The surname is a support of our identity. It’s an inalienable family heirloom. It comes to us from the distant past as a chain that binds us to an ancestor. Straddling the science of language and history, that study of family name etymology reveals more than thought.

The links between Algeria and the Ottoman Empire appear in a multitude of names. Ali Baba was the designated official of the sublime door, in other words “El Bab El Ali, who becomes very wealthy from that.” Like today, a person may be designated by the name of the institution that employs him. Until the twelfth century, the word “door” commonly referred to the imperial palace under the Ottoman rule. Later, it evolved to define the neighborhoods of the Grand Vizier, the seat of government in Istanbul, where financial matters were decided. From the thirteenth century, then it shall only be known under the term of the Sublime Door. For many researchers, the name Istanbul was adopted to replace Constantinople after its conquest of  in 1453. In fact, Istanbul is a phonetic simplification of the original name which was sweetened in popular language to Stanbul and Istanbul.

The geographical origin is an important source in the formation of surnames. It is a universal rule. Also many family names have an unequivocal Latin origin dating from Roman times. They recognize themselves in the final us written in ouche. Maouche derives from Marius. The fall of the middle vowel r and the suffix is a rehabilitation of  Berber scheme. The same rule will transform Cassius in Chaouche. This practice in ancient Latin name for a complete final  is still alive. There are now Titus kept in its most Latin form with a phonetic that has kept the focus of ancient times with Titous. Similarly Matthew and Mathias become Maati.

With a million different surnames, France holds the world record for name diversity. Analyzing files of births registered between 1891 and 1990, important genealogical data but also many surprising anecdotes are discovered. It is not until the late nineteenth century that the names as we know them are fixed in their present form. Since that time, 200,000 names have been lost and 520,000 new ones are born. The most common name in France remains Martin, followed by Bernard, Thomas, Petit and Robert. However, most of us wear a rare name, in other words 80% of the people have an uncommon name.

Last names have rarely less than 50 carriers. There are hard to carry names: Bitch, Bastard or Smelly which disappeared one hundred years ago. The last name Hitler dropped just after World War II. Conard (meaning stupid in French) does not carry a pejorative original family name on the contrary, it derives from the Germanic “conhard” which means bold, brave. Only 44 Assassin were born in France during the last century, against 489 Innocent, but there was only one Cop.

The distribution of surnames across France also reveals some more surprises. All Camembert were born in the land of rillettes, the Sarthe, and not in Calvados, which still counts 50 Cheese. It is a rich country for its food and people’s names show that.

As unbelievable as it sounds, recently babies in Egypt have been named facebook and twitter. This shows that people names of the future will be nothing we are used to. Why not naming your baby stockmarket, mortgage or optionclick while we are at it? In this vein one poker champion was named moneymaker. Was it a coincidence that he won a big tournament or did he feel since childhood that he should try to make money. Similarly some people have the lastname Goldberg, where berg is the german for mountain. So it appears that in general the Goldbergs are quite wealthy, and being named mountain of gold may have helped.

Another interesting topic is to look at the history of the popularity of a first name, and see it first rise like in a wave then progressively wane into oblivion. It seems that a rising popularity is a self-fulfilling prophecy and more and more parents get to know the name and want to copy the idea and use that name for their baby. Until a top is reached and the novelty effect is gone, from which point the name loses its appeal to better and newer choices.


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