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The Origins and Meanings of Ashkenazic Last Names
December 26, 2013 3:25 PM   Subscribe

Ashkenazic Jews didn't originally have family names until compelled to do so starting in the 17th century. Bonus: Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island.

Note: the comments in the article about the origin of Ashkenazic last names mention there are some inaccuracies.
posted by ShooBoo (50 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite

 
My grandfather left Poland (technically Russia at the time) and first traveled to Liverpool (aboard the Lusitania(!)). They created an English spelling of his last name there that sounded pretty much like the original Polish. When he eventually arrived at Ellis Island they created a different English spelling that sounds a little less like the original. So technically the name wasn't changed but it sure was altered.
posted by tommasz at 3:40 PM on December 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


Extremely interesting story about Frank Woodhull in your second link.
Spoiler: Historical transgender man! Awesome.
posted by Mizu at 3:43 PM on December 26, 2013 [10 favorites]


That's really fascinating, thanks for the links. I've had a hard time finding some of my relatives who came over through Ellis Island because my great grandmother, I swear to God, changed the spelling of her new last name when she got married because she "didn't like the c."
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 3:50 PM on December 26, 2013


I know there are a few TV writers here on Metafilter: please, create a series (HBO/Showtime) about Frank Woodhull. I would loyally watch that. I'd even get cable again for a show like that. Holy shit, what a brave and fascinating life -- and lots of undocumented spaces to fill creatively!

Do it!!
posted by MoxieProxy at 4:05 PM on December 26, 2013 [8 favorites]


I have family that changed their name when they got here from Poland.
Their choice wasn't the best.
They decided to drop the part of their name that sounded "foreign," -kowski.
They went, intentionally, from Simienkowski to Simien, pronounce like "simian."
Yeah, three generations later, those of us not saddled with the name sure as hell made fun of it.
If I had done that, I might have made up a story about some dick at Ellis Island too.
posted by Seamus at 4:06 PM on December 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


Frank Woodhull's story reminds me of "One-eyed Charlie".
posted by 445supermag at 4:13 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Frank Woodhull story is fascinating. I may have to try to google some more about him.
posted by Stewriffic at 4:50 PM on December 26, 2013


My mother's name change story:

My mother entered the USA at Ellis Island in 1920 about age 13 (I found the record in the manifests at ellisisland.org). There were no records of her birth. Her officlal birthday was simply made up, and her natal city spent the twentieth century hopping from country to country like a jet-setter. It seems to have settled in the Ukraine.

When she reached retirement age (in the early 1970's) she asked my sister to document her age to Social Security. The thing was, she had changed her first name (she didn't like her old first name and so became Lillian, a very current name in the 1920s) and knocked a few years off her age, probably in the 1920s.

So all that had to be done was show that mother had a different name and age than the Social Security Administration knew about. Huh?

It turned out that this could be done. Mother had attended school in New York for a couple of years. School records could verify her (new) story.

So my sister called the NY Board of Education, and got to the correct person to look up very old school records, and nervously told the unbelievable and unverifiable story of "this person with a different age and different name who went to school in the 1920's and would now like to verify she is indeed 65 years old."

The BofE person told my sister this happens all the time. In the early 20th century, it seems, you could change your name and age as easily as you change your clothes, and many people did. (We need this now!)

The records were in a deep, dank, cellar somewhere, and the BofE would accumulate requests for about a month and descend into the records to verify them all. So it would take a few weeks, but it would happen.

And it did.
posted by hexatron at 4:55 PM on December 26, 2013 [45 favorites]


Is there any truth to the story that the Germanic names given to Jews in Prussia/the Hapsburg Empire were chosen by the authorities to be (a) distinctly Other (like Goldberg, Appelbaum, and so on), so one could always identify a Jew, and (b) often deliberately unflattering, especially if the bureaucrat believed that the recipient had the money to pay a bribe to go from Grossman to Friedman or similar?
posted by acb at 5:10 PM on December 26, 2013


