Whimsical surnames

« previous post | next post »


Because surnames of immigrants in a melting pot like America often end up getting distorted, bowdlerized, prettified, and otherwise transformed from what they were in their original homelands, we cannot take their current form as gospel linguistic truth.  Nonetheless, people who encounter them cannot avoid taking them at their face value, which may cause much merriment or consternation.  Here I will list several puzzling, unusual surnames I have known, but will not make an assiduous effort to arrive at a definitive explanation of their etymology, morphology, or phonology

In grade school, there was a classmate with the surname "Hassapis".  We all assumed that it meant something related to Manneken Pis (like, he couldn't wait), which I wrote about recently.  After googling around for a few moments, I found that a lot of people from Cyprus have that surname, but couldn't find a hint of its meaning.  After still more googling, I found that a variant seems to be "Hasapis", which may be derived from the Greek word "hasapi", meaning "butcher", though I'm not so sure about that. (source)  Other, more fanciful, derivations have been proposed, but I am inclined to believe that it does have something to do with the Greek word for "butcher":

The hasapiko (Greek: χασάπικο, pronounced [xaˈsapiko], meaning “the butcher's [dance]”) is a Greek folk dance from Constantinople. The dance originated in the Middle Ages as a battle mime with swords performed by the Greek butchers' guild, which adopted it from the military of the Byzantine era.


A distinguished German colleague of mine, who was an Indologist and philosopher, was Wilhelm Halbfass.  ("Along with Prof. Ludo Rocher, Prof. Ernest Bender, Prof. George Cardona, and several other Sanskritists, he made the University of Pennsylvania the center of Sanskrit learning in North America" [source], and it was primarily for this reason that I left Harvard to come to Penn.)  Most English speakers who knew a smattering of German realized that "halb" meant "half" and somehow (ignoring the "f") thought that the remainder of the name must have been an embarrassment to the man.  It turns out that the latter part of the name, "fass", simply means "barrel; drum; cask; keg; vat; tun", so the real meaning of his surname was "half barrel" — quite innocuous after all.  And so is the surname Assman, by the way, which comes from Erasmus.

Here at the Association for Asian Studies meeting in Seattle, I bumped into a Ming historian colleague from UC San Diego named Sarah Schneewind.  Long ago I was fascinated by her surname and could fairly well surmise that it should be rendered as "snow-wind", but that seemed so improbable that I could barely trust my intuition, so I was glad to have my interpretation confirmed by the bearer of that delightful cognomen that it means "blizzard".

I don't know how I stumbled on Hunsucker, but somehow it entered my consciousness (perhaps because I just sat through a panel on the Huns / Xiongnu), and it struck my fancy:

The surname Hunsucker is thought to be a local name; that is, a surname taken on from an existing place name. There is a Hundseck in Germany near the Schwartwald (Black Forest), or the name may have come from a place name in Switzerland. (source)

A lot of these singular surnames are (or seem to be) Germanic.  I wonder if there are any profound, philosophical implications in that ostensible fact.


Selected readings



  1. Wayles Browne said,

    March 16, 2024 @ 4:35 pm

    Hassapis doesn't just have something to do with the Greek word for 'butcher', it IS the modern Greek word for 'butcher' (χασάπης). If your friend's family spelled it with two medial Ss, that was presumably to avoid people pronouncing it with -z-. The -s on the end is the nominative case ending, miraculously preserved over the past 5000 years or so since Indo-European times. Like many modern Greek words, this one came in from Turkish (kasap 'butcher' originally from Arabic qaṣāb 'butcher').

  2. martin schwartz said,

    March 16, 2024 @ 5:42 pm

    Mod. Greek hasápi-s (s marking nom. sg masc.) is the usual word for 'butcher'. IT and its regional variant kasápis are from Turk. kasap
    whose regional variant qassap probaly lies behind the slightly velat h- (X(-) of hasápis. THe Turlish word is from Arabic qaSSåb (underpointed
    ss) Several dances in Greece are called hasápiko
    a group of upbeat hasapika are danced by Greeks, and Turks of Istanbul.
    The association with the Byz. period is due to a late Byz. representation of a circle dance captioned "the dance (XOPOC) of the makellari∂es'. i.e. 'butchers' dance'. the knives seem to
    lack evidence.

