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Surnames in Alexander Beider's
Dictionaries of Surnames

Index prepared by
Alexandre Beider


    Alexander Beider, was born in Moscow where he earned his Ph.D. in Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. Beider is the author of several highly respected books on Ashkenazi names and Yiddish. After settling in Paris he was granted in 1999 a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies (Ashkenazi First Names) from the Sorbonne.

    In recent years Beider turned his attention to the subject of Jewish surnames in Mediteranean countries and published two large dictionaries on Jewish surnames found in countries that were traditionally home to predominantly Sephardic communities:
          A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from Maghreb, Gibraltar, and Malta. New Haven, CN: Avotaynu. 2017
          A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from Italy, France and "Portuguese" Communities. New Haven, CN: Avotaynu. 2019

    Beider is a self taught linguist and these books deal primarily with the linguistic aspects of surnames. Of greater interest to genealogists, Beider also classifies the studied surnames into groups of possible origin. Thus, in the Maghreb volume surnames are classified as "monogenetic" (with indication of the country where Beider thinks the name appeared before spreading to other countries of the Maghreb) or "polygenetic". In the Italy volume surnames are classified as "Old Iberian", "Southern French", "Portuguese", "Italian", "Ashkenazic", "North African" etc. based on where Beider determined the name appeared for the first time. In both books, numerous surnames are characterized as "Migrated" where, the etymology does not correspond to a source word, but to the country from which the name came as a ready-made form brought by migrants and includes the way the name was spelled in the country of origin.

    The two books indexed here are Beider's researched onomastic evaluation of surnames used by Jews in these once traditionally Sephardic communities. As with all such books there can be numerous disagreements and alternative interpretations. The index of surnames in Beider's two recent books is made available here in a searchable database for the interested reader.

The difference between Onomastics and Genealogy
    Since this is a website about Sephardic genealogy it is important to remember the difference between onomastics and genealogy. The two books indexed here are primarily about onomastics. Onomastics is the study of names; their etymology, distribution, evolution, etc. Genealogy, on the other hand is the study of the history of families. Onomastics studies names from the linguistic point of view. Genealogy uses names as identifiers or labels to more easily follow a specific family through available historical records. For a genealogist, the linguistic origins and geographic distribution of a surname represent only one clue among many others.

     It should be noted that Sephardic surnames differ in many ways (other than etymological language) from Ashkenazi surnames. Whereas Ashkenazi surnames are mostly of recent origin often acquired in the mid 19th century with the same surname frequently adopted by many unrelated families, many (but not all), hereditary Sephardic surnames are centuries old and in some cases originate as far back as the 12th century or earlier. Because genealogists use hereditary surnames as identifiers in searching through records, long-held hereditary surnames facilitate the search for a family's history. Surnames that have been hereditary for centuries may allow the development of family's history further back in time than recently acquired surnames. On the other hand, because hereditary Sephardic surnames can be so old, the passage of centuries means that many families bearing the same ancient surname today may no longer be currently closely related. Indeed, in the case of some traditional Jewish surnames such as Cohen (and many others), there can be so many unrelated Cohen families that composite surnames evolved to differentiate the families. Examples: Cohen Aboulafia, Cohen Adad, Cohen Addade, Cohen Aknine, etc. to name just a few. These are problems primarily for the genealogist that point out the caution needed when using surnames as a tool in Sephardic genealogy.

     Descendants of Jews whose ancestors were once forced to convert to Christianity present a different problem. Conversos usually adopted their "New Christian" surnames from the surrounding pool of non-Jewish surnames. When they returned to Judaism these families usually retained these acquired (often hispanic sounding) surnames which were not their original Jewish surnames. Etymologies and origins of these names are interesting but of relatively little value to the Jewish genealogist.

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© Jeffrey Malka, 2020
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