Hexatron, it sounds like your mother was from the area that was once called Galicia, yes? Formerly Austro-Hungarian Empire, then Poland, then USSR, then Ukraine? If so, shoot me a note with her original name and town and I may be able to dig up her birth record for you. I did the same thing for several of my relatives. (I'm the VP and chief web geek of this genealogy non-profit, and literally a second before I clicked over to this MetaFilter tab to procrastinate, I was busy prepping 22 new datasets of 19th and early 20th century birth, marriage, death, tax, and property records for their free online database search engine I built. The new stuff is going live tomorrow, hopefully.)
posted by Asparagirl at 5:13 PM on December 26, 2013 [33 favorites]


Also, related to the original link: I gots yer hidden-in-plain-sight matronymics right here.
posted by Asparagirl at 5:16 PM on December 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


My mother's favorite name story comes from tracking one family on her side across the ocean in passenger lists. When they left, they were Woloczyn; midway through they turned into something like Voloshin; and when they wound up in the USA, they became the very Jewish-sounding, er, Wilson. And like hexatron, we have several ancestors who just kept changing their names around.

In the case of one family, the Finkelsteins (or Finkielsztejns), mom has been able to trace our ancestry back to the first one who took a family name, at the end of the eighteenth century. Usually, though, there aren't any surviving records for anyone beyond ggg-gparents.
posted by thomas j wise at 5:16 PM on December 26, 2013


> Note: the comments in the article about the origin of Ashkenazic last names mention there are some inaccuracies.

There are a lot of inaccuracies; see my first comment here. I mean, there's a lot of true stuff too, but don't believe any particular item unless you check it with a more scholarly source.
posted by languagehat at 5:21 PM on December 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


And yeah, just to butt into this thread again, there are indeed some inaccuracies in the original post's list of names. Indyk or Indik is the Yiddish word for turkey, not goose, and turkeys didn't even exist in the Old World until after the time of Shakespeare. And Kagan is just a Russian variant of Cohen, like the way Kaplan was used in Poland, and has nothing to do with Khazars.

(EDIT to add: Jinx, languagehat!)
posted by Asparagirl at 5:21 PM on December 26, 2013


Languagehat, responding to your comment: In the first place, how many Jewish Gordons are there?

So many. Two distinct families live near me, and at least one comes from a very large extended family. I was perplexed and wondered whether they might be associated with Lord George Gordon until I found out about the Grodno connection.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:51 PM on December 26, 2013


And sometimes people changed their names well after Ellis Island. See Kabotchnik v. Cabot, which features an update to the famous Boston poem:

And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells have no one to talk to
Since the Cabots speak Yiddish, by God.

posted by adamg at 5:54 PM on December 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


We had a hard time finding my grandfather's Ellis Island record online because the handwriting on the manifest had been incorrectly transcribed. Then the spelling of both grandparents last names changed on each census record from 1910-1940 when it stabilized to its current spelling. Many Italian surnames in Texas were changed to the similar sounding Hispanic names that the census takers were more familiar with. In our case Centanni became Santana.
posted by tamitang at 6:15 PM on December 26, 2013


Did not know that -man names (and apparently -kin names) were matronymic. Very interesting, especially since I have one.
posted by kyrademon at 6:41 PM on December 26, 2013


The rumor is that my great-great-grandfather was a criminal hopping borders (going the wrong way, from Poland towards Russian territory in the mid 19-century) and that this is why basically only we have this danged name that doesn't seem to mean anything but is noticeably not very Lithuanian-sounding and also not very Jewish-sounding. His son married a girl named Solomon (like three quarters of the Jewish people in their village.) I assume he must have actually been Jewish, because no one in their right mind would pretend to be Jewish in that time and place, at least given the reason everyone says he showed up there. Near as I can tell, the name changing happened around the time his son was in NYC wanting to do something American-ish like getting his citizenship. Until you know the backstory, you'd think we were British; other family members who moved here in the same period retained the wacky original surname and, well, everyone assumes they're Polish.

And just today my dad emailed me about his mom's brother's birth record, which indicates that the other great-grandmother on his side was possibly named "Welch" instead of "Walsh." Given that she's from Oughterard and not a single person in that generation sounded like someone who had ever even heard English as a child, my guess is that it's a transcription error.

