Trees, flowers, mountains, stones

by Henry Farrell on February 22, 2007

I’m teaching James Scott’s _Seeing Like a State_ today (the only academic work I’ve ever read that made me want to dash off a fan-letter to the author), and on re-reading it spotted a passage that seemed possibly relevant to something I’ve sometimes wondered about. Scott is talking about how European states imposed universal last names on their populations, the better to tax and monitor them.

The legislative imposition of permanent surnames is particularly clear in the case of Western European Jews who had no tradition of last names. A Napoleonic decree “concernant les Juifs qui n’ont pas de nom de famille et de prenoms fixes,” in 1808, required Jews to choose last names or, if they refused, to have fixed last names chosen for them. In Prussia the emancipation of the Jews was contingent on the adoption of surnames.

Which may go some way to explaining the puzzle that I’m interested in – why so many Jewish last names of German (or perhaps Yiddish?) origin refer to natural phenomena, with endings such as berg (mountain), stein (stone), wald (forest), baum (tree), blum (flower) and so on. The Italian Jewish name Montefiore (mountain of flowers) is possibly an example of the same thing, but I don’t know whether it’s typical of a broader phenomenon or a singular aberration. If this is part of the story, I’d be interested to know whether these are names that 18th and 19th century European Jews chose for themselves, or were pressured to take by various German state authorities. Any historians of Jewish culture out there who know the answer?



farah 02.22.07 at 6:12 pm

The story I was told, and it may be apocryphal, is that localities used it to make money, drawing up lists of names. Nice names, like Montefiore, cost more money than ordinary ones (mine: Mendlesohn or son of Mendel), and some names were imposed on the poor, like Schwarzkopf.

But that’s just the tradition I was brought up with. I don’t know.


Cirkux 02.22.07 at 6:12 pm

I was told by a rabbi aquaintance that quite a few of the berg, stein and feld names were given to east european jew fleeing pogroms by the immigration authorities when they came to austria-hungary, but I have nothing but hearsay to back this up…

[comment slightly edited to get rid of some formatting glitches – HF]


ogged 02.22.07 at 6:45 pm

Languagehat post on the topic.


Filter 02.22.07 at 6:58 pm

Italian Jewish last names are tipically names of cities (e.g. Volterra, Recanati, Bologna). “Montefiore” is the name of more than a town in Tuscany and Central Italy, so probably it has no connection with the names used by Jews in Germany.
By the way, many typical Italian Jewish last names are taken from names of German cities. For example: “Luzzato” (or Luzzatto, Luzzati, Luzzatti) comes from “Lausitz”, “Marpurgo” comes from “Marburg”, etc. Also “Tedesco” and “Tedeschi” are typical Jewish last names in Italy (“tedesco” = “German”).
During the Fascist regime, when laws against Jews were introduced, “arian” italians that had accidentally the name of a city, of another typical Jew name, as their last name were allowed to change it to something less equivocal.


franck 02.22.07 at 7:02 pm

E.T.A. Hoffmann made a lot of money doing this. Who in their right mind would choose Fischbein or Wieseltier if they could avoid it?

I had heard that Jews resisted last names because Moses didn’t have one, and they had to be imposed.


JR 02.22.07 at 7:37 pm


John Emerson 02.22.07 at 8:34 pm

Krauthammer: obviously a very poor family eking out a libving making the unique hammered sauerkraut.


jacob 02.22.07 at 8:49 pm

That section about permanent surnames has one of my favorite footnotes in any academic work. He describes a particular instance of the state giving someone a last name–in this case, a Welsh peasant. (I don’t have the book near me right now or I’d find it and quote.) It’s brilliant stuff, and I often use it to explain the concept of legibility.

(My other favorite footnote is in John Demos’s Unredemed Captive, when he describes a group people snowshoing through New England and admits that there are no records of what happened to them, but he’s writing based on his own experience of New England snowshoing.)


jacob 02.22.07 at 8:55 pm

Argh. “Unredemed”=”Unredeemed.” Obvs.


John Emerson 02.22.07 at 9:02 pm

I’m just now reading the biography of Karl XII of Sweden, and it’s notable that none of the big players (even the native Swedes) have stereotypical Scandinavian names like Johnson, Olson, Anderson, etc. Gustavas Vasa’s original name was Ericsson, but when he became somebody he became a Vasa.

