died when I was too young to think to ask,” he says, “but my grandfather knew the meaning of giavur and selected this one part of the family name as his. I’d like to believe he did it in defiant pride. I would never change my name. I am a Gavoor and proud of that.”
Kardashian: From Masons to Mansions
Some of the more well-known Armenian-Americans are Hollywood’s Kardashian sisters. Kardash in Armenian means ‘stone mason,’ while in Turkish it means ‘brother.’ Kourtney Kardashian, sister of Kim, named her son Mason, leading us to surmise that there were masons in the Kardashian family tree. Indeed, Kourtney and her then-partner Scott Disick said they named their first-born child Mason because it had strong ties to her family and Armenian heritage. Speaking to MTV, Kourtney revealed, “Right before he was born, I told my aunt we were thinking about going with Mason for a name.”
Haviters: Opposites Detract
One surname that provides a window into the lives of Armenians in the Old Country came from the late Mircan (Mirijan) Haviters of Farmingdale, NY. “In Sepastia City, Western Armenia,” says Mircan, “there lived two master rug weavers. A wealthy resident commissioned one of them to weave a rug. The weaver commenced the work but, when halfway through, died of consumption.” The wealthy man then approached the other weaver to complete the job. This other weaver accepted the offer but, being a proud artisan, decided to work his own way. “So,” continued Mircan, “instead of picking up where the other had left off, he started from the other side. When he had gone far enough, he joined the two parts. In doing so, the rug ended up with the nap going in opposite directions. This became the source for my ancestor being named Haviters, that is ‘hav’ (‘khav’ in old Turkish) meaning nap, and ‘ters’ meaning contrary in Turkish.”
Setrag, Misak, and Hapet
These Armenian first names stand for three heroic figures of the Old Testiment—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. As the story goes, they were thrown into a fiery furnace by the King of Babylon for refusing to worship a craven image of the king. Yet their faith and loyalty to one God protected them and they emerged from the flames unharmed. Fast forward to the turn of the 20th century to meet three brothers, Setrag, Misak, and Hapet Berberian from the village of Sakrat in Palou, Western Armenia. Hapet, the youngest, lost his life in the Genocide, but his surviving brothers were able to make their way to America, settling in Providence, R.I. Misak named his American-born son Hapet, a name unfamiliar and odd sounding even to the many Armenians in the community. That son, Hapet Berberian, an electrical engineer and former professor at Boston University now living in Wellesley, MA, says, “I can’t count how many times I have had to retell the story of the fiery furnace to those confounded by my name. But it’s a story worth telling.”