Being a Minus can be a plus

 

Dad and I. 1976

Dad and I. 1976

We have a very unusual family name: Minus. My father always explained it to people, “It used to be Terminussian but no one could pronounce that so they used the two middle syllables. It’s Armenian.” The ancestors dropped the “ian” at the end which was a common thing to do at the time, and the “Ter” was dropped because that was a separate honorific indicating  a descendant from a priest. In older documents I have seen it written as Ter Minassian. I used to wish they had picked two other syllables. Termin sounds strong like determined or the Terminator. Ussian still sounds interesting but also homely, like hessian, but Minus just gets no respect. Things I’ve heard many, many times followed by huge guffaws from the speaker (my thoughts in italics):

So that’s why you’re so short. Using that logic, Mr. Chubb is fat, Miss Long is tall and Mrs. Ramsbottom is….?

You must be looking for Mr. Plus. No, I’m just looking for someone with better repartee.

Minus, eh, what are you missing? Sigh…..

Even when I got married, the local paper reported it as “A Plus Day for Miss Minus.”

Whenever we travelled, Dad’s first action on arriving was to look up Minuses in the phone book. He claimed if they were called Minus they were relatives. This led to interesting phone calls where Dad would try to establish which branch of the family they were from. On a trip to Disneyland when I was eight, we ended up at his cousin’s place for dinner, in a wonderful sprawling house on the side of a hill. I can’t remember much of the conversation, but I have always remembered the warmth of their welcome.

The decision to research the family tree a couple of years ago was easy to make. How hard could it be, considering the scarcity of the Minus name? Very difficult indeed, as it turns out. There were way too many Minuses. Sometimes it was spelled Minas or Minos or even mis-transcribed as Minns. On the LDS  website (a great free research tool that I highly recommend) there were a multitude of Minuses. Some had lived in Rangoon, others in Toungoo, Mandalay and also in Calcutta, India. They were teachers, pleaders, doctors and clerks in Armenian businesses like Balthazar’s and Gaspar’s, or government workers, like the jailer in Mandalay. One became Registrar of the High Court in Rangoon. I found a mention of my grandfather and his brother-in-law running a taxi firm in 1920’s Rangoon. I also found the matriarch of the family’s petition to the British Government in 1886 to legalize her ownership of lands in Mandalay, Amarapura and Ava. As she puts it, “the above three pieces [of land] have no documents as they were lost at the last war when all the Kallas were looted by the Burmese.” (Kalla or Kala is a derogatory term for foreigner in Burmese.) She signed the document in Armenian, Margaret Mackertich Ter Minus.

At times it can be useful having a memorable, if risible surname. When I have to pick up something at the P.O. or a store, or phone about an appointment, or inquire about  a previous reservation, it is found/dealt with right away. I never realized how useful that could be until last November, in London. I had spent the morning at the British Library looking at Thacker’s Indian Directories, an annual publication, and only succeeded in getting up to 1915. My head was reeling with Minuses living all over Burma. Surely we couldn’t possibly all be related? That night my husband and I went to a dinner given by the Britain-Burma Society. I was introduced to some Burmese ladies about my age, who had spent many years living in London. One frowned at me after the introduction, “Minus, did you say?” I braced myself for the usual jokey comment, ready to go into the tale of shortening the Armenian name, but she then said something that made me want to kiss her. “Are you related to the Minuses who used to live behind that department store in Rangoon?”

And you know what? I was.

 

46390_std

Dmitry Ermakov Armenian from the militia
1880-1885 Albumen print 11 x 14 cm
Georgian National MuseumLL/46390
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2 Responses to Being a Minus can be a plus

  1. David Arathoon says:

    I’m doing some Minos / Minasian research, would you be interested in discussing Armenian genealogy of Burma? If so, I have left my email address.
    yours, David

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