I've never thought about this much since I grew up with it, but my wife is a foreigner and she thinks Hungarian family names are the weirdest thing ever. Common family names include (the Hungarian equivalent of) lame, deaf, blind, devil etc. Did people have no say at all in their family names? Why did such names not prevail in English? I'm interested to hear about the situation in other cultures.
I'm interested to hear about the situation in other cultures.
I'm Dutch. There are phone books full of weird Dutch family names. Such as Naaktgeboren (Born naked), Windzak (Windbag), Palingdood (Dead eel) and many many more. How did this came to be?
When the French took over the Batavian republic they enforced family names. Everyone who didn't have one had to register a name. Any name would do. Some people found it funny, and thought it would be a great joke on the French. Sooner or later the French would leave, and we simply forget about that silly nonsense.
The French did leave in 1813, and the kingdom of the Netherlands was proclaimed. Regretfully - for those jokers - the new king was very much in favor of family names and had no plans to abolish them. Their descendants still bear those names...
To rub salt(peter) in the wound: it is very expensive to change your name, be it your first name or family name. It can only be done in court and cost you a tidy sum of money (> E 5000).
Before the French enforced family names people were often known by nickname or were referred to by their family, such as Jan of Piet (Jan, son of Piet). That doesn't mean nobody had a family name, it simply wasn't regulated. Lots of people did have family names.
As a side note: when the French created the kingdom of Holland (and started to enforce family names), Napoleon appointed his brother Louis Napoleon king. As kings go, he was pretty decent. He even tried to learn Dutch - something quite unusual for royals, not to mention the French in general. He wasn't really fluent in the language and made some funny mistakes. The best known is him saying 'Heren, aanschouw uw konijn'. "Gentlemen, behold thy rabbit".
The Dutch word for king is koning. The word for rabbit is konijn. Sounds somewhat similar, but with very different meanings.