When I meet genealogy newbies who whine about having to deal with some still-doesn't-use-computers-can-you-believe-that diocese in the midwestern US, I think to myself that it's very uncharitable to hate them.
posted by SMPA at 7:17 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Ellis Island name change makes me think of the scene in Godfather II, when Vito as a young child passes through and the officials mistake his hometown name -- Corleone -- as his family name.
posted by zardoz at 7:58 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Shout out to the marvelous documentary about names, The Sweetest Sound, in which director Alan Berliner tries to assemble all those who share his name for a dinner party, with much discussion of surname history along the way. That's where I first learned that the name change on Ellis Island thing was a myth. One historian in the film suggests that people changed their names to assimilate, and didn't want to admit it to their children, so they blamed some anonymous bureaucrat.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:51 PM on December 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


In the first place, how many Jewish Gordons are there?

So many.


Seriously. It may be true -- may -- that most Gordons aren't Jewish, but a pretty sizeable chunk are. And, being a Lithuanian-Jewish name, a lot of people named Gordon are very Jewish indeed.

Notable Jewish Gordons include a movie star, players of both baseball and cricket (oldest living test cricketer!), a founding father of cinema, a Hebrew poet, a Yiddish novelist, an influential rosh yeshiva, a pioneering Labour Zionist, etc., etc., etc.

(That said, the notion that Gordon derives from Grodno does seem to be contested. But then, so do all the other origins of all the other Gordons.)
posted by Sys Rq at 10:28 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


This article has been all up in my facebook feed for days. Here's my question that no one on facebook answered: The article mentions that "Bronfman" means "distiller". OK, cool. Edgar Bronfman, Sr. just died so I thought it sure was funny that the Bronfmans were alcohol distributors. So, is it some hilarious coincidence or did the Bronfmans change their name? Wikipedia leads me to believe they were named Bronfman while in Russia and that the father of Samuel Bronfman [the guy who started the liquor biz] was a tobacco farmer in the old country. They didn't start the liquor thing until a long time later. Is this like the dentist real-named "Dr. Hurtz"?
posted by atomicstone at 11:58 PM on December 26, 2013


The issue of geographic names is a bit tricky, because having a geographic name usually means that your ancestors didn't live there. At least, they didn't live there recently. I have relatives from Italy whose name means "German", and I have relatives from Hungary whose name means "Polish", and I have relatives from various cities who are named after other cities. This is quite obvious if you think about it: your origin is only an identifiable characteristic once you have emigrated. If you're in your home town or city you're just another resident of Grodno; it's only when you have travelled to, e.g., Brody that the locals pick up on the fact that you have a funny accent and a weird hat.

I don't know if Lord George Gordon actually had any descendants. He was quite a character; he features in Dickens' Barnaby Rudge and is one of the few individuals to be memorialised by his own riot.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:05 AM on December 27, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'm skeptical about the writer's assertion that Ashkenazi Jews were "among the last Europeans to take family names." Mostly, the spread of family names to the non-aristocracy just followed the development of modernish states, and the need to catalog and control citizen/subjects better (cf: M. Foucault). I don't see any actual evidence that there was anything particularly distinctive about the Ashkenazi experience vis a vis their Slavic neighbors in the Eastern reaches of 'Europe,' or their Germanic neighbors as they migrated west.
posted by jackbrown at 1:43 AM on December 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am the bearer of one of the most common Ashkenazic surnames, and ours was not changed at Ellis Island, although it was at other ports.
posted by louche mustachio at 3:02 AM on December 27, 2013


I'm skeptical about the writer's assertion that Ashkenazi Jews were "among the last Europeans to take family names."

Yeah, me too, considering here in Holland official surnames only became a thing with the French occupation at the end of the eighteen/early 19th century. Also, all those things the original writer seems amazed about the Ashkenazi Jews used as sources (placenames, matronyms, patronyms, etc) for their new surnames? Used here as well.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:05 AM on December 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


In the first place, how many Jewish Gordons are there?

Late to the party, but I'll add to the collection--my late great-uncle's family name was also Gordon.
posted by thomas j wise at 5:32 AM on December 27, 2013


Mustachio is a Jewish name?
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 6:31 AM on December 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm skeptical about the writer's assertion that Ashkenazi Jews were "among the last Europeans to take family names."