The traditional pattern was for John’s son Eric to be Eric Johnson, and Eric’s son Karl to be Karl Ericson, and so on. Apparently at some time family names were fixed, and I would guess that the ones fixed as “Johnson” or whatever were the commoners.


dearieme 02.22.07 at 9:20 pm

“European states imposed universal last names on their populations, the better to tax and monitor them”: always? I’ve read that English surnames were adopted because a medieval change to property law made it important to establish your heritable rights as a landowner or tenant.


radek 02.22.07 at 9:58 pm

I’ve also read the stuff about “nice names” costing more though I think that pertained mostly to Austria-Hungary. In Prussia, and the part of Poland that was part of Prussia at the time, the names were imposed by bureaucrats, civil and military (getting a comprehensive list of potential draftees was another consideration in addition to taxation, both in Prussia and Russia), and though I don’t think there was an explicit price for a “nice name” I’m sure indirect bribery played a role.


radek 02.22.07 at 10:07 pm

This guy
says that in Prussia bribery definetly played a role. Do a search for “Hofmann” on that page, just in case you thought Carlyle was the only despicable Romantic


Isaac 02.22.07 at 11:27 pm

Minor local officials assigned names arbitrarily. Natural ones were often the easiest to think of. Many of the names are also ludicrous.


Henry (not the famous one) 02.22.07 at 11:43 pm

I used to think that the name Katzenellenbogen had something to do with cats’ elbows. As it turns out, the more likely explanation is more prosaic:


novakant 02.22.07 at 11:55 pm

E.T.A. Hoffmann was a vicious antisemite?


bad Jim 02.23.07 at 12:35 am

I, too, doubt that Hoffman was anti-semitic. None of the biographical notes I’ve read suggest this, nor does a quick Google search. One of the major characters in The Tomcat Murr is Master Abraham, a good friend of the author’s alter-ego Kreisler, and, from his name, presumably Jewish.

I’ll second what Emerson said about Scandinavians using patronyms until well into the nineteenth century, and I’ve read that the Scots used patronyms until the seventeenth, when they became fixed (so that MacSomething is not necessarily a clan name).

Patronyms still seem to be in use in Iceland.


Richard 02.23.07 at 12:40 am

This is much more widespread than Eastern Europe, though. Portuguese and Spanish Jewish surnames also rely heavily on natural features, especially trees (Oliveira being the standard example). I don’t know why or when it happened, but it ain’t just German.


mrs badger 02.23.07 at 12:56 am

The story told to me by my father (third generation Dutch-American, who speaks Dutch as it was spoken in the islands at the turn of the previous century) is that last names in the Netherlands were imposed by the Spanish for taxation purposes. The Dutch, forced to adopt a last name, chose place-based endlessly long names to annoy the Spanish. And I was in third grade before I could spell my maiden name.


Gene O'Grady 02.23.07 at 1:43 am

I believe that in Iceland not only is patronymic naming still the rule but that matronymic naming is also sometimes still found.


radek 02.23.07 at 1:45 am

That’s what that website says. And I think the story about him coming up with ridiculous or insulting names is pretty well sourced. It could be that the adjective “vicious” is…I dunno… maybe he was just your standard 18th/19th century anti-semitic European.

But as an aside. Aren’t surnames in most languages based on either:
a) Occupation
(Taylor, Schmidt – Smith – Kowalski etc)
b) Place of origin of family long time ago
c) Some personal feature of some ancestor
(White, Newmann (Neumann, Nowak)
d) Related to nature (probably through occupation or place of origin) (Mountbaum, Hillman, Gorski, etc.)
e) Patronymic (Johnson, Ericsson, Emerson? etc.)
f) Name of the master’s family back when your ancestors were slaves/serfs

I’m willing to bet non-Indo-European languages are the same (got a Chinese friend whose name directly translates as “Barbarian People”, or so he says)

No one knows where my last name came from. It’s of the kind that gives linguists a headache.


CG 02.23.07 at 1:51 am

I’ve heard the same story as Henry and I see no particular reason to doubt it.

A similar phenomenon occurred in 1920s Turkey, when Turks, who had used surnames only rarely, were mandated by Ataturk and the leadership of the Turkish Republic to choose their own surnames. Thus we have in modern Turkey a proliferation of surnames that translate to things like “white cloud” “clear water” “warrior” “black metal” “rose” “great mountain”, names of heroes in Turkic and Altaic mythology and Seljuk and Ottoman history, as well as ‘professional’-type names like “cotton seller”, “blacksmith”, and so on. The two most important figures in the early Republic, Mustafa Kemal and Ismet Inonu, both had adopted last names: Inonu named himself after the site of a successful military engagement against the Greeks, and Kemal means “excellence”.


