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History of a Name


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Last year for Chinese New Year I was invited to my friend’s house for dinner. We sat with his parents and in discussion of the celebration we started talking about his parents’ childhood in China. His father was born in southern China but was adopted by English parents and grew up in England. He has a British accent but still carries his Chinese last name, Sheng. His wife, my friend’s mother, was born in Beijing under Mao. She grew up during the Cultural Revolution: a time of civil unrest and tyranny in China. During this time the government took everything away from her family so she was sent to the US at 16 by herself. She grew up, went to school, college, and started a family in the US after that whole ordeal.

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After I heard these two stories, I sat at the table with my mouth wide open (impolite, I know but I was astounded). I had no idea that this very normal family had such a wild and amazing history.  Even by looking at their names you could see the cultural meshing that went into them.

I felt a bizarre jealousy. After hearing this amazing story I thought about my family and our history. My mom was born in the exotic land of Salem, Oregon and my dad in the far-off reaches of Kanab, Utah. I was disappointed to some degree that my family’s history seemed so mundane. I asked around to see if any of my relatives had done anything crazy, but it seemed that exciting familial histories were reserved for others.

But one day, while bored in US History class, my friend and I found this website: http://www.surnamedb.com. We decided to look up our name, not expecting much, and read about how they were common American names, et cetera, et cetera. No Cultural Revolution, no adoption by foreign parents—but the results surprised me.

Etymology has always interested me. I love the idea of history contained in something as simple as one word—and that’s exactly what I found in my name. “Hulsey”. I asked my dad and we pieced together that “Hulsey” was likely a Southern bastardization of “Halsey”, a common British name. Likely, at some point close to the time of the revolution, some “Halseys” became “Hulseys” in an attempt to become more unique. So, naturally, I delved deeper into “Halsey”. The link listed above cites the language of origin as Old English—aka Anglo-Saxon.

Oohhahhahahaha. The name grew deeper. Old English is not Shakespeare or even Chaucer—it’s the original language of Beowulf. It’s the birthplace of German, Dutch, English—all Germanic languages. It’s not just old; it’s ancient. As per surnamedb.com, “Halsey” becomes “hals” and “eg” meaning “island in a river”, assumedly a description of somewhere someone lived. And that’s where Hulsey starts—before Romans, before the Canterbury Tales. In just one name, I had mapped my family’s history from Somerset to San Francisco. Every name has a great history, you just have to go out and find it.

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