My Unpronounceable Hungarian Last Name

Jan 15, 2016 | Autobiographical, Race and Racism

Published: The Good Men Project (January 14, 2016)

Let me tell you something about my last name. Even though it’s spelled “Rozsa,” it is pronounced ‘Roja.’ Being Hungarian, the ‘zs’ is pronounced in the same way that one would articulate an ‘s’ in ‘pleasure’ or ‘leisure,’ not as a ‘z’ in ‘zebra’ or ‘s’ in ‘hose,’ such as English would lead you to believe.

For the first thirty years of my life, the common mispronunciation never bothered me. While I have been raised to identify with my Jewish heritage, the Hungarian aspect of my identity was left almost totally neglected. Sure, a few of my relatives spoke Hungarian, and I’ve heard stories from my father about a great-grandparent who ran a Hungarian-language newspaper in Ohio. In general, though, I haven’t paid much attention to the Hungarian aspect of my background, and as such have never taken offense at the Anglicization of my surname.

This says a great deal about me – and I’m not sure how much of it is good.

If we’re going to approach this from the perspective of the so-called American melting pot, I’d say the silver lining here is that it demonstrates that I instinctively identify as an American. Just as my Jewish faith doesn’t deter me from instinctively associating with the American cultural ethos (which is secularly Christian in a distinction Santa Claus-y kind of way), so too has the Hungarian spelling of my last name been remarkably unproblematic. Aside from a few practical inconveniences (i.e., people misspelling it and thus prolonging bureaucratic exasperations), it has been a non-issue for me, and as such there has never been a pressing need for me to insist on a correct pronunciation.

That said, the downside here is that I’ve completely lost touch with my individual history. I’m not just referring to my own biography, of course, but the history of my direct personal antecedents – parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and beyond. All of these things matter to us because they provide us with a sense of perspective that isn’t distilled by national or international considerations. If you’re a humanist, you recognize your inherent kinship with all other homo sapiens; that isn’t just a practical consideration, but a profound moral one. Much of the horror in history has stemmed from tribalistic intolerance – ethnic, religious, etc. – and it is important for us to globalize our individual experiences so that we can avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

At the same time, our genealogical paradigms shape us at least as much as the broader political, social, and cultural histories of nations. While it is tempting to view ourselves as totally autonomous individuals – men and women whose agency, for better or worse, is the sole arbiter of our fate – the unavoidable reality is that the birthplaces and choices of those who biologically created us play an enormous role in shaping who we are. Because my ancestors mostly hailed from a small Central European nation, they were ultimately accepted as “white” by the rest of America (although as I’ve explained before, even the term “white” is itself an abstract concept mostly constructed to confer and/or deny privileges).

Similarly, because of various choices that they made due to their Hungarian as well as Jewish lineage, both they and their offspring entered specific vocations, moved to specific communities, and chose to share their lives with specific partners. While being Hungarian did not necessarily define any of those decisions, it almost certainly played a role in them, much as being born and raised in the United States has played a role in comparable choices that I have made.

Thus, when it comes to deciding how to expect people to pronounce my last name, the question is a tricky one: To what extent does the responsibility to pay homage to my roots outweigh the fact that, practically speaking, such deference isn’t necessary in this particular environment?

Every person can answer that question differently, but for me personally, I think the cut-off has to be with common sense. Obviously I can’t blame the average shmoe-in-the-street for not knowing how to pronounce such an odd looking last name, and correcting everyone who mangles it would get wearying pretty fast. Likewise, I shouldn’t act like people who get “Rozsa” wrong are committing a microaggression against me – after all, until recently, I didn’t even know that I was saying my own name wrong, so I can hardly insinuate nefarious motives in others who make the same mistake.

At the same time, because this name is part of who I am, it should matter enough to me that I insist – when it’s realistic and, perhaps, when it’s most meaningful – that people say it correctly. As a writer, my name is quite literally my brand (my website is called https://matthewrozsa.com/), one that has even appeared on local election ballots, so this sort of thing matters in terms of my public image. In the same vein, it seems reasonable to expect that people who are close to me on a professional and/or personal level should try to get the pronunciation correct once I explain it to them. When it comes to striking a balance between the need for individual pride and the demands of melting pot, these arguments seem to accommodate the former without running afoul of the latter.

According to family legend, my great-grandfather (the aforementioned Ohio newspaper printer) had the opportunity to change his surname to either Roth or Ross when he first came to this country in 1913. He refrained from doing so because, although his family had fled Hungary due to anti-Semitic persecution, he didn’t want to deny who he was or where he had come from. More than a hundred years later, the process of cultural erosion that occurs when you have an unusual name in this country has somewhat diminished his earlier victory. In this one, small way, I can help take that victory back.