  3. Seonachan said,

    March 16, 2024 @ 6:06 pm

    I grew up in a declining New England mill town where the mix of ethnic origins – Quebec, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Armenia, Poland, etc. – and differing stages of assimilation made correctly pronouncing people's surnames a bit of a crapshoot. Some hewed reasonably close to their original pronunciation, others got anglicized, or even hyper-anglicized.

    One kid in the neighborhood was named Giampa, and it was pronounced pretty much in the Italian way; but because our English was non-rhotic, I always assumed his last name was Jumper. He had graffitied his name in the sidewalk, but I thought that was some unknown person named "guy-amp-uh". On the other hand, my middle school teacher, Mrs. Gagne, was indeed called "gag-knee".

    I suppose this experience made me apprehensive around speaking people's names for the first time. When I taught college classes, I always dreaded taking attendance on the first day.

  4. Philip Anderson said,

    March 16, 2024 @ 6:29 pm

    Halbfass (half-barrel) is still obscure, but Fassbender (Fassbinder, cooper) now makes sense.
    I used to count a Mr Blizzard among my friends, so Schneewind is not unprecedented.

  5. Peter B. Golden said,

    March 16, 2024 @ 6:41 pm

    My mentor, Tibor Halasi-Kun (of Cuman Turkic origin on his father's side, as his surname indicates) had connections to Slovakia (which Hungarians often call "northern Hungary") on his mother's side. He often joked about a Slovak man who worked on his mother's family' farm near Košice (called Kassa [kašša] in Hungarian) whose surname was Kipikaša ("the porridge is boiling").

  6. John Swindle said,

    March 16, 2024 @ 11:37 pm

    I suspect that "Halbfass" becomes "Half-ass" by recognizing that German "halb" means "half" and seeing *halbf as BOTH "halb" and "half."

    It reminds me of the American naval rank "Rear Admiral (Lower Half)," which always seems like it should be rearranged somehow. Lower Admiral (Rear Half)? Half Admiral (Lower Rear)?

  7. Martin Schwartz said,

    March 16, 2024 @ 11:43 pm

    @Wayne Brown–Bravo! I guess are emails were in synchronized tandem, like 2 guys dancing the closely coordinated comradely 2/4
    hasápiko dance in many an Athenian taverna. Note, however, that
    the Arabic word has a geminated sibilant along the pattern of the CaCCāC agent pattern. Prof. Walter Zev Feldman has suggested that
    the Hasapiko dance(s?) may have come from Moldavian suppliers
    of meat to Byzantine Costantinople, preceding such an attested institution in among Christians in Muslim Istanbul. If the 4/4 (and 2/4?)
    hasapiko melodies are of old Moldavian provenience, this would help explain' the clear melodic similarities with music of the Eastern Ashkenazi klezmer/yiddish dances and songs, augmented by Greek-Jewish contacts among musicians in musicians' guilds in Ottoman Phanariot Moldo-Wallachia. For those who want to hear some of musical similarities involved, there is documentation on the first and last of the 3
    lecture videos of mine which are liked in the online article (Chaper 29)
    of SOASRebetiko Reader RN Books London. Cf. also the rich article by Nikos Ordoulidis in that online volume. My article alos has various matters of Neo-Hellenic etymology and poetic texts.
    Hmm, if young Hassapis' name was pronounced with primary stress
    on the first syll.and secondary stress on the last syll., its understandable how the wags in the class detected urine there, the brats.
    @Peter Golden: I remember Halasi-Kun, a gentleman, from when I taught at Columia in the late 1960s. I knew Karl Menges better; no doubt you have stories about him.

