My name is Martin Bodek and I am a philologoholic. I am particularly fascinated by names, specifically by surnames. They reveal a story, a history, a migration tale. First names are of interest too, but they reveal only a parental aesthetic, not a potential centuries-old genealogy. As well, books on first names are ubiquitous, while books on surnames are more difficult to find. Hence I find them to be more prized and the effort of locating rare ones even more rewarding.
JewishWorldReview.com has offered to parlay my interest in the subject into a forum whereby I could make the subject (more) interesting for others.
My goal would be to entertain and enlighten myself and others and eventually to graduate my linguistic skills to the level of my idols, William Safire of The New York Times and Philologos of The Forward.
Before I deign to believe I belong in the same category as the above luminaries, I'll start here at JewishWorldReview.com and see what happens.
I therefore invite any person with a last name to please e-mail me with said surname and as much family history as possible.
Before you do so, an overview of my present linguistic skills is necessary to place my helpfulness to you in context. I speak English and Yiddish, understand Hebrew and German, can read the Cyrillic alphabet and have a rudimentary understanding of Spanish. I intend, in the near future, to attain fluency in more languages as my interest in onomastics deepens.
I also intend to make this column a brew that is four parts scholarly and one part humorous. This will balance my personality, which I consider to be four parts humor and one part scholar.
A brief overview of surname categories is also necessary to showcase what will be seen in this column. There are four general categories, plus one named for my personal predilection for puns:
1. Patronymic - names that are derived from the father's given name. For example, Jacobson (English, son of Jacob), Ivanov (Russian, son of Ivan) and McDonald (Scottish, son of Donald). Additional patronymic prefixes and suffixes include the Hebrew "Ben," the Arabic "Ibn" or "Bin," the French "Fitz-," the Dutch "Van," The Polish "-owicz," the Czech "-ovic," the Hungarian "-ovics," the Romanian "-ovici," the German "-owitz," the Iranian "-zadeh" or "-ian," the Italian "-i," the Spanish "-ez" and many others.
Matronymics - or names derived from a mother's last name - are included in this category. Some examples are Rifkin (derived from Rebecca), Helguson (Icelandic, son of Helga) and D'Ignazia (Italian, son of Ignazia).
2. Locational - names that are derived from a person or family's locale. Some names in this category pinpoint the exact location in question, such as Norman (French, from Normandy), Frankel (German, from Frankfurt) and Toledano (Spanish, from Toledo). Other locational names are more vague, such as Atwood (nice, but at which wood?), Overhill (great, but which hill?) and Brooks (lovely, care to narrow it down?).
3. Occupational - names that are derived from professions, such as Melamed (Hebrew, teacher), Schneider (German, cutter or tailor) and Abulafia (Arabic, doctor).
4. Descriptive - this is also known as the nickname category. It includes all personal identifiers, which themselves can be broken down into three general categories of my design (note that this subset is not always complimentary!):
i. Physical features - Gross (German, big), Shorter (English, shorter), Tawil (Arabic, long or tall), Rossi (Italian, redhead), Campbell (Scottish, crooked mouth), Gore (French, idle - don't tell Al!) and Kapinos (Polish, drip nose).
ii. Dispositions - Gay (English/French, cheerful), Sauer (German, austere) and Lovejoy (English, Happy).
iii. Status - Bauer (German, peasant or common citizen), Lackland (English, one lacking land or a home) and Richman (English, wealthy person).
5. Miscenameous - this category, of my invention, includes surnames that fit squarely into any of the categories above, but stand out either for their uniqueness or unflattering nature.
Acronyms are a class of surnames believed to be entirely unique to the Hebrew language. This is because vowels are not needed for consonants to sound sensible, for the most part, when strung together. The name Katz is actually an acronym of "kohen tzedek" (righteous priest), requiring only the letters kuf and tzadi for full pronunciation.
The names Bril (Ben Reb Yehuda Leib - son of Reb Yehuda Leib) and Shalit (sheyichyeh leorech yomim tovim - may he live many long, good days) are further examples of this naming convention.
Unflattering names are the most entertaining for me, and it is no coincidence that I have saved the best for last. This category includes the last three mentioned in my "physical feature" category above, to which can be added Kennedy (Irish, misshapen head), Caporaso (Italian, bald head), Schiller (German, cross-eyed), Potvin (French, a region in France, but also believed to describe a bribe-taker) and Trognon (French, apple core, but slang for something unmentionable).
Two particular names that have always piqued my interest are Ausfresser and Lustbader.
I can't figure out a way to make Ausfresser flattering. The direct translation from German seems to be "thorough pigouter". If we break up (what might be) the compound surname into two words, we'll have the common "Aus" prefix which usually denotes an Austrian lineage and "pigouter". He's a pig all right, the only question is if he's Austrian or thorough (the stereotype would tell you those are synonymous anyway).
Lustbader is a fascinating compound as well. "Bader" means "bath attendant" in German, a job not usually associated with glamour. It seems though, that a descendant of the original Bader was not satisfied with his "job description" but perhaps wanted to keep the name intact for genealogical consistency, so he added "lust" - which is German for "happy" - to the name and wound up surnamed "happy bath attendant."
So without further ado, please e-mail your last name, and as much family history as possible, to email@example.com. I in turn pledge to do my best research and to publish my findings here. If your inquiry does not appear in a future column, it is probably because of a backlog or because your name requires extensive research.
Remember please, that I am merely a fledgling in this field and should be regarded as having intern status. I will make errors, but I will endeavor to publish the researched corrections and improve my craft.