Interesting English Surnames

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by Arne Saknussemm, Apr 29, 2014.

  1. Arne Saknussemm trying to figure it all out Valued Senior Member

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    I have often wondered about English names that are verbs and adverbs or verbs and nouns, such as Golightly or Doubtfire. I once knew a Mr. Pitchforth, who was oft the subject of spewing jokes. Do other languages have such names, and I just don't know about them? How do such names come about? And do you know any other interesting ones?

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    Last edited: May 1, 2014
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  3. Gremmie "Happiness is a warm gun" Valued Senior Member

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    When I was in the Navy, I knew a Lipschitz, and a poor bastard, named Richard Head...

    And, what's a nickname for Richard?

    That's right boys and girls... Dick.

    Do the math.
     
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  5. Arne Saknussemm trying to figure it all out Valued Senior Member

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    Urm. Not quite what I had in mind, Gremmie, old son. First, Lipschitz isn't an English name, it just kind of sounds like one. And while Mr. Head's christening is unfortunate, his surname is only a noun. I am talking about English verb and adverb, or verb and noun names, like Shakespeare. Who incidentally said, in his Romeo and Juliet, 'What's in a name? that which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.' You can pass that on to your old Navy buddy. I know his is an extreme case, but I really believe names have no bearing on fate, and if my name were , say, Billy Goatherd, I would be much the same man I am today.

    ...Okay, not much of one, but you know what I am trying to say!
     
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  7. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    Bear in mind that the surname is a relatively recent artifact of civilization. Before the Industrial Revolution gifted us with fast transportation technology (railroads, highways and the vehicles that use them), the money to pay for it (the world economy was scarcity-driven until the end of the 19th century so wages were pathetic), and the time to use it (the average work week was 120 hours for the 99% of the population with "careers" in the food production and distribution industry), few people ever traveled more than 25 miles from their birthplace. So they didn't need as many names as we do.

    They took identifiers from their occupation: John Tailor, Peter Baker; their home: Samuel Fields, Ambrose Houston ("Hugh's town"); and various other attributes of their lives. Less obvious names like Golightly and Doubtfire are often nicknames bestowed upon people after an unusual event in their lives, especially an act of heroism or cowardice. “Armstrong” is rather obvious.

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    It could even be a physical trait like "Black," in a northern population where most people had light hair.

    "Peter's son" (Peterson) or simply "John's" (Jones) are extremely uncreative surnames, but they endure.

    Like words, names change phonetically over the ages, so they often are no longer recognizable. In some instances they morph into something that has nothing to do with the original appellation, such as Lovelace becoming both Loveless and Lawless. (I may have those wrong, my sources are not exactly at the level of the OED.)

    Yes. In Europe after the cultural leveling of the Roman Empire, most language communities formed their names like we do, as do many non-European communities. German Schneider = Tailor, Spanish Molina = Mill, Spanish Rodriguez = Roderick's son, Japanese Toyota = Richfield.

    But not all language communities do it our way. Many are constrained by the structure of the language. Chinese, for example, is a highly synthetic language, in which virtually all words are compounds built from a base of about 5,000 monosyllabic morphemes. The need for all members of a family to have the same surname (a single syllable which comes first) puts limits on the rest of the name. The custom of using the second syllable as a generational identifier leaves the third syllable as an attempt to give every person a unique name within a reasonable number of generations. Since only 400 unique syllables can be built from the phonemes of Mandarin, this means there are roughly 12 homonyms for every monosyllabic morpheme. 400 x 400 x 400 = 64,000,000. This means that although each Chinese citizen probably has a unique written name, there are likely to be quite a few other citizens whose names sound identical.

    And of course when you become powerful enough, you can rename yourself. Stalin and Lenin are both made-up names.
     
  8. iceaura Valued Senior Member

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    That was a fairly brief time, in the history of human names - a few hundred years at most, in any one location. And the average work week for northern rainfall agriculture was nowhere near 120 hours - that's an exaggeration even for a South Asian irrigation boosted wet rice farming schedule (about 4000 hrs @ year). The peak of working hours in Europe came with the onset of the industrial revolution.

    Before that, and we have records from the Stone Age nations of North America and similar places, names were often pretty elaborate. They weren't surnames, maybe - an artifact of inherited wealth and status - but they weren't short and arbitrary appellations one was given at birth for life, either. My own surname is thought to be a matronymic with Norman and Scottish roots modified to carry a landscape reference that commemorates the conquering of Wales by the English.
     
  9. Arne Saknussemm trying to figure it all out Valued Senior Member

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    But Fraggle, you never really answered my original question, well, not very satisfactorily in any case. Have I hit upon a facet of 'linguinistics' the Great One is in the dark about?
     
  10. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    Amazon advertises a Dictionary of Surnames. It claims to cover 100,000 surnames in several languages. It's priced at $200, but you can get a used one for ten bucks.

    Let me know if it's worth it. The markdown isn't encouraging!

    BTW, I am a writer and editor who has studied several languages and can hold a simple conversation in a few of them--and I'm fluent in Esperanto, which isn't as useful as it was fifty years ago. I have always been fascinated by the structure and evolution of languages and have learned a lot about linguistics, but I am not a professional, academic linguist. So my resources and contacts are limited.

    Some surnames belong to famous people and their Wikipedia articles often give an etymology. Others leave us in the dark.

    For example, I already know that the word "chad" is a misunderstanding of "the Chadless card-punching machine," named after its inventor. Chadless is obviously a modification of the older surname Chadlace, but that's as far as I can get on the internet. Perhaps your new book will explain it all.

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  11. Arne Saknussemm trying to figure it all out Valued Senior Member

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    Ten bucks! No, I'll just go on believing my buddy Pitchforth's ancestors were a bunch of lunch-losing drunkards. Thanks!

    btw: could you at least explain to me why the dog in The Family Circus is named 'Barfy'?



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    n.b. I was looking for a picture of Barfy, but this was sooo much funnier.
     
  12. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    "Barf" is American slang for "vomit." I remember it coming into general use in the late 1950s, suggesting that it was a creation of the Baby Boomers (b. 1946-1964, the first generation born after WWII) who would go on to become notorious for their iconoclasm. ("Sex, drugs, rock'n'roll" was a popular slogan in those days, and that doesn't even cover the motorcycles and the crash pads.) But it might have been military slang from WWII, slowly making its way into general discourse.

    I have not found an etymology anywhere, so that too is a mystery. Obviously it might simply be echoic.

    Dogs are notorious for vomiting at the most inconvenient time and place, especially those that scavenge, since they'll eat almost anything.

    So they're all barfy, even if they're not all Barfy.

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  13. Arne Saknussemm trying to figure it all out Valued Senior Member

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    The polite thing to say would have been that 'Barfy' was a diminutive blending of 'bark' and 'arf'. But you had to take the down and dirty route, didn't you, Fragster?

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  14. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    I doubt very much that this was Bil Keane's thinking when he named the dog.

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    The strip debuted in 1960, about the time when the word "barf" had become well-known to Americans.
     

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