The surnames which seem to indicate nationality

Krisztian Nemeth of Sporting Kansas City reacts after missing a chance to score during the match bet

Krisztian Nemeth of Sporting Kansas City reacts after missing a chance to score during the match between Sporting Kansas City and Toluca as part of the CONCACAF Champions League 2019 at Children's Mercy Park on February 21, 2019 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

PETER TRUDGILL on the sometimes confusing way in which surnames seem to indicate nationality

People with the surname Inglis are usually Scottish. That might seem rather strange, because the name is the Scots-language word for 'English' – and why would Scottish people have been called Inglis? But actually of course there would be no point in calling someone from England 'English' unless they lived in another country, such as Scotland, where being English was unusual and therefore something which distinguished them from everybody else. People called Inglis are typically Scots who have a distant ancestor who came from England.

This same type of pattern can be seen across Europe. Domenico Tedesco is the Italian manager of the Spartak Moscow football team. Since tedesco is the Italian word for 'German', we can assume he had an ancestor who moved to an Italian-speaking area from some German-speaking location.

The same process would have come into play with an ancestor of the Czech politician Boguslaw Niemiec, who is ethnically Polish but whose surname is the Polish word for 'German'.

The last name of the Hungarian international football star Krisztián Németh also means 'German', in his mother tongue. And the French word for 'German' – allemand – is the family name of the former French Olympic fencer, Jean-Pierre Allemand.


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People with German-language surnames denoting different countries of origin include the great East German human-rights activist Paul Oestreicher, whose family name means 'Austrian'; and the Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer (='Swiss'), who was born in Alsace, Germany (now part of France).

The Italian-language surname Greco most often derives from the Italian word for 'Greek'. And we can also find family names in the Greek language which signify origins in other countries: the surname of the internationally known Greek Professor of linguistics, Amalia Arvaniti means 'Albanian'; and the Greek-Canadian professional gambler Bob Voulgaris's name is Greek for 'Bulgarian' .

But some names, like Inglis, are rather more complicated to explain. A fairly common German-language surname is Deutsch, which means 'German'. Why would German people be called 'German'? One possibility is that the name was used to refer to German speakers living on the eastern edge of the German-speaking area, where the populations consisted of mixtures of Germans and Slavs.

And why would the famous goalkeeper Petr Cech, who is Czech, have a surname that means 'Czech' in Czech? Maybe because Cech is also the Slovak word for 'Czech'; or because the name was used by Moravians, people from what is now the eastern part of Czechia, to refer to people from Bohemia, the western part of the country.

The surname Scott also has a history which needs some explanation. It is predominantly a Scottish name, which again seems contradictory: if Inglis is a Scottish name, we would expect Scott to be English – which it isn't.

The clue to this puzzle lies in the fact that, in Scotland, Scott is a name which is particularly associated with the Borders and other parts of the Scottish south. The people who were first labelled 'Scots' were the Gaelic-speaking people from Ireland who crossed the Irish Sea and settled in Argyll, in the west of Scotland, and who then spread into to the rest of the Scottish Highlands and the Western Isles. Scott was a name which the Scots-speaking Lowlanders used for these Gaelic-speaking Highlanders.

The surnames Welch and Welsh also have a rather complex story to tell, because it is not necessarily the case that those who bear this family name are English people descended from some Welsh ancestor. The original Old English meaning of Welsh was simply 'foreigner', so if you are a Welch, you probably had a forebear who came to England from some other country – but that may or may not have been Wales.

And as to the mystery of why some British people are named Britain, the answer seems be that one of their ancestors was a Breton – from Brittany in France.

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