- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 17, 2002

No one really pays much attention to Olympic skater Michelle Kwan's name. But, in earlier times, it would have been considered extraordinary that anyone would have a French first name and a Chinese last name. In generations past, since 1745, no Scotsman would have been named William. Most other names were also linked to particular ethnic groups or classes.
It was nearly two centuries after its founding before Harvard had any student enrolled who was named Patrick. The kind of people who named their children Patrick and there were plenty of them simply did not fit in at Harvard. The kind of people who did were not giving their children Irish names.
Nor did they give their children names like Edward, which was a very popular name in Virginia. The first 40 classes at Harvard had only one student named Edward. First names tended to be exclusive to particular social and regional groups.
Family names also tended to be exclusive. For many centuries, most people in many countries simply did not have surnames. Only the elite families were considered to have any need to show what lineage or dynasty they belonged to. At a time when most people lived in small farming communities, the common people knew each other directly and one name was sufficient.
For much of history, most ordinary people lived and died within a very narrow area perhaps no more than a radius of 50 miles. There is a reason the Russian word for a local community and the Russian word for the world are the same (mir). The local community was the world, for most people.
Only those elites who were more widely traveled or more widely known were likely to need more identification than a single name. Even some very famous people in history Plato, Aristotle, Jesus had only one name. If it was necessary to say which Jesus, then Jesus of Nazareth could be specified.
When surnames first began to be widely used in England, some time after the Middle Ages, it was often just something to identify a particular individual and was not passed on to his children. Someone with strong arms, for example, might have the name Armstrong added to his first name, but his children would not be named Armstrong.
With other groups as well, surnames might describe special individual characteristics, as with the Norseman Eric the Red. However, his son was called Leif Ericsson, who was credited with being the first European to land in North America.
Many children in a variety of cultures developed surnames that identified them as being their father's son. Among the English, there were names like Johnson, Robertson, Williamson and the like. Among the Scots, the prefix "Mac" or "Mc" meant the same thing, as in McDonald, MacTavish, MacWilliams. Sam Donaldson could just as easily have been named Sam McDonald, though how the McDonald's restaurant chain would have felt about that is another question.
Among the Irish, the prefix "O" served the same purpose and was likewise added to the father's first name, as with O'Casey, O'Brien, O'Connor and the like. In the Middle East, "bin" among the Arabs and "ben" among the Jews had the same meaning, as in Osama bin Laden and David Ben-Gurion or the fictional hero Judah Ben Hur.
Many of the common people took their surnames from their occupations Shepherd, Weaver, Carpenter, Cook, Brewer, etc. The same was true among the Germans, with names like Bauer (farmer) and Kaufman (merchant). Others took their names from where they lived Hill and Rivers in English and DuBois (from the woods) in French, for example.
Only slowly, over the centuries, did surnames become permanent family names in many places. And only slowly did particular first names cease to be exclusive to particular races or classes.
Although Mary is a very popular first name today, it was more than a thousand years after the Mary who was mentioned in the Bible before anyone with that name was recorded in England. But, over time, the name caught on and, by the Middle Ages, half the women in the country were named Elizabeth, Mary or Anne and that continued to be true for two centuries.
The democratization of first and last names is much more recent. So let's hear it for Michelle Kwan the person and the name.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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