DEMETRIOS IS NOW JIMMY - Problems and Pitfalls Translating Proper Names


Problems and Pitfalls Translating Proper Names

by Basil Zafiriou

Published in The National Herald September 2, 2019


I am excited that The National Herald has given Hellenic Genealogy Geek the right to reprint articles that may be of interest to our group. 


Demetrios Is Now Jimmy is the title of a book by Lazar Odzak that traces the experience of Greek immigrants in the Southern United States during the early 1900s. The desire to adapt to and be accepted by the dominant society led many of these early immigrants to Americanize their names. Hence the title of the book.

At the time, it was common to change surnames as well as first names. That is now rare, but anglicizing first names is still the norm. The way this is done leads often to odd results.

Consider the mutation of Demetrios to Jimmy. Jimmy is a diminutive form of James, which in Greek is Iakovos. So in going from Demetrios to Jimmy one does not translate a Greek name into English. One adopts a different name altogether.

And this is far from unique to Demetrios. I was christened Vasilios in Greece. Upon arrival in Canada in 1960, I was told by relatives already here that my name in the new country would be Bill. A young boy with zero knowledge of the English language at the time, I happily accepted the new moniker. Some while later, I found out that Bill is short for William, which in Greek is Goullielmos – very different from Vasilios! I subsequently changed my name to Basil, but my earliest friends in Canada still know me as Bill. If I had to do it again, I would have stayed with Vasilios or Vasilis.

One of the most popular Greek names for boys is Konstantinos. In America this regal Greek name is commonly rendered into English as Gus, presumably because of its phonetic similarity to Kosta, the diminutive form of Konstantinos. Gus however stands for Angus or Augustine, neither of which bears any relation to Konstantinos. It is also a very unusual English name. In fact, I’ve never met a person named Gus who wasn’t Greek.

Some English names do double or triple duty in subbing for Greek. Thus Steve can stand not only for Stefanos, but also Stavros and Stelios. Tom for Thomas, but also for Thanasi and Stamati. Peter can be Petros, and also Panagiotes. Greeks celebrate their name days more faithfully than they do birthdays. With these whimsical ways of anglicising names, it is at times hard to know when to wish an expatriate Greek a “happy name day!”

Americanizing female names has not been as challenging owing to the higher incidence of English cognates for many popular Greek names. Mary (for Maria), Helen (Eleni), Sophie (Sophia), Catherine (Katairini) are examples.

For Greek female names without English cognates we find similar improvisation as with male names in going from Greek to English. For example, Vasiliki often becomes Bessy, which is short for Elizabeth, or Vicky, short for Victoria. Despina often defaults to Debbie, a diminutive of Deborah.

The purpose of proper names of course is to identify specific persons. But names do more than that. They are rooted in culture and hence provide a link to the culture of their origin. The Greek custom today of naming the first-born after the paternal grandfather dates from ancient Greece. Most of the names Greeks carry today also have their origin in the ancient Greek practice of creating names that have meaning. Greek names therefore are not simple labels – they mean something. Demetrios means “devoted to Demeter” (the goddess of agriculture); Vasilios means “of the king”, royal.

Anglicizing a Greek name therefore could take the form of translating the name’s underlying meaning. But this is manifestly not practical in most cases. Calling Philippos “Lover of horses”, Chrysanthy “Golden Flower” and Theodora “Gift of God” doesn’t exactly fit in with the desire to have a name that facilitates one’s integration into the larger host community. Thus the common practice has been to adopt the English cognate, if such exists. As already noted, however, that is not always the case.

And even when an English cognate exists, it is not necessarily desirable to adopt it. A simpler option is that chosen by The National Herald publisher Antonis Diamataris. Anthony is an obvious cognate of Antonis, yet Mr. Diamataris chose to stick with the name his parents gave him.

Another person to make the same choice more recently is NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo. Giannis could have adopted the name John in his new land. Would that have advantaged him in any way? Would his fans have found it easier to cheer him on with shouts of John! John! Instead of Gia-nnis! Gia-nnis! It seems rather doubtful.

Incidentally, the name Giannis is becoming increasingly popular in the United States. According to data released by the Social Security Administration, the number of newborns named Giannis rose from eight in 2016 to 61 last year. And that’s before the Greek Freak won the NBA MVP award. This growth in the name’s popularity is obviously related to the amazing success of Giannis on the basketball court, but it also indicates that the strangeness of the name is no barrier to its acceptance.

Indeed, in today’s pluralistic and multicultural United States, no name seems out of place. Consider the names of some current members of Congress: Aumua, Hakeem, Ilhan, Pramila, Rashida, Sharice, Xochitl. Next to these names, Stavros, Stelios, Dimitra and Dorothea are positively prosaic.

Books have been written about how to translate proper names properly. Getting it done right is not easy. Fortunately, in today’s American society it isn’t necessary. Demetrios is as good as Jimmy.


Basil Zafiriou is an economist based in Ottawa. Retired from the federal public service of Canada, he now concentrates his work mainly on Greek affairs and the Greek diaspora.