What’s in a name? More than you think

Young black man making confused face

Read by Brenda

My friend Donna Barron has caused confusion with her last name on occasion. Attending a formal dinner with her husband, the maître d’ saw her name and stiffened.

“Oh, yes, here you go, baroness!” she said, gesturing to a table.

“And this would be the baron?” she said, looking reverently at Donna’s husband.

I would have puffed up my chest, nodded stiffly in return, and strode to my table, but Donna is more ethical than I am. She quickly clarified that, no, she was not a baroness, it was just her last name. A missed chance for a royally entertaining evening, if you ask me.

Another friend actually is a baroness, something I only found out after knowing her for many years.

“Oh, it’s no big deal,” she said, laughing and downplaying the whole thing.

She’s also American and just happened to marry a man who turned out to be a baron. As simple as that.

No, it’s not simple, at least not in Germany. While “baroness” conjures up fairy tales, castles, and swooshy dresses in my mind, here, it means much more.

She told me that when she calls her bank, she gets the royal treatment. Somehow the bank has figured out how to roll out a red carpet over the phone.

The power of a noble name was also in full play on her son’s first day at school. For this special event, incoming first graders gather in the courtyard, listen to the principal give a speech, and then line up behind their teacher when their name is called.

When it was her son’s turn, the teacher called out: Leopold Leonardo von Trinkenstein.

Both the length of this name and the von signaled clearly: this is a member of the nobility.

In this case, a six-year-old member of the nobility.

Upon hearing this name, all heads turned to see who this would be. A prince, perhaps? Someone in an ermine-trimmed scarlet cape? Or even better, perhaps someone would come bursting on the scene on horseback!

In actual fact, it was a little kid in sweatpants and tennis shoes, who skipped happily to take his place in line. He didn’t even wave to his subjects.

What a bummer. He could have at least worn a little crown.

The “Dr.” title also bestows a mantle of grandeur. No self-respecting German with a doctoral title would ever leave it off a business card, e-mail signature, or any document apart from a birthday card—although depending on the recipient, they might include it there, too.

Then there are those ambitious individuals who earn two doctoral titles, allowing them to write “Dr.” twice in front of their name, as in “Dr. Dr. Philip Snobmann.” To an English speaker, this looks rather silly, to be frank. But a double doctor title is of consummate importance to its holder.

This gets even more complicated when someone earns the rank of professor, which is of such paramount importance that it even has its own verb in German: habilitieren. I once worked at a company whose boss had earned this rank, thus acquiring the title “Prof. Dr. Dr.”

The native speakers among us battled unsuccessfully to eliminate this double title in English language texts, not wanting to confuse those who have not been immersed in German titledom. With each new publishing of the name, we tried to whittle it down to just one title—but to no avail.

The von as in the character Baron von Trapp in the musical The Sound of Music indicates that he was a member of the nobility. But it’s interesting to note that if Baron von Trapp had really existed, he would have had to call himself Mr. Trapp, as Austria banned the use of titles of nobility after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire following WWI in 1919. Some exceptions were granted, however, particularly those who had been using their names with von for a long time.

Rumor has it that while Austrians are not permitted to include the von with their name on their business cards, they add it by hand when giving them out.

Some Germans have both von and zu before their surnames. The von refers to their pertinence to a particular geography, while the zu indicates that when the name was bestowed, the family was still in possession of the geographical object associated with the name, usually a castle.

This is the case for the Fürst von und zu Lichtenstein, the “Prince of and to Lichtenstein.” I guess when you are the ruler of such a dinky country, you want to make it clear that the whole thing belongs to you, thank you very much.

A final note on the usage of von. In the Netherlands, they commonly have names with van, but this does not indicate royalty, just geographic provenance.

Names can also lead to confusion. I know a guy with the last name Feldotto. I was feeling very smug by demonstrating to him that I knew just how to pronounce this obviously Italian name by emphasizing the double “t.” Feldotto.

Wrong! His name is as German as they come: Feld means field and Otto is a common first name. Luckily he was accustomed to this confusion from Southern Germans (like me, sort of), who are constantly wishing they were in Italy and see Italian wherever they look. But Germans from the central part of the country where he is from recognize this compound name for what it is, pronouncing it in a standard German fashion: Feldotto. His neighbor, by the way, is named “Feldhans.”

So German, so straightforward:

“I’m Otto, this is my field.”

“He’s Hans, that’s his field.” 

By far the most interesting history belongs to Jewish names, who for centuries retained their Hebrew names in Europe. In the late 1700s, Jews in Germany gained more rights under the Emanzipationsgesetze, the emancipation laws. To integrate them into society, they were ordered to take on German names. Many common Jewish names such as Blumenthal, valley of flowers, Birnbaum, pear tree, or Goldberg, golden mountain, were created during this time. These names often drew inspiration from natural objects, a reflection of the reigning Romantic period in Germany.

The history behind Jewish names is much more complex than this, however. Many names are based on places of origin or even the house where the family lived, as in Haus des Rothschilds, the house of the red shield, or Rothschild.

History. That’s what’s in a name.

Brenda Arnold

Photo by Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash

Also interesting:
Are you sure that’s what that sign means?
Led astray by my naïve trust in a native speaker, but I should have known better
The two dots that will make or break you

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