You might ask me if I am a Hill or a Hall. The answer is both. But both of those last names were originally nothing more than locations used to help the community sort people with only one name from others with that same one name.
Today, my last name is Hall, but there is little doubt that Hall was once merely a way of helping people in the neighborhood know which Bill was which. When cave dwellers or village people have the same single name of Bill or, God forbid, Wilbert, as I do, you need something descriptive to tell us apart.
For instance, let’s say one of my ancestors many generations ago had some simple single name like Ralph and no other name. However, that changed when there were too many Ralphs in that neighborhood.
“What do you mean Ralph stole your dog? Which Ralph?”
“That Ralph kid,” says the victim, “that little red-headed peasant who lives near the big hall, that huge manor where the Duke of Saxon lives.”
“Oh, that kid. Yeah, he is a bad one.”
So that little troublemaker became Ralph of the hall – and before long, his moniker became Ralph Hall.
Similarly, my mother’s maiden name was Hill. (I kid you not.) But the Hills, way back before my mother was born, also shared a village problem of too many people with the same name. So they became, not just Roger or Wanda, but Roger or Wanda “of the hill,” and then finally, Roger Hill and Wanda Hill.
An increasingly crowded community has to find a hill-hall kind of gimmick to sort everybody out. Today, most people in the world have long since found some a way to sort out all those people with the same first names.
Geography is one way. Thus a lot of people became Hills, Rivers, Lakes, Forests and even Bushes.
“Where were you born, Mister President?’
“Under a bush, I’m proud to say.”
Professions have also been used to tell us apart. We all know people named Fisher, Farmer, Cook and Hunter, not to mention Bishop (with all those food names, a neighborhood requires someone to bless the chow).
Some of my Scandinavian ancestors came up with a confusing way of telling us apart. They give a kid his first name and then add a last name based on his father’s first name.
So the kid’s last name becomes John’s son – or eventually, Johnson. That’s got to put everybody to sleep.
But what do I know? I’m named for a landmark, a big building, a nearby hall. It could have been worse. My family could have been living near a neighborhood outhouse.
The Italians originally sorted themselves out by adding their city to their name. For instance Leonardo da Vinci means Leonardo from Vinci. Vinci is his small hometown in northern Italy. Under the same system, we Americans would have called people something like Warren from Omaha or Cheryl from Tacoma.
Perhaps the best remedy for sorting out one person with a single name is the Spanish system. Many Spanish speakers give a kid not only his own original first name but also give him both his mother’s maiden name and his father’s last name. Thus, my college roommate from Colombia was named Efrain Rodriguez Orozco (with his mother’s name last).
When a person has a double set of last names, that will truly help us tell him from other people with the same first name.
On the other hand, I would not like that Spanish system for myself. If I followed that pattern, I would be Bill Hall Hill.
Just call me Wilbert.Bill Hall can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 1012 Prospect Ave., Lewiston, ID 83501