Sticks and Stones: How Names Work & Why They Hurt

Sticks and Stones (1): How Names Work & Why They Hurt by Michael Ramscar.

Sticks and Stones (2): How Names Work & Why They Hurt

Sticks and Stones (3): How Names Work & Why They Hurt

From part 1:

In 1781, Christian Wilhelm von Dohm, a civil servant, political writer and historian in what was then Prussia published a two volume work entitled Über die Bürgerliche Verbesserung der Juden (“On the Civic Improvement of Jews”). In it, von Dohm laid out the case for emancipation for a people systematically denied the rights granted to most other European citizens. At the heart of his treatise lay a simple observation: The universal principles of humanity and justice that framed the constitutions of the nation-states then establishing themselves across the continent could hardly be taken seriously until those principles were, in fact, applied universally. To all.

Von Dohm was inspired to write his treatise by his friend, the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who wisely supposed that even though basic and universal principles were involved, there were advantages to be gained in this context by having their implications articulated by a Christian. Mendelssohn’s wisdom is reflected in history: von Dohm’s treatise was widely circulated and praised, and is thought to have influenced the French National Assembly’s decision to emancipate Jews in France in 1791 (Mendelssohn was particularly concerned at the poor treatment of Jews in Alsace), as well as laying the groundwork for the an edict that was issued on behalf of the Prussian Government on the 11th of March 1812:

“We, Frederick William, King of Prussia by the Grace of God, etc. etc., having decided to establish a new constitution conforming to the public good of Jewish believers living in our kingdom, proclaim all the former laws and prescriptions not confirmed in this present edict to be abrogated.”

To gain the full rights due to a Prussian citizen, Jews were required to declare themselves to the police within six months of the promulgation of the edict. And following a proposal put forward in von Dohm’s treatise (and later approved by David Friedländer, another member of Mendelssohn’s circle who acted as a consultant in the drawing up of the edict), any Jews who wanted to take up full Prussian citizenship were further required to adopt a Prussian Nachname.

What we call in English, a ‘surname.’

From the vantage afforded by the present day, it is easy to assume that names as we now know them are an immutable part of human history. Since one’s name is ever-present in one’s own life, it might seem that fixed names are ever-present and universal, like mountains, or the sunrise. Yet in the Western world, the idea that everyone should have an official, hereditary identifier is a very recent one, and on examination, it turns out that the naming practices we take for granted in modern Western states are far from ancient.

A very deep dives on person names across the centuries and the significance attached to them.

Not an easy read but definitely worth the time!

It may help you to understand why U.S.-centric name forms are so annoying to others.

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