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Do American family names make sense?

Do names really mean anything, even when they seem to? Individuals in present day America called Smith, Jackson, Washington, or Redhead are not usually smiths, sons of Jack, residents in Washington, or red-haired. The disconnect between sense and usage in these particular names is mainly the result of hereditary surnaming back in England and Scotland, but this is not its only source. Names change their shapes, get borrowed into different cultures, and are sometimes re-interpreted to mean something other than what they originally meant. The frozen food company, Birds Eye, took its brand name from the founder’s surname, Clarence Frank Birdseye II of Montclair, New Jersey. His family had migrated from England to Connecticut in the seventeenth century, and the name’s meaning as a nickname looks obvious. But when it is traced back in English historical records, Birdseye turns out to be a habitational name, an altered form of the Lancashire gentry surname Bardsley, which migrated to Buckinghamshire, England, in the fifteenth century and was simplified there from the sixteenth century onward to Bardsey, Berdsey, Burdsey, and Birdseye.

The underlying cause for the disconnect is that names, unlike words, don’t have to stay meaningful in order to do their job of identifying individuals or groups of people. In fact, most American family names make no sense at all today and it is fascinating to uncover their original meanings and what they tell us about the history of the people who bear them. Hereditary surnames are especially vulnerable to changes in pronunciation that obscure their original senses. Starbuck, for example, seems to be an altered form of Tarbuck, which is recorded in the thirteenth century as the surname of the family who were lords of Tarbock in Lancashire, England. In the 1630s, Edward Starbuck, a coloniser from Derbyshire, England, set up a whaling company on Nantucket Island. Herman Melville borrowed the surname for the chief mate of the whaling ship Pequod in his novel Moby Dick to give his incredible story an appearance of local veracity. It is this fictional character that the coffee chain is arbitrarily named for.

Absence of sense enables names to migrate easily from person to person and into other languages, where they can be further mangled or re-interpreted, nowhere more prolifically than in the United States. American family names have a unique diversity, the living evidence of a country founded on colonization, forced transportation (especially of West Africans), and influxes of refugees and economic migrants from across the globe. The latest edition of the Dictionary of American Family Names explains over 80,000 of them and includes 35 introductory essays written by experts from countries across the world.

Names as gateways into world history are full of surprises. Trump is a surname from Bavaria in Germany, where in medieval times the now obsolete word trumpe, “drum,” was adopted as a name for a drummer. (Donald Trump’s Scottish connection is on his mother’s side.) Biden probably derives from the place called Baydon in Wiltshire, England, and has been a family name in neighbouring Hampshire since the early fourteenth century. (Joe Biden’s Irish connection is on his mother’s side.) Mancini is from Italian mancino, a nickname for a left-handed person. Wang is chiefly Chinese, from a Romanized spelling of Mandarin and Cantonese words of many senses, including “king, royal” and “yellow, gold.”

Some family names have been created in America itself, where individuals whose own culture had no tradition of surnaming found themselves legally required to have one. Migrants from Muslim countries and from parts of the Indian subcontinent have commonly opted for one of their own personal names. The Dictionary explains that the surname Abdullah, with over 8,000 bearers in the 2010 US census, is an Arabic personal name ‘Abdullāh, “servant of God.” Murthy, with 1,268 bearers in 2010, is from southwest India, where it is a personal name from the Sanskrit mūrti, “manifestation, image,” that of one of the gods, Rama or Krishna.

Among Native Americans, a different solution was to use their personal name in an English translation. The Cheyenne Mo’ohnah’evaoo’etse, “Elk stands with his wife,” refers to the habit of elks standing shoulder to shoulder, and was Americanized as the surname Elkshoulder. The most common American surname actually in a Native American language is Begay, with 17,533 bearers in the 2010 census. It is an Anglicized spelling of the Navajo word biye’, “his son,” which was originally part of a longer personal name, coming after the father’s name. It was imposed on Navajos by white officials, who mistook it for a surname. Some Native Americans adopted the surname of a colonial administrator. Abeyta is a Hispanic surname mostly found among the Pueblos of New Mexico, where in the 1690s a Spaniard, Diego de Abeytia (or de Beitia), was involved in its recolonization. His surname referred to a place called Beitia in Biscay, Basque Country, in northern Spain.

But most Native Americans assimilated to Anglo-American culture by doing what most of the freed slaves of West African heritage did­—borrowing an existing, commonplace surname like Smith or Johnson. An alternative strategy favored by African Americans was to take the surname of an admired figure, such as Lincoln, Jefferson, Jackson, or Washington. The Dictionary reveals time and again that the Englishness of an American surname is not a safe guide to the ethnicity or heritage of its bearers. Immigrants, too, often adapted to their new country through the translation or assimilation of an existing non-English name into an English near-equivalent. Yet more sources of Smith are Dutch Smit, German and Jewish Schmidt, and Slavic Koval. Dutch Timmerman was sometimes translated into the English Carpenter, French Boulanger into Baker, and German Goldwasser into Goldwater.

The Ashkenazic Jewish name Kaplan, from German Kaplan or Polish kapłan, “chaplain, curate,” was already a translation of Cohen, from Hebrew kohen, “priest,” before it was assimilated in the American composer’s family to Copland, an English habitational name from either of two northern English place-names. Assimilated name-forms have created countless similar examples of misleading appearances. Sharkey is usually Irish, a shortened, Anglicized form of the Gaelic Ó Searcaigh, “descendant of Searcach,” from a nickname meaning “beloved,” but it is also an American garbling of French Chartier “carter.”

Family histories can resolve some of the uncertainties. Morton looks English or Scottish, a habitational name from one of the places so named, and it often is. George Morton of Nottinghamshire, England, was one of the Mayflower pilgrim fathers. But, as the Dictionary explains, the name has several other origins as an Americanization of Swedish, Finnish, French, and Jewish names. John Morton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, had a Finnish grandfather called Martti Marttinen—“Martin Martin’s son”— who moved to Sweden, where his name was Scandinavianized as Mårten Mårtensson, pronounced Mortenson, and then to America, where his surname was shortened to Morton.

Another way in which the Dictionary disambiguates the origins of a family name is to note the forenames associated with it in US telephone directories. Lee, with nearly 700,000 bearers in the 2010 census, is the standout instance of an English habitational name that was re-purposed to assimilate names from other languages. They include one each from Irish and Norwegian and six from Romanized forms of Chinese and other Southeast Asian languages in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar. The surname is famous as that of a Shropshire family that migrated from England to Virginia in the early seventeenth century and whose descendants were prominent in the American Revolution and the Civil War. But some of its forenames in America—Young, Sang, Jae, Jong, Jung, Sung, Yong, Kyung, Seung, Dong, Kwang, Myung­—alert us to other histories, of later migrations from Southeast Asia.

Is it ever safe to take an American family name at face value? Often yes, even if all you can be sure of is that the name, whatever its original sense, belongs to a specific group of people. But, as you have seen from the names I’ve picked out for discussion, appearances can be very deceptive.

Featured image by Joshua Hoehne via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. A

    “Wang is chiefly Chinese, from a Romanized spelling of Mandarin and Cantonese words of many senses, including “king, royal” and “yellow, gold.”

    ”Wang” is Mandarin only, not Cantonese. It is “Wong” in Cantonese.

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