  8. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    March 17, 2024 @ 4:01 am

    and more for tourists, Anthony Quinn in Hasapiko dancing…


  9. Coby said,

    March 17, 2024 @ 8:24 am

    I have heard that Quinn didn't like the name "hasapiko" and renamed the dance "sirtaki" ('little sirto').
    In the book, what Zorba dances is the much more appropriate zeibekiko.

  10. Coby said,

    March 17, 2024 @ 8:34 am

    I wouldn't be surprised if English-speakers, when faced with a name like Hassapis, would pronounce it with the stress on the first syllable — it's what they do by default when faced with an unfamiliar consonant-final three-syllable word. That's how we hear Esteban, Vladimir or (in England) Martínez mispronounced. It even happens with direct Latin borrowings like abdomen, acumen and tinnitus.

  11. Robert Coren said,

    March 17, 2024 @ 9:12 am

    @John Swindle: I always wanted to the two Rear Admiral ranks to be called "left half" and "right half", which seems to me to make more anatomical sense.

  12. Jaap said,

    March 17, 2024 @ 11:20 am

    In the Netherlands you can find people with the surname Poepjes, literally meaning ‘little shits’. It may have been derived from ‘poepen’, a nickname once used for German foreign workers, a distortion of German ‘Buben’. It doesn't just happen in North America!

  13. David Marjanović said,

    March 17, 2024 @ 2:40 pm

    I was glad to have my interpretation confirmed by the bearer of that delightful cognomen that it means "blizzard"

    I've never encountered that form before, only Schneesturm (where Sturm refers to any strong wind, no rain or thunder required).

  14. ohwilleke said,

    March 17, 2024 @ 2:56 pm

    My Finnish ancestor's surname was "Pis", but wisely, en route to the U.S., he decided that this would not be a good name to keep and looking at a package of flour chose its brand name, "Blomquist" instead. He then pressured his siblings that came in later voyages to change their surnames to the same surname that he has chosen, which they did.

  15. Roger Lustig said,

    March 17, 2024 @ 5:30 pm

    There may be nothing profound or philosophical about Germans having odd surnames, but there sure are a lot of them. When my family was living in Germany, we had a neighbor named PINKEPANK. [Any theories about it are welcome.]

    There are many that have to do with food and drink. I knew someone named SCHWEINEBRATEN (pork roast); there are people named DÜNNBIER, FRISCHBIER, SCHLUCKEBIER, and there was the American Otto WARMBIER, who was murdered by the North Korean government. All of these can be verified at dastelefonbuch.de, each one appearing at least 20 times. Those numbers are low because many Germans have gone all-cellular and thus unlisted. More along those lines: KRAUTWURST, GURKE, MEHLHORN (a high-school classmate of mine), SALAMI, SCHNITZEL, PFANNKUCHEN, SAUERKRAUT, SAUERTEIG, SAUERESSIG and, of course, SAUERBIER.

    Some surnames are flat-out rude, yet people keep them. Case in point: MÖSE (crude word for vulva). PINKL (pee), ROTZ (snot), KOTZER (one who vomits), PIMMEL (colloquial word for penis), MÜLL (trash).

    And that's just skimming the surface. Undoubtedly many of these names originally had other meanings or reasonable explanations, yet Germans find them funny too unless they happen to have been graced with one.

    I'm aware of these names for several reasons: I used to live in Germany; I do genealogical research; and my father's name was Ernst LUSTIG.

    [There's an old story about Galician Jews having been stuck with ugly names because they couldn't pay the requisite bribe when surnames were mandated in 1787. There are a few that fit that bill, but they make up a very small percentage of the whole–and probably not at the rate of undesirable surnames we find among Germans and Austrians of today. Besides, the proportion of "nice" to "ugly" names among Galician Jews was far too high to be explained by the wealth of the recipients.]

  16. Roger Lustig said,

    March 17, 2024 @ 7:36 pm

    @John Swindle & Robert Coren:

    The late, great Charles Osgood noted that the "lower half" naval rank had previously been "Commodore." Seeing as how the Hotel Commodore on 42nd Street in NYC–right by Grand Central–had become the Grand Hyatt, Osgood suggested that "Grand Hyatt" would sound more respectable than "Rear admiral (lower half)".

