Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

What's in a name?

Note: I have a column published at a site called, The Atlasphere, entitled, "The Attack on Language: Rights". Here http://www.theatlasphere.com/

Monika and I were watching the opening credits of a movie set in Spain when we noticed the name of the editor, Luis de la Madrid. Since we both understand Spanish on a basic level, we knew that this means of course, Luis of Madrid.

We started having some fun with the idea behind the name. "So who's the director, Benny de la Brooklyn?" We then switched the channel to StarZ where "Rent" was playing, starring the exotically beautiful Rosario Dawson. What a wonderfully American name! Rosario - Spanish, and Dawson - English.

My son's name, by the way, is Jerzy Waszyngton Browne, that's George Washington Browne in Polish. My daughter's name is Judyta Ilona Browne. Judyta is "Judith" in Polish, for Jerzy's English godmother Judith. Ilona is Lithuanian and is for our dear friend Ilona Daukene, who died in the mushroom poisoning epidemic in Northern and Eastern Europe three years ago. So our children have names that are a combination of Polish, Lithuanian and Anglo-Irish. That's a pretty American thing.

My wife's maiden name is Lukasiewicz. (That "L" should have a stroke through it, making it Polish letter "ewl", rather than "l" and pronounced "w".) "Luk" is "bow" in Polish. (Bow as in "bow and arrow".) So Lukasiewicz would mean something like the English "Bowyer". That's bow-yer, "bow maker" rather than "Archer".

SF author Poul Anderson, who had a deep knowledge of history, once set a story in the far future and referred to a rich and powerful family whose name was "fromCanada". He was making a subtle point about the evolution of language of course.

All family names appear to come from four sources, apparently in all cultures that use family names. (Family names, even in Europe are a fairly recent innovation for common folks. They have only become universal in countries like Norway in the 20th century and still aren't used at all in Iceland.) They are: place names, profession names, frozen patronymics and nicknames.

Place names include the aforementioned de la Madrid, London, Berlin etc. One of the most common profession names seems to be Smith, or Black(smith). A "smith" in Polish is "Kowal", as in Kowalski. In Arabic, "hadad" - also a common family name.

Frozen patronymics are created when people get tired of saying, "I am Sam John's son, this is my son John Sam's son. He's named for his grandfather." and just decide that all the kids are doing to be Johnson from now on. In the Irish and Scots' language, "children of" is "O" (Ui in the Irish) or "Mac".

Family names might also come from the nickname of a prominent ancestor. Presumably "brown" or "swarthy" has been a characteristic of the Browne family for a while now. On the Irish side we are also "descendants of Neil" (O'Neil) and on the Scottish, "children of the abbots" and "servants of St. Fillan" - the MacNab clan, sept Gilfillan.

A couple of legends about family names:

Jewish family names are usually German or Slavic, very few are actually of Hebrew origin, such as Cohen "priest" or Katz (from "cohen tzaddik", "rightious priest"). I've been told that in the German lands they once decided that everyone should have a family name, just like noble folks had. Unfortunately not due to any liberalizing urges, but to make taxation and record-keeping easier for bureaucrats. The story is that when Jews came in to get named, the anti-Semitic bureaucrats would deliberately give them rediculous-sounding names: Goldberg "mountain of gold", Rosenberg "mountain of roses", or Goldwasser (anglicized as Goldwater) "gold water" - urine.

I once read, but cannot now find verification, that the patronymic prefix "Fitz", as in FitzGibbon, FitzGerald, etc, originally meant "acknowledged bastard of...".

And by the way... the title of the essay is from one of the most-misquoted lines in Shakespear, which occurs near the most often misunderstood line. It's not "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." but "That which we call a rose..."

And the line "Wherefore art thou Romeo?" is usually understood today as "Where are you Romeo?" but actually means "Why are you Romeo?"


  • At 2:08 PM, Blogger Knit Knack said…

    As I understand it, Jews had to buy their surnames. Hence, the more money one could pony up, the more beautiful surname one could have--like my own. Someone with little money could buy Stein (Stone), someone with more money could buy Goldstein. Goldwasser is a drink with flakes of real gold in it. I don't see anything unpleasant about that, but you may if you must.

  • At 10:15 AM, Blogger Mollie said…

    I'm interested in Western Highland names. Between 1780 and 1820, the locals anglicized their names... probably a combination of wanting to be 'modern' and pressure from the local (schoolteacher) session clerk... Anyway, McGuirman became "Blue" (gorm equals blue); McSporran becams "Pursell" (because a sporran is a purse); McTaggarts became "Priests" because tagaiert is a priest.
    And - my own realization - McHeinen/Oheynen/Heynen became "Johnston" - Hey being a form of "Ian", or "John."

    Some surnames keep a forename alive: McEachern/ son of Eacher or (Modernized), Hector. There used to be "Aulays", but now there are only "McAulays"

    And then there are all the little "Effies" - translated as "Euphemia" in early Victorian Scotland - but VERY close to the older "Effric." Finally: Flory. Seen as short for Florence, but too close to "Fiona" for my comfort!!

    We have a first nations (Indian) family here in the Yukon, with the surname, "Silverfox." Well, that family moved into an abandoned "Black Silverfox Fur Farm" building probably back in the 1920s, raised a family, and were known and are still known as "Silverfox". I have a reference to that farm in my blog (http://marchforarch.blogspot.com) when discussing W P Whitney, who built that fox farm back in 1915....
    I am so GLAD to have found your blog!!

  • At 9:23 PM, Blogger Vanishing American said…

    About the 'Fitz-' surnames: in my family tree there are many such 'Fitz-' surnames among my Norman ancestors. The 'Fitz' is just a corruption of the French 'fils' or 'son'. Supposedly yes, it did connote illegitimacy in some cases.
    And thank you for pointing out that misconception about the phrase 'wherefore art thou Romeo?' A teacher of mine pointed this out years ago, and it seems most people aren't aware of it. I have a hard time convincing people, however.

  • At 7:03 PM, Blogger Dan Kauffman said…



    \Fitz\, n. [OF. fils, filz, fiz, son, F. fils, L. filius. See Filial.] A son; -- used in compound names, to indicate paternity, esp. of the illegitimate sons of kings and princes of the blood; as, Fitzroy, the son of the king; Fitzclarence, the son of the duke of Clarence.

    So it merely means "Son of" but was often used to give an illegitimate child a surname.


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