Monday, May 21, 2012

What's in a Name

What to name the baby has caused more problems in more families than a whole lot of other things. People spend what seems like a gazillion hours in trying to find just the perfect name for a child. But it's not first names that fascinate me--it's last names.

Although today surnames/family names/last names--take your pick--are pretty much the rule around the world, it didn't always used to be this way. Different countries and cultures adopted the idea of a surname at different times. Generally the surnames were given to show that someone was the child of a particular father, to show a region that person came from, to show what occupation that person had, to show a personal characteristic of that person, to show a religious or cultural affiliation, or to show some quirk about the person. In addition, some last names don't have direct affiliation with a person but were seemingly chosen because someone liked what was associated with that name.

I've been active in many organizations and have taught for many years, so I've come across a lot of names that are carried by those of us in Klal. Some of those surnames are common not only to the Jews, names like Stern, meaning star, and some are common only to the Jews, like Cohen/Kahan/Kohn/Katz, meaning of the Kohanim. And some truly catch the imagination as I wonder what could have been the story behind the original surname.

Take the name Morgenbesser for instance. Translated this name would be tomorrow is better or tomorrow will be better. Surely a tale hangs on that designation. Or take the name Lebenswohl--life is good. And then there is Kopfstein--either head rock or the head is standing or standing on the head.  Kleinman and Grossman are pretty self explanatory, but what should we make of Mittleman or Middleman? 

All the names mentioned so far have a German and/or Yiddish/Hebrew origin.  Add in all the other languages that have contributed to our surnames, and you get an even greater variety of things that people were named for.

What are some of the interesting or unusual surnames you've run across?


Pragmatician said...

What's interesting in Holland is that many family names sound very Dutch, of course you have your regular pick of Levi/Cohen etc., nevertheless many have similar sounding names to their neighbour's. Perhaps an afer-war effect, or many generations in the same country, I'm not sure.

miriamp said...

My husband's family name is anglicized Russian and is a profession name - so we know some ancestor captained a ferry boat. Between ferry boat captain not being a common profession and this particular anglicization/spelling not being chosen by any other family, you get a unique last name - all Peromsiks are directly related by blood or marriage.