Earlier this month, Slate published an article I wrote about the origin and meanings of Ashkenazic Jewish surnames on its Lexicon Valley blog. The reaction, frankly, was overwhelming. I am both thrilled and surprised that so many readers were curious about a subject I was sure would appeal to relatively few, and I'm deeply grateful for the many comments. In fact, I did the research not because I was interested in Jewish onomastics, but because I was interested in the history of Ashkenazic Jewry. I thought that their choice of names would tell me something about where and how they lived and about the languages they used.
To repeat, I am not an expert in Jewish onomastics. I did, however, consult a number of very reliable sources and, as I've since learned, some not so reliable. For example, I claimed that girls, prior to Ashkenazic Jews taking last names, could be named after their mother, as in "Feygele bas (daughter of) Rifke." Not true. They would be named after their father, as in "Feygele bas (daughter of) Moyshe." I have also been taken to task, justifiably, for claiming that the name "Kagan" belongs to Jews who descended from Khazaria in Central Asia. In fact, it is a Slavic version of Cohen or Kahan, the name of those who claim descent from Jewish priests when the Second Temple stood in Jerusalem.
There are other inaccuracies as well. For example, "Fried" is more properly translated as "peace" rather than "happiness"; "Zweig" as "branch" rather than "wreath." "Leyb," not "lieb," means lion in Yiddish. Moreover, I identified "Gans" as "insulting." While it does mean "goose," it is a respectable Jewish surname that predates our modern sense of "silly goose." Likewise "Billig," although it can mean "cheap," may carry the sense of "good value."
As Roger Lustig, a family-history researcher specializing in German-Jewish ancestry and frequent speaker at the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, points out:
It's complicated. Many names have more than one possible derivation; and one does well to consider *where* and *when* the surname was adopted/created.
For example: BERLINER could indeed be derived from "Baer" or its diminutive "Berl," as well as from the name of the city. In Prussia, the "Berlin" derivation might make more sense. In a place where lots of surnames used variants of given names related to animals, perhaps the opposite. Same story for BERKOWITZ: even if it means "son of Berke," Berke can come from Baruch and/or Baer.
For those wanting to learn more about Jewish names (and in consulting sources far more expert than I am), there are the many books of Alexander Beider, who has a doctorate in Jewish studies from the Sorbonne and is an officer at the International Institute for Jewish Genealogy at the National Library of Israel. As Beider has pointed out, insulting Jewish surnames are rather rare and geographically limited, and the evidence that Jews had to purchase "nice" names is scant at best. Lars Menk's A Dictionary of German-Jewish Surnames is also excellent. Keep in mind, though, that all of these books are very expensive (however, many libraries do carry them). Unfortunately, I relied to a greater extent on the more accessible A Dictionary of Jewish Names and Their History by Benzion C. Kaganoff, which I now know has been much criticized by scholars. Lustig recommends jewishgen.org as a place to "do research and find others who have interests in the names, places and families that they're curious about."
And for those of you who don't know why Sean Ferguson is Jewish, well, it's an old joke. As the story goes, a Jewish immigrant could not recall the American sounding name someone had suggested he provide to the immigration inspector. And so he said in Yiddish, "Kh'hob shoyn fargesn," which means, "I've forgotten already." This the inspector understood as "Sean Ferguson."
It's a funny bit of word play, though scholars have found no evidence that immigration inspectors actually changed immigrants' names, jokes like this and family anecdotes notwithstanding. Then again, there really is a Jewish Ferguson!