  17. Roger Lustig said,

    March 17, 2024 @ 7:44 pm

    @John Swindle & Robert Coren:

    The late, great Charles Osgood of CBS radio noted that the "lower half" naval rank had previously been "Commodore." Seeing as how the Hotel Commodore on 42nd Street in NYC had become the Grand Hyatt, Osgood suggested that "Grand Hyatt" would sound more respectable than "Rear admiral (lower half)".

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 17, 2024 @ 8:30 pm

    It would seem to me that the vulgar/humorous interpretation of "Hassapis" would be much more likely if the name was pronounced with stress on the final syllable. Put the stress on the middle syllable (as the diacritical in the Greek spelling in some prior comments suggests) and the final-syllable vowel likely reduces to schwa in an Anglicized pronunciation. Did the family pronounce it with final-syllable stress, or did the local grade-schoolers devote the energy to deliberately changing the stress pattern in order to highlight the syllable that could be comical/embarrassing if highlighted?

  19. John Swindle said,

    March 18, 2024 @ 4:52 am

    @Robert Coren, Roger Lustig, regarding rear admirals, wonderful suggestions! And I say this as someone whose surname is Swindle (probably swine-dell, pig meadow).

  20. Bert said,

    March 18, 2024 @ 5:35 am

    "Pinkepank", an indirect name for a smith, after "pinke panken": make rhythmical noises with a blacksmith's hammer
    via https://www.namenforschung.net/

    This page is one of the few trustworthy online sources on the etymology of German surnames.
    Recently, a seller of DNA ancestry tests published huge numbers of entirely made-up etymologies for all sorts of common European names, even including lists made-up "famous people who bear that name" for every entry. All being of course written by ChatGPT, so everything sounds quite plausible at first glance.

  21. Robledo said,

    March 18, 2024 @ 5:40 am

    @Roger Lustig:
    Re PINKEPANK. It’s the surname of a blacksmith – the onomatopoetic rendition of his hammering on metal (plinkety-plonk or so).

  22. David Marjanović said,

    March 18, 2024 @ 9:11 am

    Ernst LUSTIG

    A punning clan.

  23. Robert Coren said,

    March 18, 2024 @ 9:26 am

    @David Marjanović re "Ernst Lustig":

    Indeed, seriously merry.

  24. Robert Coren said,

    March 18, 2024 @ 9:31 am

    @Roger Lustig: Interesting about "Commodore". I wonder why that title was retired. I do know – although the story may in fact be apocryphal – that the US rank of "General of the Army" was invented because the US didn't have a rank higher than "General" and they wanted to have somebody on an equal level with the British "Field Marshal", and George Marshall did not want to be called "Field Marshal Marshall". (This was long before Joseph Heller invented Major Major Major Major.)

  25. Roger Lustig said,

    March 18, 2024 @ 12:18 pm

    -=-thanks for the info about PINKEPANK. My parents certainly didn't know this, and many Germans don't either. Someone meeting our neighbor over the phone once inquired, "Sind Sie aus dem Chinesischen?" ("Are you from the Chinese parts?")

    -=-My father wasn't the first Ernst Lustig in his family, either.

    -=-Skip the examples of odd German surnames I gave above, and go straight to the mother lode: http://www.unmoralische.de/namen/dumme_namen.htm — which even gives sources, to a degree.

    -=-Apologies for the duplicate item re: rear admirals, upper and lower half. By the way, what happens if they're left behind?

    -=-All but one of the references to Charles Osgood in the Language Log archives are to a psychologist with that name. The remaining one? My late hero endorsing (ack!) Strunk & White. [btw, what's with the "old Language Log" search?]

  26. Bloix said,

    March 18, 2024 @ 7:14 pm

    My dad, who used to talk about his day at the dinner table, would occasionally refer to a colleague named Al Ha-SAPP-is. I'd never given a thought to how it was spelled.

