Family Names or Surnames, as they are often called, can be serious business. They are also called Last Names because traditionally in the English speaking world and most other places it is used at the end of the name. Though that could be used as a Forename (ahead of the personal name) in some communities, even in India. While Shakespeare may have believed ‘that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, I am not too sure about that. Ones’ family name is something handed down to you and is virtually one’s identity for life. It is something which defines you. It opens doors; at times gets them shut firmly on your face. I daresay it may be the most important word in ones’ world. It sets the template, in many ways as to how you lead your life. It would be so because it is linked to ones’ culture, family, origin and community and often to a profession you grow up to. Incidentally, the study the etymology, history and use of proper names is Onomastics or Onomatology.
The use of Surnames dates back a long time. In Europe, it dates back to the Roman Empire; in China almost back to the Second Century BC. In most societies around the world including India, the lady assumes the family name of the husband after marriage. But that too is no longer the absolute norm and some ladies prefer to retain their maiden surnames and some append it to their original family name. Interestingly, the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), 1979 gives the same rights to the woman /wife to choose a family name as the man/husband!! Incidentally, the most common Indian Surnames include Devi, Kumar, Das and Singh. Worldwide, Devi figures in the list of most common surnames along with Wang, Smith, Ali and Ahmed..
The use of surnames very often tells an interesting tale. Some surnames put you in a certain ethnicity /geography without doubt. A Banerjee cannot be from Tamilnadu; an Iyer can’t be a Punjabi. Most often the surname is patronymic, derived from the name of the father or ancestor. The surnames could be locative – giving an idea of the location of origin : Kolhapuri(Kolhapur); Sholapurkar( Sholapur); Someshwara( Someshwar). The family name could be Toponymic , giving an idea of the Topography of the place of origin : Doddamani, a family name in Karnataka; the name translates into ‘big house” in Kannada. Hadimani is “house next to the road”. Hill or Green are common surnames in the West. Very often the name gives an idea of the profession – Baker/ Carpenter/ Taylor. Bakshi , a common Punjabi family name traces its origin to ‘Bakshi’ in Persian which means paymaster. Bhatt is a name common to both sides of the Vindhyas and originally they were the ‘learned ones’. Bedi is someone who had knowledge of the Vedas. Gandhi, in Indic languages means a perfume seller or grocer or a pharmacist. Parsis leave nothing to doubt, Sodabottleopenerwalla or Batliwalla , for instance. A rose by any other name.. I seriously doubt it!!
Well, I am fiercely possessive about my family name. When I was in Medical School, I had two batchmates who went by the name Handa. It was taken for granted I was Handa too. They are both very good friends and I have nothing against the name either, but it was a question of identity and ethnicity. The proud Kannadiga in me would repeatedly stand up during attendance (we were before the era of Biometrics) and point out class after class that, “I am Hande with an E”. After a few months, many of the Professors would point out to me and remark, “He is the chap with the E!” The name has been the source of many stories over the years. One of my senior colleagues, a Kashmiri himself, decided that I was Handoo , a common Kashmiri Pandit name. I was very often a guest for dinner at his house and fed on feasts made by his marriageable daughter. I was very soon banished when realization dawned that I was an “E” from South Kanara district. Then of course there have been the umpteen jokes on my fondness for eggs (I am not much of an egg eater) but the Hindi word for eggs kind of sounds similar. I have received letters addressed to Dr. Honda- I am sure I don’t look too Japanese and nor did they know I am fond of the car. Many have called me “Handy” –I suppose I must have been useful in some way. Some have called me “Handle”- I do think they were being rude about my weight perhaps. Others have had my name autocorrected to Handel; no violent objections with that – he is one of my favorite composers..
Believe me, each of the family names hides an interesting story; a story worth digging into. I would urge you to look more carefully at your family name – it might throw up some interesting tales.
I do agree with Salman Rushdie when he says, “Names, once they are in common use become mere sounds, their etymology being buried, like so many of the earth’s marvels, beneath the dust of habit”.