Considering that there are still huge swathes of Europe where family names as such are practically nonexistant (genealogy is hard if your ancestors are Scandinavian), yeah, that seems like a stretch.
posted by Sys Rq at 6:53 AM on December 27, 2013


Our family name was changed at Ellis Island, in fact. The officials could not spell my grandfather's name, and so he was asked to take his sponsor's name (my Grandfather's brother in law) which happens to be the Jewish term for a priest - Cohen. Neither my Grandfather or "Uncle Dave" were, in fact, Cohens. They were Levite. But there was a certain amount of status in being named Cohen. After a few years they were allowed to revert to their original family names, which Uncle Dave's family did. My zeyde, however, was already in a business where an abrupt name change would cause suspicion of wrongdoing, so he chose to keep his.

Ever since I have had to explain, when called up in synagogue for broches, that I am in fact a Levite, and not a Cohen. And nobody wants to believe me.
posted by zaelic at 7:06 AM on December 27, 2013 [6 favorites]


We had a hard time finding my grandfather's Ellis Island record online because the handwriting on the manifest had been incorrectly transcribed.

Oh, man, this is the biggest problem I've been having with my half-assed ancestry.com research - the bulk of what I'm finding is in census records, and the census takers have all had SHIT handwriting. One of my Canadian great-uncles, Denis, got recorded under the name "Goonie" at one point.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:42 AM on December 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Mustachio is a Jewish name?

If so, it'd be Sephardic.
posted by acb at 8:56 AM on December 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


> going the wrong way, from Poland towards Russian territory in the mid 19-century

Lots of Jews headed for Russian territory at that time, doing their best to evade the restrictions of the Pale (cf. The Fixer for a memorable fictional example); after all, Poland, for all its glorious history, was then a remote and disfavored province of the Russian Empire, and if you wanted to make a splash you headed for Kiev, Moscow, or (best of all) Saint Petersburg.

> Seriously. It may be true -- may -- that most Gordons aren't Jewish, but a pretty sizeable chunk are.

Thanks to all those who corrected me on this; I learn something here every day!
posted by languagehat at 8:58 AM on December 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


Considering that there are still huge swathes of Europe where family names as such are practically nonexistant (genealogy is hard if your ancestors are Scandinavian), yeah, that seems like a stretch.

Iceland (where they still haven't got mass adoption of family surnames) is presumably not considered to be Europe.

Btw, how long ago did Sweden/Norway ossify their patronyms into fixed family names? The traces of the old Nordic patronymic system are evident in the large number of (often gender-mismatched) -son/-dotter surnames.
posted by acb at 8:59 AM on December 27, 2013


after all, Poland, for all its glorious history, was then a remote and disfavored province of the Russian Empire

Except for the bits that were parts of Prussia (i.e., Gdansk/Danzig) or the Hapsburg/Austro-Hungarian Empire.
posted by acb at 9:01 AM on December 27, 2013


> Except for the bits that were parts of Prussia (i.e., Gdansk/Danzig) or the Hapsburg/Austro-Hungarian Empir

Yeah, though I thought in context it was obvious I was talking about Congress Poland.
posted by languagehat at 9:09 AM on December 27, 2013


Yes, my Polish grandparents were listed as coming from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The came here in the first decade of the 20th century from South Eastern Poland.
posted by mermayd at 9:17 AM on December 27, 2013


I have one of the "color" names - Schwartz (black), Weiss (white), Roth (red), etc. Disappointed the article did not cover these. I have seen speculation that these were picked or given out on the basis of some characteristic like hair color.
posted by Mid at 9:49 AM on December 27, 2013


The original article seems to have left out one if my favorite sources for Jewish last names, and likely where my mother got hers: kestenbaum, meaning "chestnut tree." These were from door signs, which were often used as a sort of early address for a building (there were still some of these proto-addresses when I was young; when American friends wished to mail me when I was in England, they just wrote "Innox Farm" on the envelope and it got there.)