  27. Tye Power said,

    March 18, 2024 @ 10:49 pm

    Welcome to the Pacific Northwest, Victor! Your visit coincides with unusually pleasant weather for this time of year. I hope you enjoy your time in our beautiful area. Our big city is named for the Native American leader "siʔaƛ̕" who had no surname. Are there other large cities named for Native American leaders?

  28. Joshua K. said,

    March 19, 2024 @ 12:45 am

    @Tye: After Seattle, the biggest city in the U.S. named for a Native American leader that I have found so far is Pontiac, Michigan.

    There may be others larger than Pontiac but I don't know of them yet. There are other large cities named for Native American tribes or words from Native American languages, but ones named for specific Native American individuals are harder to find.

  29. katarina said,

    March 19, 2024 @ 11:56 am

    Hello Joshua,

    Thank you for the note on Pontiac. I lived on or near Pontiac Trail in or near Ann Arbor, Michigan, for many years. I suspected Pontiac was an Indian word and wondered what it meant. I'd take walks on it when it was still a dirt (unpaved) road. Much of it is still bordered by farmland and woods. From the Internet:
    " [Pontiac Trail] was vital in prehistory as a Native American footpath, and in 1828 it became a territorial road that guided the early settlement of the region…. In 1940 it became Pontiac Trail, connecting Pontiac and Ann Arbor."

    There is also a network of trails in the area known as "Chief Pontiac Trail":

    "The Chief Pontiac Trail, one of America's greatest trails, opened on June 14, 1958. The trail was originally established as a 25 mile foot or canoe trail in Oakland County, Michigan. "

  30. katarina said,

    March 19, 2024 @ 12:09 pm

    A friend had the Chinese surname 戴 , pronounced "die" ( the English word). Fortunately, the Pinyin spelling of the name was Dai, which people pronounced "day".
    And a professor had the surname 缪, Miao (correctly pronounced like the cat's "meow"), but we were told to pronounce it Mayo.

  31. Philip Anderson said,

    March 20, 2024 @ 6:05 am

    The fairly common Welsh personal name Dai, short for Dafydd or David, is pronounced like the English “die”.
    Nicknames are a feature of Welsh nomenclature, but the undertaker called Daí the Death could be apocryphal, although I have heard of his Welsh-language counterpart Glyn Cysgod Angau (the valley of the shadow of death).
    De’ath is a slightly macabre English surname.

  32. rpsms said,

    March 20, 2024 @ 11:43 am

    I came across an actor's name in some movie credits: "Weisskind" which, I am pretty sure means "white kid." Thought it might be a stage name.

    There is a journalist covering Ukraine whose name is Nastya Stanko. Perfectly normal as far as I can tell, but hits different "in english."

  33. katarina said,

    March 20, 2024 @ 3:20 pm

    @Philip Anderson
    "De’ath is a slightly macabre English surname" gives me the shivers.

    Re. whimsical surnames:

    " Churchill's remark about Sir Alfred Bossom: 'Neither one thing nor the other!' According to Kay Halle, Churchill said this in 1932, as an aside to a colleague in the House of Commons when Sir Alfred Bossom was speaking."

    –from the Internet

  34. stephen said,

    March 21, 2024 @ 10:29 pm

    Lots of people have names which fit their jobs, like Professor DeKay teaching a course on death and dying.

    Somebody who wanted to be the last name in the phone book changed his name to something which started with 3 or 4 Z's, which annoyed people who had Greek names which really did start with 2 Z's and their names were legitimate. This happens more than once. Sometimes it's a business. Sometimes they want to be the first in the phone book

    I read that some of the names, like Alan Sillitoe, were because back in the 18th-19th century, people were ordered to choose family names, the people rebelled by choosing silly names like Sillitoe.

    I met somebody whose last name was Pylypiw. It's Ukranian-Polish, pronounced

    From IMDB, Luxton Handspiker and Kate Turnipseed.

    I wish somebody had arranged for a meeting with
    Mickey Rooney, Rooney Mara, Mara Wilson and Wilson Philips.

    Or Sylvia Sydney Sheldon Leonard Nimoy.

