What does your name mean? Library program tells all

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All that John W. Webber asks of the audience at his free, one-hour presentation on American names is to "bring your name."

In turn, he will bring his lifelong interest in names and their origins and meanings -- along with 26 reference books so people can look up the original meaning of their names.

His talk, set for 7 p.m. Wednesday at Whitehall Public Library, is titled, "American Names -- Their Origin and Meaning (There is No Such Thing as an American Name!)."

"This is not genealogy tracing. This is onomastics and etymology," he said.

Onomastics is the study of the history of proper names. Etymology is the study of the history of words.

"Someone will say, 'Here I am in America, my name is Smith and you're telling me that Smith is not an American name?' "

But "Smith" is an occupational name, said Mr. Webber, 70, of the South Side.

Smith means one who works with black iron, such as a silversmith or goldsmith. The name Smith evolved from the German name Schmidt, he said.

"Ferraro, McGowan and Kowalski are all Smiths in different languages," he added.

In Italian, Ferraro means one who works with black iron; McGowan means the same in Irish; and in Polish, it's Kowalski.

Mr. Webber teaches courses in Irish culture and the origins and meanings of names at the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, local community colleges and elsewhere.

He is also president of the Gaelic Arts Society of Pittsburgh and can speak 12 languages to varying degrees.

While immigrants often wanted to "Americanize'' their names for increased economic opportunity, others had their names changed upon arrival at Ellis Island.

Mr. Webber said the ship's manifest was written before sailing by disembarking clerks who then handed it to embarking clerks who could not read it and, therefore, deciphered the writing within their limited capacity.

As a result, one family could have five different spellings of members' surnames.

The immigrants, who often came to the U.S. to escape prejudice or war or the economy of their homelands, were so happy to be here, they accepted any name.

"If it sounded close enough to the original name, they took it," Mr. Webber said.

He is a fourth-generation American whose ancestors emigrated from Ireland to the U.S. in 1858. Webb-er in 16th century England referred to a man on a textile assembly line who wove threads into cloth, so someone in the family surely worked in the industry, he said.

Surnames came about in roughly the year 1000 as people needed to communicate and were derived from 19 sources, such as occupation and appearance.

For instance, in German, "Schwartz" means black hair, and one who lives in the woods is "Wald."

Language does not change dramatically over the centuries; words basically have the same meaning now as then, Mr. Webber said.

Registration for his program is required at www.whitehallpubliclibrary.org. To contact Mr. Webber: jfwnamesman@aol.com.


Margaret Smykla, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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