The Who2 Blog

Madeleine Albright’s Birth Name — Update!

After our earlier puzzlement over the birth name of Madeleine Albright, we wrote to the offices of her consulting firm, The Albright Group, asking for help.

That letter has now been answered politely by Jen Friedman, director of communications. She writes:

The only difference between Korbel and Korbelova is basically that one is the English version and one is the Czech version. The Czech tradition that you mention of adding “ova” was pretty standard practice and explains where Korbelova came from.

Hope that clears it up.

Well, yes and no.

It confirms the general themes we discovered earlier about the addition of “ova” to female names in the Czech language. But it doesn’t tell us which version was actually on her birth certificate, which is (for us) the final word on the topic.

We sent a follow-up query to Ms. Friedman, asking explicitly whether “ova” appeared on Albright’s birth certificate, but received no reply. Perhaps we seemed too nosy.

So we’re left with the same situation: Albright says in her autobiography, Madame Secretary, that her birth name was Marie Jana Körbel. But linguistic tradition seems to indicate it would typically have been Marie Jana Körbelova.

We’ve also seen anecdotal evidence of the “Czech obsession with paperwork” and bureaucratic precision (in the modern day, at least). And we have biographer Michael Dobbs‘s word that her name was listed as “Korbelova” when she passed through Ellis Island at age 11.

Based on all this, we conclude that “Körbelova” is most likely the name on her birth certificate, and that Albright misstates the case in her autobiography.

We don’t think there’s anything nefarious going on there; possibly Albright is just simplifying or shorthanding things. The family name was Körbel, and had she been born in America or most other countries her last name would have been Körbel… and after she got to America, the “ova” was indeed dropped in accordance with the local norms.

Next time we’re in Prague we’ll stop by City Hall and ask to see the original ourselves. But for now, we’re formally changing our judgment to “Körbelova.”

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