A man appears before a judge, requesting to change his name.
The judge asks, “What is your name now?”
The man replies, “Joe Schitz!”
The judge says, “Well, I can certainly understand you wanting to change it. What do you want to change it to?”
There are 7 kinds of English surnames.
Personal Characteristics – Like nicknames – Short, Hardy, Small, Strong
Place Names – Sutton, Bedford, Hamilton
Occupational – Weaver, Tanner, Miller
Estate Name – Windsor, Staunton
Geographical – Bridge, Brooks, Hill
Ancestral – Benson (son of Ben), Marriot (daughter of Mary)
Patronage – Hickman was Hick’s man(servant), Kilpatrick was a follower of Patrick
Back when women were allowed to stay in hospital overnight after giving birth, the wife was put in a semi-private room with a young woman married to a Dutch-Canadian named vanderPlaats. Without me asking, he launched into a story about his name. He said that when the officials came around and told people that they had to have a surname, many thought that it was a joke, and gave themselves silly, stupid names. He claimed that his name meant ‘A Big Piss.”
Either he was kidding me, or someone had kidded him. His name comes from a family important enough to live/work next to the city square = from the place – merchants or administrators. He was wrong, yet in a way, right.
The blame name-game went rather smoothly in Britain. Names were assigned. Taxes were levied. In places like The Germanies and the Netherlands though, opportunistic greed and vindictive bureaucratic pettiness gave the appointed nominators chances to fatten their wallets and punish real or imagined wrongs.
Getting a ‘Good’ family name became dependent on wealth, power, or the good-will of the census taker. The nobility, like the von Hess, or von Beethoven, got names that showed that they owned and taxed cities and provinces. The very rich, like the Jewish bankers, got names like Goldman, and Silverman, to display their wealth.
For the rest of the population, names were available for sale to the highest bidder. If you could fatten the retirement fund, or kiss the ass of, the King’s representative, names like Ehrmentraut = Honored, Reiner = Purer, Erbe = Inheritance (of the Kingdom of God) and Waltraud = Morally Strong, were available. If you had no money, or had somehow annoyed the bureaucrat, names that meant Bookmaker/Gambler, Cheese-curd (Face), Disrespectful, and Rat-Catcher were handed out. Being Joe Schitz might be the least of your problems.
After a couple of embarrassing episodes, I learned not to ask locals the meanings of their names. I just bring them home, and run them through Google Translate. Do you have, or have you run into, interesting non-English names?