Sunday, February 25, 2007

how we got our names

Henry Farrell has an unusually interesting post on Crooked Timber: Trees, flowers, mountains, stones. Most of the enjoyment comes in the comments, so do take time to look them over.

It's about compulsory naming. Not too very long ago, people's last names weren't fixed, they came from parents, or occupations, or places of residence. They were forced to take fixed names for legal reasons (e.g., deeds and other land-right documents of various kinds), for purposes of taxation, as part of totalitarian control tactics, and simple bureaucratic desire for uniformity (a Napoleonic specialization). Sometimes they got to choose their own, sometimes they had names assigned to them (especially if Jewish), and sometimes they could bribe name-givers to obtain names they wanted.

Here's one account of the last-named practice:
Mencken has a story in The American Language about a German Jew who was made to take the last name “Schweisshund” (i.e. Swiss Hound). Asked by a friend why he didn’t pay the authorities to get a better name, he replied “Half my fortune went to buy the ‘w’ alone!”.

From a database of Jewish family names:
Family names used by Jews form a number of categories: for instance, there are names that Jewish families chose of their own will and names that were forced on them by the local authorities or gentile society. [Examples given ....] In all Diaspora communities, Jews had a preference for surnames of biblical or Hebrew origin. [More examples.] Sometimes family names were created by using acronyms or anagrams of Hebrew words. ... Names of many religious and traditional occupations within the Jewish community - like chazzan, rabbi, gabbai etc. - also become family names. ... Another important group of family names is made up of terms that originally designated an occupation. ... Names that designated the geographical origins of the family form a separate class. ... Finally, there are names that originally were nicknames, sometimes with a pejorative meaning: Klein (in German) or Zairi (in Arabic), for a short person, Roth (in German) for a red hair person, Tawil (in Arabic) for someone tall etc. In general, the names in this category either were imposed upon Jews by the local authorities or are based on the nickname of one of the family's ancestors.
It's not just last names. Comments point out that given names (first and middle) are also subject to regulation. One commenter says "As far as I know, in France it is still the law that first names must be either Greco-Roman (which has a Revolutionary/republican flavor to it) or a saint’s name. No Tuesdays or Cyndis." And, speaking of saints:
Spanish colonialists introduced compulsory surnames into the Philippines in 1849, issuing a “Catalogo Alfabetico de Apellidos” from which all were supposed to select family names. Prior to that date most Filipinos had two names, but neither was necessarily a “family name” and both were likely to be the names of catholic saints, combined in seemingly random order, so that “Juan Francisco” in one document might show up as “Francisco San Juan” in another. More than half the women were “Maria XXXX” (Maria Juana, Maria Francisca, Maria Theresa, Maria Candelaria,&c).

In some provinces, this assignment was apparently random. In others, it looks as if pages had been torn from the “Catalogo” and sent to each town in turn, so that you have 80-90% of the inhabitants of one town with surnames beginning with the letter “A”; in the next town down the coast it’s “B,” and so forth. (Thus the town of Oas, Albay, is so heavy with names beginning with “R” that they jokingly claim both Rizal and Roosevelt as native sons!) For a few years, if the historian is lucky, surviving records will show both someone’s new surname and the name by which s/he was previously known.

In Thailand, on the Western model, surnames were adopted by government decree early in the 20th century. The Thai went along because they had to, but did not fully internalize it, and most are still referred to except on official documents by the first (=real) name, not their surname. Thus Dr. Neon Snidvongs would be called “Dr. Neon,” not Dr. Snidvongs.

Most Indonesians still use only a single name. This confused the editors of Time in the immediate postwar period when they started hearing about a brash nationalist called “Sukarno” (or “Soekarno” in the Dutch spelling). Nothing daunted – Time never was in those days – they simply assigned him one, so the fictive name “Achmed Soekarno” is found in some reports of that period – and occasionally even later!
Posted by dr ngo · February 23rd, 2007 at 6:54 am
My own father had a couple of name stories. After delivering him the doctor asked my grandmother what she would name her son. She said "after his uncle Fritz" meaning that he would be named Friderick, but "Fritz" appeared on the the birth certificate and stuck for the rest of his life. For many (many) years he believed he had a middle name, Carl, and didn't realize that he legally had a middle initial, C, but no middle name at all.

No comments: