Ever wondered what your last name means, or where it came from? The story of the adoption of Ashkenazic surnames in Eastern Europe is a worthwhile one to revisit. Slate has an interesting article today examining the roots and meanings behind many common Jewish names that originated there between the late 18th and early 19th centuries, noting that the region’s Jewish inhabitants only chose family names for themselves when they were made to by official edict.
The shift from ‘name, son of name,’ or ‘name, daughter of name,’ to standardized, government-recorded names brought a level of formality to surnames, but the tradition didn’t fade entirely—that’s where we get names ending in “-son,” “-sohn,” and “-er” (Yiddish and German) as well as “-wich” and “-witz” (Russian and Polish).
Many Jews, meanwhile, took names related to their occupations. (JewishGen, an online genealogical resource, has a list of translated Polish occupations commonly found in 19th-century Polish vital records.) A lot of Ashkenazic names are related to the tailoring, medical, and liquor trades (Bronfman, as in the prominent Seagrams dynasty, comes from ‘distiller’). But not all: Ackermans were plowmen; Einsteins, masons; Silversteins, Feinsteins, and any combination of Steins/Steiners/Stones were likely jewelers; Millers were, well, millers.
A quick search for the roots of my own surname, which originated as Butnik in Poland (the ‘c’ was added sometime after liberation and before my grandparents settled in Forest Hills, Queens), yielded nothing, save for a less-than-flattering Urban Dictionary entry. But enough about me—what does your name mean?
Correction: A previous version of this post said that many last names were changed at Ellis Island.
Related: Back to My Roots
Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.