Bartlett's Strange Quotation

March 05, 1993

What's a normal name? Or an American name?

Apparently, Chien and Huang are not, according to Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, whose district includes Western Maryland, Carroll County and a portion of Howard County.

This week, at a meeting of Maryland's congressional delegation, Mr. Bartlett asked Gov. William Donald Schaefer why only one-third of the state's Westinghouse Science Talent Search winners had "normal names." We can only guess the freshman Republican was thinking of "normal" names such as Mann, Lewis and Townsend.

Mr. Bartlett's malaprop was a classic Freudian slip -- a verbal mistake in which a speaker reveals his true feelings. Mr. Bartlett must believe that only Anglo-Saxon names are "normal." Since normal means conforming with an established standard, Mr. Bartlett's apparent definition of what constitutes normal names in the United States may have been applicable through, oh, the first quarter of the 19th century.

With the waves of immigrants that have flooded American shores over the last century and a half, the standard has changed. People with Italian, Scandinavian, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Chinese and Japanese surnames entered the United States and changed the nation's standard. As a result, Schmidt, Rasmussen, Cohen, Volpe, Garcia, Ito and Wong became normal American names.

In the past two decades, the country has experienced another wave of immigration -- from nations in Asia including Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and India. Ng, Ku, Mahanthappa and others are adding their surnames to the American lexicon. In some West Coast cities, Nguyen and Wong are more common names than Bartlett. At New York's Bronx High School of Science, the number of Kims graduating is equaling the number of Cohens.

Mr. Bartlett perhaps was attempting to point out that the new immigrants are more aggressive in their pursuit up the economic ladder. They try harder and therefore win more prizes, scholarships and places in elite universities. If that was Mr. Bartlett's point, it may have been worthwhile, but he did a poor job of expressing it.

The miraculous aspect of America is that from the very beginning of the country, your name didn't count as much as what you did. That is why Mr. Bartlett's comment was so jarring. Certainly, a congressman should realize no group has a franchise on producing "normal" Americans.

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