Randolph Fritz 02.23.07 at 3:02 am

That’s fascinating. Thank you for mentioning it.


John Emerson 02.23.07 at 3:07 am

One branch of my family is Dutch. Dutch amateur genealogy is pretty well developed, and I’ve been able to trace that line back to approximately the founding of the Dutch Republic. The first three generations used patronymics, and the fourth adopted a name whose meaning is apparently unknown, but seems to have been a geographical feature or a village. At the beginning they were not native Dutch, but refugees from the Jacobite wars in Scotland, and the name they chose (Hospers) is a rather rare one.


Dan Goodman 02.23.07 at 4:30 am

West-Frisians didn’t think of surnames as theirs, up through some time before WW I; this is a problem for US genealogists with West-Frisian ancestry. Norwegians also didn’t have much regard for surnames.


JR 02.23.07 at 4:53 am

#7 – Krauthammer was almost certainly originally Krautheimer. Krautheim is a town in southwest Germany. Many Jews have similar place names – Berliner, Hamberger, Wertheimer, Wiener, Pinsker, Krakauer, etc.


nick s 02.23.07 at 5:20 am

The New York Times style mavens have trouble with Afghans who lack surnames, having to explain the phenomenon in reports, usually in a way that avoids suggesting there’s anything bad about not having one.

but refugees from the Jacobite wars in Scotland, and the name they chose (Hospers) is a rather rare one.

Sounds vaguely like a Northumberland connection…


Stewart Schoder 02.23.07 at 5:24 am

cg (22): Mustafa, later Mustafa Kemal, then Gazi M. Kemal, finally Kemal Ataturk, didn’t adopt “Kemal” as part of the 1934 name legislation. He was given it by his math teacher in early adolescence (and, significantly, kept it), to distinguish him either from the teacher himself or from another student (both named Mustafa)–accounts vary. He took the surname “Ataturk” following the 1934 legislation.

There’s more information in a fascinating study, The Immortal Ataturk, by Vamik Volkan and Norman Itzkowitz (Chicago, 1984). Heartily recommended to all those interested in Turkey or psychobiography.


dr ngo 02.23.07 at 6:54 am

Spanish colonialists introduced compulsory surnames into the Philippines in 1849, issuing a “Catalogo Alfabetico de Apellidos” from which all were supposed to select family names. Prior to that date most Filipinos had two names, but neither was necessarily a “family name” and both were likely to be the names of catholic saints, combined in seemingly random order, so that “Juan Francisco” in one document might show up as “Francisco San Juan” in another. More than half the women were “Maria XXXX” (Maria Juana, Maria Francisca, Maria Theresa, Maria Candelaria,&c).

In some provinces, this assignment was apparently random. In others, it looks as if pages had been torn from the “Catalogo” and sent to each town in turn, so that you have 80-90% of the inhabitants of one town with surnames beginning with the letter “A”; in the next town down the coast it’s “B,” and so forth. (Thus the town of Oas, Albay, is so heavy with names beginning with “R” that they jokingly claim both Rizal and Roosevelt as native sons!) For a few years, if the historian is lucky, surviving records will show both someone’s new surname and the name by which s/he was previously known.

In Thailand, on the Western model, surnames were adopted by government decree early in the 20th century. The Thai went along because they had to, but did not fully internalize it, and most are still referred to except on official documents by the first (=real) name, not their surname. Thus Dr. Neon Snidvongs would be called “Dr. Neon,” not Dr. Snidvongs.

Most Indonesians still use only a single name. This confused the editors of Time in the immediate postwar period when they started hearing about a brash nationalist called “Sukarno” (or “Soekarno” in the Dutch spelling). Nothing daunted – Time never was in those days – they simply assigned him one, so the fictive name “Achmed Soekarno” is found in some reports of that period – and occasionally even later!


sidereal 02.23.07 at 7:44 am

On Icelandic, I have a coworker who’s Icelandic and apparently [pm]atronymic naming is still the norm. His name is based on his father’s, but after he immigrated to the US he gave his daughter his last name (which naturally ends in ‘son’) in order to fit with the local norm. But when he goes back to Iceland to visit family her last name is ‘Skarpisdottir’ so she won’t be teased. Also, apparently in Iceland you are not permitted to give a child a first name that has not been approved by some sort of naming council.


chris y 02.23.07 at 8:09 am

Also, apparently in Iceland you are not permitted to give a child a first name that has not been approved by some sort of naming council.

