“Oh, I LOVE your name!” is only one of these comments I usually get when somebody checks my ID. Yes, it gets boring – none is original. And, no, they are so wrong because our family name derives from the Norman word “bacco”, which means “warrior”. My maiden name is another instance for a job, that of a Silesian village provost who collected levies for the landlord. How I know? Because I love looking up names.
Names can tell you which people have settled an area first. Some are very obvious – all indigenous names in the US. I love looking them up because they describe a world view of their own. “Humptulips” over on the Olympic Peninsula is actually not merely as funny as it sounds – it means “hard to pole” a canoe. Tahoma, the indigenous name for Mt. Rainier, is the “mother of waters” – a description as well of the glaciers as of a source of rivers. But there are others that are not as obvious. Some places are named after discoverers or politicians nobody really knows about anymore unless you love digging in history books. Or you find that the language of a place betrays the nationality of its founder, such as the “bo” in Poulsbo hints to a Scandinavian as well as the “by” in Maltby, WA.
Checking the meaning of first names is fun, too. Some people really choose their children’s names for their meaning. Other obviously not. Mackenzie e.g. means “son of Kenzie” – I wonder when that turned into a girl’s name. There must be an interesting story to it. Or why e.g. Jackson, literally the “son of Jack”, works as a first name for a person whose father is called anything but Jack. Apart from that there might be more than one son, and all of them would have to have the same first name in order to specify whose they are. The Islandic do this by the way. The females are some male’s name’s -dottir, which means daughter, the males are somebody’s -son; but they have an individual first name, such as Gunnar Sigurdson or Kristin Sigurdsdottir.
There used to be a time in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance when people Latinized their last names because it was fashionable and made them look more sophisticated. German famous writer Goethe’s lover, then wife, Christiane Vulpius, would have had the simple maiden name “fox” in the Middle Ages. You have to admit that Vulpius has more grandezza to it. The name of Reeve became Praetorius, an Oelschlaeger (oil miller) became Olearius and so forth. A matter of vanity that is not much pondered on anymore.
Most interesting also are Jewish last names, which were enforced in the 18th century in Europe if a Jew wanted more rights in the absolutist society. They often use allusions to the Bible, such as animal, gem or color symbols for the twelve tribes of Israel. Or they were translated from their original Oriental form into that of their new home country – e.g. Baruch became Seligman. Oppenheimer or Ginzburg are referring to the town their family hailed from. Or they were simply changed beyond recognition in the attempt to disguise the Jewish origin – Mendelssohn is originally Mordechai, Frank originally Ephraim.
The science of figuring out a name’s or a word’s origin and therefore meaning is called etymology. And there are tons of websites and loads of books dealing with the subject. It’s truly entertaining and educating to dig into etymology. As a person carries a name for a life-time, I find it more important that their name has a good meaning than some extraordinary spelling. You could compare it to the inner self and the make-up you dab on or the shirt you embellish with some extra frills. The American girl called ABCD (pronounced ‘abseedee) or the German boy called Pumuckl (pronounced ‘poo-mookl) after a fictional hobgoblin in a German children’s book series will have to explain their names for a life-time. They will stand out for all the wrong reasons.
What’s in a name? In the end it’s a signifier for an object or a person. For a person it’s also an identifier. I won’t listen, if somebody calls “Hi, Susan!” across a room or a street – because I simply don’t identify myself with this version of the originally Jewish name. Just as I don’t feel addressed when written with a “z”. You probably experience the same when your name gets mispronounced or misspelled, right? The latter wouldn’t have troubled me as long as I wasn’t able to read or write. Another cultural phenomenon.
Do you know what your family name means? Or your first name? Where the name of the place you live comes from? Whether it even tells some history? Have some fun time and check it out. You have a whole weekend lying ahead!