Examining surnames

This is probably the time of the year for a few lighter posts so let me mention an occasional recreation that I have: Observing what surnames tell us. For instance: Surnames ending in "uk" or "iuk" are usually Ukrainian, surnames ending in "u" are Sardinan or Romanian, surnames ending in "yan" or "ian" are Armenian, and a final "ee" sound is very common in Irish names (Murphy, Toohey, Fahey, Talty, Sheehy, Mahoney, Mulrooney etc). There is also a more minor tradition for Irish names to end in an "un" sound: Coughlin, Reagan, Rearden etc.

But Ashkenazi names are the most amusing of all. They were meant to be. In a combination that will blow current Leftist minds, militaristic Prussia (in Northeastern Germany) was for many years the most tolerant place in Europe and many Jews fled to Prussia from persecution elsewhere. So much of the surviving Jewish population today owes its existence to the refuge their ancestors found in Protestant Prussia: Germany giveth and Germany taketh away. The Prussian border guards could not be bothered with foreign names, however, so gave the incoming Jews ID papers with German names on them. And the German names were deliberately mocking. So a Jew who was renamed as "Kren" for instance, had to go around thenceforth introducing himself as "Mr Horseradish" -- which is what "Herr Kren" means in German.

A basic knowledge of German therefore makes Ashkenazi names amusing to this day. Goldberg is "Goldmountain", Rosenblum" is "Roseflower", Finkelstein is "SparklingStone" etc. Occasionally however the guards must have run out of imagination and gave names that were not too bad. "Wiesengrund" is an example. It means "Meadowland", which sounds rather pleasant to me. In one of those ironies with which life abounds, however, the most prominent bearer of that name for his entire professional life used the pen-name of "Adorno", which is Spanish for "ornament"! Words fail me!

And I find my own surname rather fun too. There may be more than one path that has led to the surname "Ray" but it seems to me that the important fact about it is that it is found throughout the British Isles in various spellings (Rae in Scotland, Reay in Ireland, Wray in England etc.). So I think that it is clear that it is an old Celtic name probably derived from the Gaelic "rath" -- meaning "red" (cf. "roth", also meaning "red", in German). The Rays were originally the redheads. And guess what? My father was a redhead! So it all fits in a rather surprising way.

And then there are patronymics -- still important from Iceland to Russia. In Ireland we have of course originally patronymic names like O'Brien and McSweeney and in Scotland Macdonald. And if ever you get an urge to write a letter to the present President of Russia, DON'T address him as "Dear Mr. Putin". That is crass. You address him as "Vladimir Vladimirovich" (Vladimir son of Vladimir"). Similarly you would address Mikhail Gorbachev as "Mikhail Sergeyevich" (Mikhail son of Sergei). Patronymics are polite in Russia. But it is in Iceland that patronymics reign supreme. The full name of a recent President of Iceland is, for instance, "Vigdis Finnbogadottir" (Vigdis, daughter of Finnboga). That's her below.

In Denmark too patronymics used to be dominant but they made a law around 100 years ago that said everybody had to adopt a surname. But the Danes just converted their patronymics into surnames -- which is why we have so many Andersens (son of Anders), Petersens, Olsens (son of Ole), Neilsens etc. Now isn't that all rather fun?


I feel slightly foolish for having omitted the name "Kelly" from my list of Irish names ending in an "ee" sound. My very own beloved grandmother was a Kelly!

And to the list of Irish names ending in an "un" sound one should of course add Ryan, Mahon and Geoghegan. You may need to be Irish to pronounce Geoghegan correctly. It's easier than it looks!

Posted by John Ray

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