Was this not also until recently the case in France – the mayor had a list of approved names against which the registrar had to check your application?

Dearieme upthread – I have heard similar, but fixed surnames arose earlier in England than most places, so perhaps comparable legislation wasn’t widespread.


abb1 02.23.07 at 8:41 am

In the Soviet Union after the revolution they abandoned internal passports and, I understand, pretty much all forms of identification. Then in early 1930s they made passports mandatory again; everyone had to register. Consequently, this was a moment when one could pick any name for him/herself. My grandfather was an anarchist, he protested by registering under the name of the protagonist of a pornographic novel, popular at the time. Hey, what’s in a name?


K R Hasan 02.23.07 at 9:16 am

This seems to be a worldwide phenomenon. The same thing happened in late 19th century British India. Some people adopted the name of their profession or location, so that today you have families such as Bankwalla, Canteenwalla, Bombaywalla, Japanwalla etc (“Walla” translates as “associated with”). It is also quite common for someone’s middle name to be the father’s first name.


karlos 02.23.07 at 11:17 am

I heard a similary story from a Dutchman whose surname translated as “Shit in the basket”. He gave me the impression that these ridiculous or obscene surnames were actively chosen as a protest against the Napoleonic decree.

Although that could well be an instance of the rewriting of history to suit the writers.


bill in Turkey 02.23.07 at 12:09 pm

Also, apparently in Iceland you are not permitted to give a child a first name that has not been approved by some sort of naming council.

Was this not also until recently the case in France – the mayor had a list of approved names against which the registrar had to check your application?

Also in Germany – and something similar (I think) in Turkey – at least for Turkish citizens: you must have at least one given name from a standard list though you may have more than one given name.

In Britain there isn’t a similar requirement (so people could presumably still end up with ‘Puritan’ names like ‘Praisegod Barebones’)

But I believe there’s a list of ‘names’ that you can’t give a child – I’ve been told or read that it includes ‘Satan’, ‘Jesus Christ’, ‘Uz’ and ‘Water’. I guess the list is issued to registrars of births and deaths.

(You may, though, be able to change your name by deed poll to something on the ‘forbidden list’ list


John Isbell 02.23.07 at 1:17 pm

As far as I know, in France it is still the law that first names must be either Greco-Roman (which has a Revolutionary/republican flavor to it) or a saint’s name. No Tuesdays or Cyndis.


Daniel 02.23.07 at 2:07 pm

they also audit the name as a whole for laughability, so Mr et Mme Renault are not allowed to call their daughter Clio.


Matt Weiner 02.23.07 at 3:30 pm

Why “Uz”?


dearieme 02.23.07 at 3:41 pm

There is a case of “compulsory” middle initials in post-WWII Scotland. So many boys in one primary school class were called Donald Macleod that the teacher called them Donny A Macleod, Donny B Macleod…. and they stuck. Allegedly.


bob 02.23.07 at 4:09 pm

Mencken has a story in The American Language about a German Jew who was made to take the last name “Schweisshund” (i.e. Swiss Hound). Asked by a friend why he didn’t pay the authorities to get a better name, he replied “Half my fortune went to buy the ‘w’ alone!”


fredrik 02.23.07 at 4:18 pm

In parts of Sweden patronymics worked into 20’the century. My great grandfather was Sven Karlsson, his son Gustaf Adolf Svensson, my father Bruno Svensson (born 1924, habit fading out by then but cousins kept is up), and I was Fredrik Brunosson.
To avoid the nautrual misconceptions that this caused we then cahgned to a new unique name, this process is still ongoing which results sometimes in rather strange names. The reason is that so many people have the same name that it creates problems: try to look for Per Johansson in the Stockholm phonebook.

