The Vancouver Sun reports
that linguistics researchers believe that many common surnames began as insults. For instance, centuries ago a guy might have been nicknamed "John the Bastard," and the insulting epithet would become his last name, adhering to all his descendants (until someone eventually changed it):
there is a whole category of names that are believed to have been given to children abandoned to orphanages - including the French name Jette (meaning "thrown out"), the Italian name Esposito (meaning "exposed") and the English name Parrish (meaning someone who was raised at the expense of the community.) ...
Both the English names Nott and Cave probably described someone who was bald.
A Barrett was a fraud, a Mallory someone unlucky and a Purcell a little pig...
Similarly insulting are the German names Armann (poor man), Scheunpflug (avoids the plow) and Schiller (cross-eyed)...
"Shakespeare is probably an obscene name, originally, for a masturbator," said Hanks.
This research is particularly interesting to me, because it helps to explain the source of my last name, "Boese," which means 'angry' or 'evil' in German. (It's spelled Böse in German.) Centuries ago one of my ancestors must have been a real jerk, and my family has been saddled with the name ever since.
This research also helps explain some of the "unfortunate last names"
I've occasionally posted about.