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Female Last Names

Nowadays, in English, a family name just sits there and doesn’t change depending on whether you’re male or female. That’s not always the case, not in all languages. In many of the Slavic languages, it is still the norm to add a feminine ending to a woman’s last name: Polish: Mr. Malinkowski and Mrs. Malinkowska Russian: Mikhail Gorbachev and Raisa Gorbecheva Boris Yeltsin and Naina Yelstina In Polish, there’s even a distinction between the ending for an unmarried and a married woman (gradually falling out of use): either -owna for ‘Miss’ and -owa for ‘Mrs.’ or -anka vs. -ina. Into the 1800’s, Germans often tacked on a feminine ending to a woman’s last name; in southern Germany, you’ll still come across that. South and Central Germany used the usual feminine ending -in (Professorin, Doktorin). Many regions of Germany add 'the' before the name (der for men, die for women), and people would optionally add a feminine ending to indicate the wife: Bavaria: -in der Huber und die Huberin (‘Mr. Hoover and his wife’) Herr Schmidt + die Schmidtin Swabia: -e, Switzerland: -i (which is the -in ending, but Swabian drops final -n) Der Schmidt und die Schmidte In western Saxony: -n (also a form of -in) Die Müllern kommt vorbei. ('Mrs. Miller is coming by') North Germany: -sch or -sche (related to English -ish) Herr Grote and his wife die Grotsche die Möllersch Sometimes a possessive -s was added: Herr Bäcker and Bäckers (i.e. Baker’s wife or daughter)

Women bakers

English long ago did much the same for profession names, and some of them then became family names. The male ending was -er, and the female -ster, giving us:

Dyer becomes Dexter

Brewer - Brewster Webber - Webster Baker - Baxter spinner - spinster shaper - shepster a female seamstress (one who shapes clothes) lister - litster dyer Deemer - Dempster judge Dyer - Dyster or Dexter Kember - Kempster someone who combed wool or flax before weaving Fuller - Folster someone who fulls wool (manually washing raw wool- the names Tucker and Walker are synonyms) Seamer - Seamstress apparently ‘seamster’ wasn’t enough, and the French feminine ending -ess was tacked on. Ditto songstress.

The -ster ending stopped being specifically feminine early on, so you would have to follow an ancestor a great many centuries back to find someone where the name really did mean specifically a female worker. The main point: if you see a female ancestor with one of these endings and the males do not have it, it is just an old way people had to signaling gender in earlier days. One place among the Germanic family of languages that does but doesn’t shows gender in the family name is in Iceland. In Iceland, people generally don’t have family names, just the patronymic, which means your father’s name. So Jón Einarsson really is Jón, who is Einar’s son. Jón’s son Ólafur is Ólafur Jónsson, and his daughter Sigriður is Sigriður Jónsdóttir, daughter of Jón. Icelandic is the only Germanic language that is still routinely marks gender in the ‘last’ name- except it’s not a family name at all, it just tells you who the father was. In a country of a third of a million people without last names, the telephone books have to list your name, your father’s name, your address, and your profession, so that hopefully that is enough to narrow it down to the individual Jon Jonsson you want. Outside of Manitoba and Iceland itself, not many of you reading this have Icelandic ancestry.

Icelandic Proper Names

But the same practices once applied to the rest of Scandinavia, on into northern Germany and the Netherlands. The rural population of Sweden and Denmark, down into German-speaking Schleswig-Holstein and East Frisia (north-westernmost Germany) was still switching to permanent family names in the late 1800’s. In German, you find names that were originally patronymic, either with -sohn or just with what amounts to ’s: Jakobsohn, Mendelsohn, Wilhelms, Hendricks. Rarer are ones ending in -en: Otto > Otten, Kurt > Kürten, Heinz > Heinzen. German names ending in -i are often Latinized Versions: Pauli = Pauls(sohn), Wilhelmi In Dutch, you once had -zoon and -dochter: Jan would have his son Abel Janzoon and daughter Trine Jansdochter. These were often abbreviated as -sz. and -dr., so the second name in Joerg Cornelisz was not the family name. Other variants were -s, -se, -sen, -x (Tac’s child was Tacx, now a family name). Even English did this, and not just in Johnson and Jefferson and Thompson, but in Nixon, Dixon, Harrison and Wilson. Thanks to the Norman French, English got the Fitz-names (Fitz was Norman French for 'son of'): Fitzpatrick, Fitzgerald, Fitzroy (roi is French for king, so that was an illegitimate son of a king). An English tidbit about that feminine ending -in: it is still abundantly common in German: a female Autorin “aoTORinn”, Pilotin, Journalistin, but a thousand years ago, English still used it as well, spelled -en: Old English German god and goddess were god and gyden Gott und Göttin he-wolf and she-wolf wolf and wylfen Wolf und Wölfin fox and vixen fox and fyxen Fuchs und Füchsin Vixen is the one English word that still has that ending, plus the change of f to v that is typical of the Kentish dialect of England.

Vixen - the "ex" holdover for female


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