Patronyics, variable or standardised as a name, creates confusion outside small villages, of course, so it became a habit for urban dwellers to make up a name. Straightforward natural phenomena or simple combiantions are the most common: Berg, Ekberg (Oakhill), Nyman (Newman)

For the aristocracy in the same situation, i.e. an ancestor from a peasant background (most noblemen were soldiers/officers), more elegant substances were used: Goldstar, Silvershield etc.
Gustaf Eriksson Vasa referred to above reflects the medieval habit, where aptronymics were used but noble families had a third name, usually based on their family crest (Vasa: fasces). of course many noblemen had a foreign background: Bildt e.g.

Of course some bourgeois families tried to make their name sound noble: Lagerfeldt:noble, Lagerberg:not. Lager: Laurel.

Priestly families on the other hand usually latinized e.g. the name of their ancestral farm or village: Linneaus (who Frenchified it to von Linné when he was ennobled)


Clarence 02.23.07 at 4:43 pm

Somewhere I have a conference paper on the Imperial Russian tribunal (maybe the Imperial Senate?) that ruled on name changes. While many peasants adopted patronymics as last names, apparently quite a few used nicknames by which they were known (not surprising, given how few given names Russians use). Their descendents, no longer wanting to have “Squint-Eye” or “Lame” or an obscenity as a last name, petitioned the government to change, usually to something like “Ivanov.”


theophylact 02.23.07 at 6:36 pm

I knew someone whose father was a German-Jewish immigrant named Langer. When he settled on the lower East Side, his neighbors thought that a funny name, because it meant “a tall, skinny guy”. So he changed it to the more “American” Goldstein…


Henry 02.23.07 at 8:20 pm

theophylact, all I can say is it’s a good thing for your friend’s dad that he didn’t end up “in Cork”: More seriously, I wonder whether the German might not be the source for the Cork slang (probably not, but I’ve seen people come up with more preposterous folk-etymologies before)


rio 02.23.07 at 9:38 pm

One side of my family is Jewish and Dutch, and I was always told that my surname came about due to a Napoleonic decree that Jews should have last names (I assume it is the same one listed in the original post). The family worked in the textile business so our name is just the Dutch word for a rather common household item. Here in the USA nobody can pronounce it, but whenever I travel to Holland or to Belgium almost every person I meet tells the same lame joke about how I’d be useful to have around the house. If only my anscestors had been engaged in some more exciting and/or louche work back then, I imagine it’d be a funnier joke.


nick s 02.24.07 at 5:36 am

I’m told that South American immigrants who have patro- and matronyms have trouble dealing with the USCIS’s computer system, which means that they essentially have to take new names on the path to citizenship.

A friend has a similar problem, in that he goes by a Hebrew name but has the anglicised equivalent on his birth certificate, and is known to the US authorities after moving there by a name not used on any of the British documents acquired since childhood.

Not quite the Ellis Island name-grinder, but close.


Jacob Christensen 02.24.07 at 5:45 pm

As far as I know, the Danish state never had specific regulations for the Jewish community with regard to family names. The Jewish community was always very small, so there were other ways of controlling it. If I’m not mistaken, then the oldest Jewish families in Denmark have Spanish/Portugese names.

The decree introducing obligatory family names originate from 1829 and that in turn led to the adoption of the “sen”(son of)-family names.

If I bothered to look, I would find a Christen (regional form of Christian) as a paternal ancestor – most likely in Western or Northern Jutland.

If I bothered to pay, I could change my oh so pedestrian Christensen – the 6th most common surname in Denmark – to either Lassen (maternal grandfather), Olsen (maternal grandmother) or Mouritsen (paternal grandmother).

There is a list of approved first names which is available from the Danish Family Agency.

Bonus information I: You can – in principle – tell a Swede from a Dane and a Norwegian by looking at the -son/-sen ending. Danes and Norwegians use -sen, Swedes (and Icelandic) -son. But you will find -sons in Denmark (Swedish emigrants from the 19th Century) and the US authorities also messed up a lot of Danish and Norwegian names, so Mr. Olson or Larson could very well be of Danish ancestry.

Bonus information II: The Jewish-Danish writer Henri Nathansen had a curious mix of a Jewish (Nathan) and a Danish name (-sen).


Kenny Easwaran 02.26.07 at 9:46 am

I believe that the Tamil naming convention gives one’s father’s name first and then one’s given name. However, unlike Hungarians and Chinese people, my father and his brothers (as far as I can tell) all ended up in North America with the same first name and different last names! Though it’s not entirely clear to me, because there seem to be special names (or perhaps terms, or descriptions?) that people within the family use to refer to one another, that may have little to do with their official names.

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