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An Embarrassment of Onomastic Riches

Listening to the radio this afternoon and hearing my namesake, Jeff Schapiro (never mind the German variant orthography) of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, expatiating on the vagaries of Virginia politics, I was reminded yet again of the seeming perfusion in America of the surname that derives from that of the Jewish residents of the medieval German city of Speyer who eventually migrated to Eastern Europe, including Lithuania. In fact (according to my father, whose ancestors came from Radoshkovichi in what is now called Belarus), there were so many Shapiros in Vil’na (the Russianized name of the capital, Vilnius) during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that some of them changed their name to Vilenkin, a Yiddish-Russian hybrid deriving from their patrial.

Not all Shapiros are created equal. When in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Jews immigrated to America from the Pale of Settlement in their thousands, many of them arrived at Ellis Island in New York bearing unpronounceable Polish, Ukrainian, Byelorussian, and Bessarabian names. This apparently didn’t sit well with immigration officials, so in order to simplify matters, they frequently assigned the name Shapiro ex parte to these onomastically-impaired newcomers, Cohen and Levy not being suitable because of tribal restrictions.

As they used to say in the Soviet Union before it krepiered, Dva mira––dva Shapiro (“Два мира––два Шапиро” [rhymes in Russian]) ‘Two worlds––two Shapiros’.


ex parte
: from or on one side only, with the other side absent or unrepresented (Latin)
, v.: to die (Yiddish)
, adj.: of, relating to, or explaining a name or names
, n.: (correct) spelling
perfusion, n.: a great quantity
, n.: the word for the name of a country or place and used to denote a native or              inhabitant of it
vagary, n.: an extravagant or erratic motion or action

2 Responses to “An Embarrassment of Onomastic Riches”

  • Jacobus says:

    There is also a theory that the surname comes from the Hebrew (or Aramaic?) Shapira and/or Shapir, meaning “excellent.”

  • Michael Shapiro says:

    This “theory” is highly implausible and derives in all likelihood from an understandable desire (shared by oppressed minorities everywhere) to mask the alien provenience of the family name by Semiticizing it after-the-fact and making it sound grander into the bargain. But the naming patterns of Jews in medieval European communities do not sustain such a “theory.”

    In support of his (implicit) claim that the name is of Hebrew origin, Jacobus also points out (viva voce) that whereas East European Jews, esp. politicians, who immigrated to Israel changed their surnames from Germanic and Slavic originals to Hebrew-sounding substitutes (e.g. Ben Gurion < Grüen, Sharett < Shertok, Shamir < Jeziernicky, etc.), those bearing the name Shapiro simply changed the last vowel to render the name Sephardic-sounding rather than Ashkenazic. But this says nothing about the etymology of the name: there was simply a convenient Hebrew homonym close to hand, obviating anything more than a cosmetic change.

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