    Also, Henny Youngman, Gary Oldman, Patricia Tallman, Martin Short

    Bruce Springsteen, Jonathan Winters, Joe Falls, Donna Summer…

    There are real and fictional people for all the days of the week and months of the year but
    most of them aren't as well known and I feel like stopping.

  35. Benjamin Ernest Orsatti said,

    March 22, 2024 @ 8:05 am

    (1) Stephen, that was brilliant! Keep ' em coming!
    (2) https://www.linkedin.com/in/sue-yoo-abb1201/

  36. Robert Coren said,

    March 22, 2024 @ 9:25 am

    The "slightly macabre English surname" was made famous in some quarters by Dorothy Sayers, whose central character's full name is "Peter Death Bredon Wimsey". In Murder Must Advertise he goes undercover using the name "Death Bredon", and he claims that the first name is pronounced "deeth".

  37. Philip Anderson said,

    March 23, 2024 @ 6:12 am

    The Pen-y-berth Three, who set fire to a new bombing school in 1936 in protest against its location in a centre of Welsh culture, were Saunders Lewis, Lewis Valentine and D.J. Williams.
    I once heard someone introduce two girls to each other as “Carmen, Miranda” before noticing the juxtaposition

  38. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    March 25, 2024 @ 8:15 pm

    The name of a local businessman and politician led to jokes in my family about an apocryphal legal firm called "Fake, Muddle & Swindle," all last names we had seen in the region. Apparently this wasn't an uncommon entertainment — compare Car Talk's "Dewey Cheetham & Howe," for instance.


    I don't know the derivation of the surname Fake. Cobleskill — the name — is said to be Dutch. It is in Schoharie County (the county name is of Mohawk origin). There were a lot of early settlers who were Palatine Germans and the region also had a lot of Scots-Irish settlers, although my family's roots are elsewhere in New York state.

    Muddle we found in Amsterdam, NY. Amsterdam has quite a varied ethnic population compared to Schoharie County. The obituary below includes family members with the Muddle surname:


  39. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    March 25, 2024 @ 8:27 pm

    Among the whimsical names, I would remind Professor Mair of Knight Biggerstaff, a Cornell University professor and expert on China:


    May his parents live on in infamy, along with the parents who named Ima Hogg and Shanda Lear and other parents of that ilk.

  40. Robert Coren said,

    March 26, 2024 @ 9:14 am

    @Barbara Phillips Long: "Cobleskill" is quite likely to be Dutch, as the element kill is Dutch for a river or stream (e.g., the Schuylkill, which runs through Philadelphia).

  41. Philip Taylor said,

    March 26, 2024 @ 3:01 pm

    I'm sorry if I am being dense, Barbara, but what is it about the pairing "Knight" + "Biggerstaff" that leads you to put it in the same category as "Ima" + "Hogg" and "Shanda" + "Lear" ?

    And is it possible to explain where the "ß" ["Eszett"] came from in "Because of Biggerstaff's ßuency in Mandarin Chinese" ? I assume that the "fl" of "fluency" was mapped to an "fl" ligature-digraph, possibly in a PDF, and that the "fl" ligature-digraph was subsequently mapped to the corresponding code-point in a font that did not correctly map U+FB02 to "fl" but rather to "ß".

  42. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    March 27, 2024 @ 11:35 am

    @Philip Taylor —

    All three names are also jokes, even though Knight Biggerstaff is not a pun.

    While I provided the link to the Biggerstaff obituary, any typos or display problems originated with the publisher, so I have no idea why those characters are appearing.

  43. Philip Taylor said,

    March 28, 2024 @ 11:24 am

    Well, I am still confused, Barbara — on what basis do you assert that the name "Knight Biggerstaff" is a joke ? It is, is it not, the name of a real person — if so, why do you believe that his parents gave him that name for humorous reasons rather than simply because they liked the name ?

  44. Victor Mair said,

    April 9, 2024 @ 5:32 pm

    From a German friend:

    I have collected a large number, every news broadcast or email brings along new items!

    I especially like:


RSS feed for comments on this post