Posted by: Ernest Barteldes | February 4, 2010

On losing the hyphen


by Ernest Barteldes

The fact that I don’t have a last name that sounds obviously ‘ethnic’ often causes people to ask me where I am ‘from.’ When I tell them that I was born in the state of Michigan (in the same city as Iggy Pop, by the way), they continue prodding to find out my real origins – something that has become a kind of annoying pastime for some. What they really want to know is what kind of hyphen they can add to my American nationality. After all, we’re all hyphenates in some way, right?


Interestingly, the term hyphenate-American (German-American, Italian-American, etc) began in the 19th century as a way to disparage on certain people who lived in both worlds – one foot in America and another in their ancestral lands. More recently though, the term started being used as political correctness became more widespread as a form of accepted language in place of other adjectives that were deemed offensive.

Interestingly, some of those epithets were ultimately embraced by some ethnic groups – for instance, the cast of the MTV show Jersey Shore often refer to themselves as “bona-fide Guidos.” And there is also the rappers, who also embraced a horrible term that I refuse to mention anywhere.

But using hyphens has helped our nation become more and more polarized. Also, it has created a gigantic problem among those whose backgrounds are mixed – like myself. Though my paternal ancestors were German-born (I have traced them all the way to Dresden), my grandmother came from Irish stock. Thankfully no one questioned my grandfather’s loyalty when he served in the US Navy during World War II (nobody called him German-American then).

Now my mother came from Brazil, but her ancestry can be traced to Holland and Portugal. So what does that make me? Am I Dutch-Portuguese-German-Irish-Brazilian-American? My wife is Polish, so will we be adding another hyphen to the children we might eventually have? Poor kids.

President Theodore Roosevelt once said that “the one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans or Italian-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality, each at heart feeling more sympathy with Europeans of that nationality, than with the other citizens of the American Republic… There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.” I must say I agree with him. There is no way we can bring the nation together is if we drop the whole hyphenated thing.

It doesn’t mean we have to forget where we came from. That is our individual heritage, but certainly not our identity.


  1. I absolutely detest phony hyphenated identities, and the American obsession for claiming foreign nationalities.

    I too often get questions like “where are you from?”, “what’s your nationality?”, and when I respond that I’m American and I’m from “here”, people look at me like I’m crazy.

    I just don’t understand. We need to change how we view ourselves here in the U.S.

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