Insulting Surnames

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.


Posted on Tue Nov 06, 2007


Funny, I thought Bose meant 'ridiculously overpriced'.
Posted by David B.  on  Tue Nov 06, 2007  at  10:12 AM
Some possible meanings of my German last name: "little red-tempered man" or "hot-tempered man" and "one who dwells near the barn." Doesn't say much from my ancestors. Apparently we were short-tempered stable hands. Yipee.
Posted by Pam S.  in  Princeton, NJ  on  Tue Nov 06, 2007  at  11:18 AM
My last name is Pagani. I'm told it means "the Godless ones" or "those who live in the hills." So, basically I'm descended from Italian hillbillies.

As it's been explained to me, when the Christians first came to Italy, the evangelists went to the marketplace where the largest crowds could be found, to preach.

After a while, the only people who hadn't heard them speak were those who lived way out in the countryside who didn't get to the market often (or at all). In other words, the pagans (Pagani is plural for pagan).
Posted by Cranky Media Guy  on  Tue Nov 06, 2007  at  06:04 PM
Apparently "Depp" is German for "fool" or "village idiot"
Posted by Andrew  on  Tue Nov 06, 2007  at  06:55 PM
"Goldwater" for urine, and a host of other such more-or-less forced onto Jews centuries ago, or even later if some of the stories about Ellis Island are true.

Besides, I thought "Lawyer" was the word for fraud.
Posted by Christopher Cole  in  Tucson, AZ  on  Tue Nov 06, 2007  at  07:23 PM
My maiden name was "Lamb". ...I figured it had something to do with a possible shepherd ancestry? But then again...that could have been shortened from something else all together. Lambert? No one on that side of the family has done any there's no real history or anything. I couldn't even tell you if there is a specific country of descent. And my biological father's last name was Shipley. Possible French & Scottish bloodlines. Were they big as ships? Or did they float well? Maybe they were ship BUILDERS?

And then there's my mother's family. O'Mahoney. (Shortened to Mahoney after the first immigrant arrived in America.) The basic history is that old John J. was a servant of the O'Mahoney castle...and took the name b/c that was his place of employment.

Anywho. I do not think I agree that "many" common surnames were insults. After all, CMG - a 'pagan' isn't necessarily an insult, but a simple description. (But I don't know that Pagani is common at all.) I know a family with the surname "Ferrier". That would seem to me as if the family had a history of being, well - ferriers. Ya know - the people that put shoes on horses? What about the name Smith? There are many different professions that are "smith" professions. Black...silver...etc.

And I think the Shakespeare line is just for laughs.
Posted by Maegan  in  Tampa, FL - USA  on  Wed Nov 07, 2007  at  08:36 AM
I've heard that the prefix Fitz- was originally used to designate a bastard child whose parentage was acknowledged by the father. This might have been beneficial for the child since the father was usually of higher station than the mother. The name Fitzroy meant a natural child of the king, in French 'roi'
Posted by Phred22  on  Wed Nov 07, 2007  at  11:49 AM
This was quite common among the Romans:
Cicero is derived from cicer "chickpea" probably because of a wart, Plautus means "flatfoot", Brutus means "stupid" etc.
Posted by Lars Dietz  in  Old Yurop  on  Wed Nov 07, 2007  at  02:23 PM
Maegan said:

"Anywho. I do not think I agree that "many" common surnames were insults. After all, CMG - a 'pagan' isn't necessarily an insult, but a simple description. (But I don't know that Pagani is common at all.)"

Oh, I agree. No, Pagani didn't derive from an insult so far as I know. It was merely descriptive.

You're right, Pagani is far less common than Pagano, the singular form. When I was growing up, there were only five Paganis in the Bronx phone book and three of them were my family.
Posted by Cranky Media Guy  on  Wed Nov 07, 2007  at  05:56 PM
Some of the names cited in the linked tread just happen to sound insulting in English, but were only descriptive in the original language. E.g. "Gross", which is a common German, means "tall" in its language of origin.

Most surnames were originally introduced to distinguish between multiple persons with the same first name in a small community, and therefore coined after commonly known distinguishing features: Peter the Baker and Peter the Farmer, John the Tall one and John the Small one, Paul living on the Hill and Paul living by the River. Some of these features may have been disagreeable and lead to insults, but those were a minority.

The main exception was the forced introduction of last names for jews in the german language region, where many were given deliberately insulting surnames, and in some cases were "allowed" to pay large sums of money to have them altered to more acceptable ones if they could afford it.
Posted by Nadine  on  Thu Nov 08, 2007  at  12:57 AM
Trade-derived surnmes really need a firm tradition of following in your father's footsteps.... or, as in Lancre, you end up with Tailor the butcher, Weaver the thatcher, and so on.
Posted by outeast  in  prague  on  Thu Nov 08, 2007  at  03:04 AM
Lars...I would never describe a wart as a chickpea. Why would a Roman? Why wouldn't they simply have used the word for "wart" or if that specific word did not exist, maybe sore, blemish, spot, bump...etc??

So it's possible that rather than insults...again, it was simply descriptive. Or just a way to tell the difference between two common first names like Nadine mentions. If there were two Pauls living on the same now have to find a way to make them stand apart from each other, since they already stand apart from Paul living by a river.
Posted by Maegan  in  Tampa, FL - USA  on  Thu Nov 08, 2007  at  07:49 AM
Apparently, my surname means "overpaid sportsman with a 'posh' wife". Go figure!
Posted by David B.  on  Thu Nov 08, 2007  at  09:06 AM
Scheunpflug doesn't come from "scheut den Pflug" (avoids the plow)

Scheune means barn
Posted by Fritz the Blitz  in  Hamburg - Germany  on  Thu Nov 08, 2007  at  11:43 AM
My last name means either "mouse" or "happiness". I prefer mouse. Mice and rats are my favorite animal, plus according to the chinese I was born on the first day in the year of the rat. :D So it fits the theme.
Posted by Sakano  in  Ohio  on  Sat Nov 10, 2007  at  08:38 AM
hmmm... wonder what "Bush" signifies? One can only ponder the implications, but my guess would be: Bush=putz... or wanker
Posted by Hairy Houdini  on  Sun Nov 11, 2007  at  09:30 AM
downer Sadley my last name is Armann so yeah. Thats a rather insulting last name if you ask me. "Poor Man" WooHoo!!! Who wants to help me redecorate my new box!
Posted by Missy  in  P.A  on  Sun Feb 24, 2008  at  10:18 AM
Actually, Jette does not mean "thrown out". It is a short form of Henriette that means "ruler of the house".
Posted by Cassie  on  Sun Sep 07, 2008  at  10:47 PM
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