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The Last Name I'll Ever Have

Rob Kyff on

Several readers have recently inquired about the pronunciation and origin of my last name. So, I figure it's high time to share a linguistic saga that involves everything from false umlauts to a family feud to a kiss.

The American life of "Kyff" started in 1891 when my then 23-year-old great-grandfather Leonardus Kyff arrived in New York City from the Netherlands and settled in Yonkers, New York. In Dutch, his name was spelled Kijff. But "ij," when written in script, looks like a "y" with a German umlaut (y) over it. So, this "false umlaut" was dropped, and Kijff was Anglicized to Kyff.

This same transition from "ij" to "y" occurred with many other Americanized Dutch names, including Van Dyck and Dykstra, originally Van Dijck and Dijkstra. My sister, who takes great pride in her Dutch heritage, still uses the Kijff spelling in her email address.

My great-grandfather, whom I actually knew, always pronounced his last name "Kife" (rhymes with "life"), as did most of his many descendants. (My great-grandfather sired 15 children. How he found time to do this while spending half his life correcting the pronunciation of his last name, I have no idea.)

Sometime during the 1930s, one branch of the family began pronouncing Kyff as "Kiff" (rhymes with "skiff"). Apparently, the wife of one of Leonard's sons thought "Kife" sounded too harsh.

While hardly the Great Schism -- or is that "Skize-em"? -- this split did trigger a temporary tiff among the clan, and several of my second and third cousins now use the Kiff pronunciation.

New York City drivers encounter this same "Y" intersection when stuck in heavy traffic on the Van Wyck Expressway in Queens. While most people, including many traffic reporters, opt for "Wick," those familiar with its origins say "Wike" because that's how Robert Van Wyck, the New York City mayor for whom the expressway is named, pronounced his name.

 

My own father, who thought Kiff sounded wishy-washy, always insisted on Kife, so that's how I pronounce it as well. But even he wasn't immune to being Kiffed; the wags in the ad agency where he worked dubbed him "Kiffie."

And no matter how you pronounce Kyff, the name has a spelling problem as well. Because an "f" sounds like an "s" in speech, my mother, when spelling our name for someone on the telephone, would always say, "K-Y-F-F," adding, "two 'F's' as in 'Frank.'"

Which explains why we received so many bills and packages addressed to, you guessed it, "Frank Kiss."

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Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His new book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Amazon.com. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to WordGuy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2022 Creators Syndicate Inc.
 

 

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