Anglicisation of Greek family names: How Greeks went English to survive in Australia

Nick Manning (centre) kept his anglicised name for 65 years. Photo: Supplied/Kafcaloudes

For many, identity is tied to their name. This is not just because it is how we are called but because it speaks of our heritage. So it always surprised me that so many of my childhood friends in the 1960s Greek community in inner western Sydney had anglicised surnames. And even closer to home. My godfather Nick Maniarizis became Nick Manning on arrival in Australia when the NSW Greek consul’s wife told him his Greek name was too difficult to use in 1950s Australia. He kept the Manning name until his death in 2017, even during his years as head of the NSW chapter of AHEPA.

Even my own dad used Steve Kaff instead of Stefanos Kafcaloudes for much of his life. It is a change that my two brothers have continued to adopt. In my late twenties I reversed my family’s anglicisation, but only after a prompt from my new employer the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. In a moment I will never forget, the then-chief-of-staff told me I would need to go back to my original Greek name because, he said, “there were not enough wogs in the place”.

Former Channel Ten and SBS journalist George Donikian kept his family name, although he too was told by an employer that it would be better if he made a minor amendment to the much more Irish-sounding name Donikan.

Phil Kafcaloudes reverted to his Greek name in 1988. Here he is shown making the ABC’s first broadcast from mainland China. Photo: Supplied/Phil Kafcaloudes

Incidents like this stayed with me, and finally this year I decided to do a research project on Greek family name anglicisations. I sent out a series of questionnaires to Greek communities asking people to tell me about their families’ anglicisation experiences. Specifically, I asked why they (or their forebears) changed their names; and how the name was changed (was it just a shortening, a rough translation of the original, a use of a given name as a new surname or just, as in Nick Manning’s case, a whimsical spontaneous choice). It seems that whimsy played a big part in the choice of a new name. Sometimes it was a shortening by cutting letters of the end, the beginning, the middle or a combination of all three.

Other times it was a rough translation (“north” instead of “βοράς”). Or it may simply have been a name that took their fancy.

I also asked whether the respondent would consider changing their name back to the Greek original. This last question had the most surprising result. In many cases people said they would like to revert, but it would pose difficulties because their families had used the assumed name for quite some time and to change it back would only cause confusion. Others said the reversion would just be too hard in this post-911 world where identity changes involve many steps and all kinds of proof, affecting superannuation, taxation, Medicare, employment, rates and home ownership. All these things would need to be changed almost simultaneously. Clearly, people believed it would take a lot of juggling in 2022 to show pride in their heritage.

George Donikian (centre) refused to anglicise his name. Photo: Supplied/Phil Kafcaloudes

The reasons for making the change in the first place, the answers fell into three categories:

(1) Convenience. Some respondents said their forebears felt it would be easier for them (and their prospective employers) to have a simpler, more anglo-friendly name;

(2) Acceptance. The new migrants thought that appearing a little more anglo, even if only by name, they would show the community that they were prepared to go part of the way to fitting in by rejecting their European name; and

(3) Racism. Some said their family’s name was changed because of fear of racism. It’s a fear that seemed to have dissipated with the winding down of the White Australia policy and the Whitlam-era promotion of integration, which replaced the long-running policy of assimilation. And this is one of the loudest findings from the research; how the politics and social issues of the time played a big part in why early 20th century Greek immigrants made this big step, and why many later arrivals felt no such need to do so.

If this survey results highlight anything, it is that new immigrants no longer feel they have to hide their origins; that they and their name will be accepted without fear of racism or prejudice, or that their name will not be an impediment to a fulfilling life in their new country.

Dr Phil Kafcaloudes is an author, academic and broadcaster. In November his book, Australia Calling: The ABC Radio Australia story was launched by the ABC. The findings of his anglicisation research will be presented at an academic conference in Athens in June 2023.