by John Q on December 16, 2003

Surnames were invented sometime in the Middle Ages in response to the crisis caused by the oversupply of men named John. Since the same problem has alreadycaused some interesting confusion, I’ve breached CT style by switching to my full name. I hope this isn’t a problem.



Kieran Healy 12.16.03 at 10:13 pm


Jonathan Edelstein 12.16.03 at 11:39 pm

In 1991-92, I put myself through a year of college teaching English in a Satmar Hasidic elementary school. My students had all been born within a year or two of the death of Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum in 1979, and, since everyone in the community named their next-born son after him, 16 out of 25 students were named Joel. Three of them were named Joel Weiss and two were Joel Schwartz. As you might expect, there was a great deal of confusion, but if any of the students made trouble, I could be pretty sure that Joel did it.


fyreflye 12.17.03 at 1:11 am

Naming me John William Thomas tested the extent of my parents’ imaginative powers.


Jon Mandle 12.17.03 at 2:46 am

Let me take this opportunity to welcome John, and to point out that I have been doing my part to avoid confusion by not posting recently… Okay, actually I’ve been swamped with grading final papers and exams, but I should be unburied soon.


Barbara 12.17.03 at 3:00 pm

I avoided commenting on books I did not read, it would have been too long a list, but one book I did read was an entire (fairly short) work on English surnames. It was fascinating. It seems that Anglo-saxons used to name their children the way Native Americans did — with names that were unique to the child. Until advent of Christianity and the Conqueror, when, to show favor to those in power, they started naming their children after saints, bishops, royalty and aristocracy. Which produced a glut of people with the same name. The most popular English male name between 1100 and 1400 was Robert, which spawned more surnames than any other first name. Hopkins = kin of Hob (nickname for Robert, like Bob and Rob are today). Our most popular bird is named a Robin for that reason as well (proving that our ancestors were much closer to nature than we are!) Shakespeare is the equivalent of troublemaker, 14th century style. If a man was brave, one might call him “Lowell” (little wolf, approximately, in French), and on and on. (The Welsh and Irish have fewer surnames because more of them are based on clan designations.)

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