Pubs most famously had these signs, and mail was often delivered there, but so did hotels and boarding houses. And so there were Jews who simply took those signs as their last name. And why not? This was a name that was already associated with you, as it was your address.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:16 AM on December 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am a Schwartz, but there is no one in my family who was Jewish dating back to the early 1800s. It's a bit of a mystery for my family and no one has had an explanation for why a Roman Catholic family has an ordinarily Jewish surname.
posted by Hop123 at 10:41 AM on December 27, 2013


Great post! This explains why my last name would indicate that my family is from a country I can't trace my lineage back to, despite going back 3-4 generations. I bet if I could trace my family back to late-18th/early-19th century Eastern Europe, I'd find my ancestors living in that country.
posted by evil otto at 10:42 AM on December 27, 2013


I have a surname generally considered to be Israeli, though my family is neither Israeli nor (to my knowledge) Jewish. A friend who was studying Hebrew many years ago pointed out to me, in horror, that it translates into English as "bastard by incest." I don't want to be disabused of this notion, because I find it extremely entertaining.
posted by Hildegarde at 1:51 PM on December 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am a Schwartz, but there is no one in my family who was Jewish dating back to the early 1800s. It's a bit of a mystery for my family and no one has had an explanation for why a Roman Catholic family has an ordinarily Jewish surname.

It's also just a German name. It seems Gentiles usually spell it Schwarz, without the t, but I suspect a lot of transatlantic Schwarzes would've added the t after having the pronunciation butchered by non-Germans.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:23 PM on December 27, 2013


Seriously. It may be true -- may -- that most Gordons aren't Jewish, but a pretty sizeable chunk are.

In the 1930s, my grandmother and grandfather, and a handful of their relatives, were able to flee to New York from Munich and Vienna (respectively). As an adult, my grandfather figured the job search was going to be hopeless for someone with a strong German accent and an obviously Jewish last name (Goldstein), so he changed the family name to something less identifiable as Jewish. He had figured on using Gordon -- he wanted to keep his old initials -- but there were so many Jews with that last name already that he thought it would be pointless, so he used a slight variant instead.

For a while someone from Sweden (?) was contacting us, because that person's family happens to have the same surname as the one my grandfather made up, and kept insisting we were related. Obviously we aren't, but we didn't really want to tell him, "nope, Grandpa made it up because he was just that pragmatic."

On the other hand, my grandmother's brother passed on her family name to his two sons, who have passed it down to a grandson and great-grandson by now, but they pronounce it in such an Anglicized way that it doesn't sound like it's spelled anymore or how she pronounces it. What's funny is that their name isn't all that specifically Jewish, anyway, it's pretty much a run of the mill German name. My great-uncle just wanted to WASP it up for his own reasons, I guess.
posted by rue72 at 12:05 AM on December 28, 2013


It's also just a German name. It seems Gentiles usually spell it Schwarz, without the t, but I suspect a lot of transatlantic Schwarzes would've added the t after having the pronunciation butchered by non-Germans.

That and transliteration issues; Yiddish, for example, was descended from Middle German (with some Slavic influences) though written in the Hebrew alphabet, and so Yiddish names which are otherwise etymologically close to their German cognates can look weird when transliterated into English. Also, transliteration between Roman and Cyrillic alphabets, or even Germanic and Slavic orthographies, could have contributed to spellings that look odd (I recall seeing a few surnames that looked like Slavicised German, i.e., ending in "-sztajn" (-stein).) So yes, things can get mangled in a number of ways.
posted by acb at 4:56 AM on December 28, 2013


Another famous Jewish Gordon.
posted by SlepnerLaw at 5:00 PM on December 28, 2013


In my case it appears that the invented name and the patronymic name coexisted on official documents, at least for a time. My family’s official name was Malkin (which I believe is an invented name derived from Malka or Malek, meaning queen/king), and most of the family immigrated as such. But a few immigrated as Bruchows, which I believe is a Russianized variation of the patronymic Baruch. Upon naturalization in Chicago, the Bruchows officially became Malkins, matching their parents and siblings, who were also there. Full story here: http://dziga.com/my-name-is-zalman-malkin/
posted by dziga at 8:53 AM on January 1


> Malkin (which I believe is an invented name derived from Malka or Malek, meaning queen/king)

Malkin isn't an invented name (or no more "invented" than most surnames); it's a Russianized derivative of malka 'queen.' (Cf. Malkis and Malkes, which are similar but non-Russianized derivatives.)
posted by languagehat at 10:32 AM on January 1


Malkin
posted by Sys Rq at 10:56 AM on January 1


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