etymology, Uncategorized

PPFF #166: names, again

Good morning,

I often hear people complain. Complaining about ‘other people’. And recently I heard someone quite subtly and passive-aggressively grumble about Chinese people and ‘their’ practice of adopting ‘English’ names. They sounded almost offended by what is basically a lazy attempt at ‘cultural assimilation’ through ‘nominal appropriation’ – such that it caught my attention. But it also made me wonder, ‘English names’? What are English names? John? Kimberly? Peter? Kevin? I had to google for hours to no avail; at least as far as the origins of these common ‘English’ names are concerned, I couldn’t find an English name. Not one. It turns out, a lot of the names we give to children in the UK are either Celtic or Hebrew in origin (I don’t know the respective percentage).

Take John for example, a very common English name, but really how English is it, when you consider that it is an anglicised Hebrew name originally transliterated into Greek and then Latin Ioannes, meaning “Yahweh is Gracious”. Peter? Peter It’s from the Greek word ‘petros’ meaning stone/rock, a direct translation of ‘cephas’ or ‘keppa’, an Aramaic word meaning the same. Kevin? That’s just a failed attempt to pronounce and spell a common Irish name ‘Caoimhín’, by the English.

Long story short, if a Jewish singer can change his German name (Zimmerman) to a distinctly Welsh-sounding name (Dylan), and get away with it, I’d say, leave them Chinese people alone.

Have an open-minded Friday.


PPFF #141: names

Good morning,

In January a colleague wondered out loud why so many Jewish people in the US have German sounding names. The answer was of course the 1787 Austro-Hungarian law (Universal Decree by Emperor Joseph II). The Austro-Hungarian Empire, which ruled over a substantial part of Europe at the time, was the first country in Europe that required all persons of Jewish decent to register a permanent family surname (most of whom didn’t have a constant surname), and they required that this surname be German.

Why am I recycling this fact? I’m not. But I’m trying to create a past reference point, from which to launch a related fact in the same theme because that obviously gives it a sense of legitimacy (it really doesn’t); otherwise it would be too random to bring up this morning’s topic – Japanese surnames.

In 16th century Japan, surnames were actually outlawed for all non-samurai (you know, people with swords) but people used them anyway – illegally. By the 19th century, impoverished feudal lords started selling surnames to wealthy commoners (people without swords but money) –again illegally. Toward the end of the 19th century, however, these surname-bootleggers probably all went out of business when the Meiji government passed a new law requiring everyone to register surnames. The new government wasn’t being generous with this previously coveted privilege; in fact it was the opposite because it just made conscription and taxation difficult to evade for their subjects. I’ve read that there are over 100,000 surnames in Japan and batches of arbitrary names were pretty much given out by village temple priests when this law came into force.

I realise that no one asked to know any of this. But it makes me feel better to know that I have a friend who is just about Japanese and I thought he might like to know and also there’s a Japanese guy who comes into my office to water the plants. Maybe he’d be delighted to know his surname was randomly generated by his great great grandparent’s village priest. Or not.

Have a good Friday.


PPFF #124

Good morning,

I’ve counted the total words in the past few PPFFs and couldn’t help noticing there are just too many, averaging at 450 words per piece. Of course that’s wonderful if you’re trying to fill up to the word limit for your primary school essay on why your pet bunny died and what it means for you, but if you’re trying to get busy people to read about a fact quickly, probably not the best length to keep to. So here it is, with a minimum amount of waffle, this morning’s fact:

I heard that the online retailer which eventually became was first attempted to be registered as (as in Abra Cadabra) but it was changed quickly to Amazon when the founder’s lawyer misheard it to be (a very different website I imagine). In retrospect it was probably a smart move; with Amazon being the largest and most extensive river in the world, it wasn’t a bad (albeit kitschy) metaphor for the aspirations for an online retailer trying to reach all corners of the world. ‘Cadaver’ on the other hand, well, you know.

Those of you whose curiosity goes a little further than the rest might have wondered what sort of stuff is sold at “”; so I have already taken the liberty to google that for you – a bit of a damp squib but the search returns the following:

“This site can’t be reached’s server DNS address could not be found.


The closet thing I could find was “”, which is a graphic designer’s website.

And Well, it couldn’t be reached either. Who knows, perhaps it’s already been and gone.

Have a good Friday.











PPFF #123

Good morning,

A bit of a rant this morning.

As many of us might be aware, on Thursday 23rd June 2016 the UK will vote either to remain in or leave the European Union. Not usually politically inclined, but since this one looks like it could actually matter to my personal going-abouts, I probably will be exercising my right to vote in this referendum. Although I am leaning toward one, and away from the other, I won’t either persuade or dissuade anyone one way or the other – I understand that PPFF is a strictly apolitical platform and I wish it to remain that way.

Anyhow, if you’ve been following the Remain or Leave debates, you might have noticed by now, there are quite a lot of unnecessary politicisation of anything and everything, an alarming amount of pseudo-statistics about jobs, migrants and public spending, factoids about various cultures, surprising absence of anything positive, unlikely conjectures about post-referendum Britain, wild speculations, and thinly/thickly veiled xenophobia, borderline fascistic nationalism and entertaining forms of racism as well as some rose-tinted, unrealistic presentation of pan-European ideals.

Now, rather than jumping into this gigantic mess already murky without my contribution and saying something pertinent to the current debate, instead I’ve decided to be the cool kid who says something only marginally related but interesting nonetheless – here’s something European that most of us probably didn’t know about.

If you lived in Europe for any length of time, you are likely to have known at least one person with a Spanish name. I didn’t know the exact mechanics of their names but I knew they tend to have long full names typically 3+ names or 7+ syllables. I found out today;  quite distinct from other European name conventions, they have two surnames, one paternal (usually the first surname) and the other maternal. For example, if Juan Diaz Martínez has a child with Sara Garcia González, if it’s a boy called Pedro, he is most likely to be known as Pedro Diaz Garcia.

Most of you knowledgeable folks probably already knew that – so, not to disappoint you, here’s a thing about Hungarian names.

They apparently write the group/unit identifier (surname) first and then their individual identifier (‘first’ name) like most Eastern language name conventions such as Japanese or Mongolian.

Let’s take Franz Liszt for example, a prominent Hungarian composer. At first this may appear typical of any European name convention because it’s been germanised in terms of the name order as well as spelling due to the Germanic (probably Austrian) cultural dominance during his time in Hungary. But his name in fact would have appeared as ‘Liszt Ferencz’ in Hungarian, i.e his last name first and first name last.

I don’t really know why this is the case. What I do know, however, is that the Hungarian language is very nearly a ‘language isolate’ i.e. few similar languages in Europe or any where else, and it’s not an Indo-European language unlike most European languages, and its grammar bears much more resemblance to Eastern languages than your typical European Romance (think French) or Germanic (think English) languages.

By reading and knowing that, I think we’ve all become just a little bit more European.

A good Friday, have.

(see what I did there?)