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The Origins of Jewish Surnames

As a distinct ethnic group in Early Modern Europe, Jews followed different surname conventions than many of their neighbors.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Nathan Murphy
Word Count: 277 (approx.)
Labels: Surname Origin 
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As a distinct ethnic group in Early Modern Europe, Jews followed different surname conventions than many of their neighbors. While most Europeans adopted fixed hereditary surnames by the close of the Middle Ages, most Jews continued using patronymics until the turn of the nineteenth century.

Many other European nations and ethnicities followed the patronymic, i.e. given name plus "son of [father's name]," pattern in addition to Jews. In Scotland, Scandinavia and Wales, just to cite a few examples, the same trend continued until two or three hundred years ago. Here are a few comparative examples:

  • Dafydd ap Llewelyn (Welsh, Dafydd son of Llewelyn)
  • Angus MacDonald (Scottish, Angus son of Donald)
  • Moshe ben Joshua (Jewish, Moshe son of Joshua)
  • Olof Larson (Swedish, Olof son of Lars)
  • Hans Andersen (Norwegian, Hans son of Anders)

According to JewishGen FAQ, various European nations with sizable Jewish populations began compulsory measures to impose the adoption of hereditary surnames on Jews between the years 1787 and 1834. Many Jews received surnames in the same fashion that other Europeans had during centuries past, from one of the following four categories:

  1. Patronymic or matronymic (became fixed and hereditary)
  2. Locative (based off of place-name of origin)
  3. Vocational (occupation-specific)
  4. Personal characteristics (tall, short, etc.)

As a mistreated people, however, many officials gave Jews derisive and belittling surnames.

In addition to these four basic categories of surname origins, JewishGen FAG reports the existence of unique "Religious" and "Artificial" surname origins for people of Jewish descent. It cites Cohen as an example of the religious type, which translates from Hebrew to English as priest and Rosenberg as an artificial, i.e. "fanciful or ornamental name," which translates mountain of roses.

Source:

Blatt, Warren. "Jewish Names," JewishGen. Internet, available at www.jewsihgen.org. Accessed: December 31, 2004.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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