Jewish Surnames Through the Ages:
An Etymological History
An etymological study of family names runs into much thornier territory than a survey of personal names like the one I undertook in these pages last year (“Jewish First Names Through the Ages,” November 1955). Some Jewish surnames, of course, are quite easy to trace. For example, a name found among Sephardic Jews—Moshiach (Messiah)—originally signified a zealous follower of Sabbatai Zvi, the false Messiah who very nearly succeeded in imposing himself on Israel in the 17th century. Similarly, Cohen and Levy are direct transliterations of Hebrew words that make it clear that the one is a man of priestly lineage, and the other a Jew of Levitic extraction.
But in general, surnames are infinitely more various than personal names, having been culled from more diverse sources, having undergone more changes of form, and having come from many more different languages. Surnames are not, in any case, as “standardized” as first names. We feel freer to touch them up, trim or change them altogether. This is why the origins of many of them are lost in obscurity. Even where a name survives in its original form we may have trouble—as with those which derive from abbreviations whose meaning was once clear but which cannot now be deciphered with certainty.
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