The Amish Name Game
There’s a communication challenge Amish people deal with that most of us do not. It’s the fact that in Amish communities, names repeat themselves.
With a limited pool of surnames, and the popularity of Biblical and other traditional names, it’s inevitable that you find people with the same first and last names.
How many Sam Stoltzfuses are there in Lancaster County? Or Mary Lehmans in northern Indiana? Or David Millers in Holmes County? In some cases, dozens.
You can see the challenge this creates when you’re trying to talk about a specific someone, and not a different someone.
The Amish of course have practical ways to convey who they’re talking about. Karen Johnson-Weiner shares how Amish people do this in a Swartzentruber community in upstate New York.
Yesterday, I was at a local café having breakfast with my husband. Because the business also serves as the bus station, there is generally an Amish presence. That morning was no exception, for shortly after we arrived, so did the Trailways bus, and a Swartzentruber Amish man came in to call a cab. Unfortunately, he had forgotten to bring the address he needed.
Overhearing him (I admit to eavesdropping!) talking to Bill at the counter about needing to get to a road he thought was off of Route 68—but maybe not, I realized that no cab would be able to help him out. Since I was heading in that general direction to visit folks, I offered to give him, his wife, and their young son a lift.
The Swartzentruber Amish don’t volunteer names easily in the way non-Amish folks do. We were about a mile out of town, when I asked him his. “Jacob,” he said. It took a little bit longer to learn that his last name was the ubiquitous “Swartzentruber.” Then I needed to pry for his father’s name so that I could have that all important middle initial.
The Swartzentruber Amish, like other conservative Amish groups, don’t use middle names. Each child has the middle initial of his father. This means, of course, that there are lots of folks with the same name! When it gets too complicated (i.e. the mailman is confused by three people with the same name on the same street!), a man might also use his mother’s initial.
In other words, John, son of Jacob, would be John J. If there are several John J.s, then they might use their mother’s names, so John, son of Jacob and Anna, becomes John J. A., while John, son of Jacob and Mary, becomes John J. M.
This fellow was Jacob P., son of Pete. He had a metal hook for his hand, which he had lost in a mowing accident some years back, and we talked about how this served as a lesson for his children; his oldest, all girls, now help with the mowing. Waving his hook, Jacob laughed and said, “this makes them be careful.”
The small family was headed for the home of the wife’s brother, which we found easily, after I figured out that both Jacob and his wife were related to many of the families I see regularly, including the ones I had planned to visit that morning. After I dropped them off, I went on to a neighboring couple, who were, of course, curious about the visitors that I’d brought from the bus.
I gave them the meager bit of information I’d picked up in a 20 minute ride, and, while we drank coffee, they tried to place Jacob, son of Pete. Finally, the wife had it: Danny Petey Jakie. Then, she asked if he had lost his hand. I say yes. It turns out that both bits of information were necessary for them to know exactly who he was! There are lots of Danny Petey Jakies (Jacob, son of Pete, son of Dan).
We talked about names after this, part of the “name game” common when any new person arrives in town. The husband noted that, “Some new ones [first names] coming in” he says. “It’s not good.” I ask him about “Dennis,” the name of one new baby I’d met recently, which is a new one for me—but he said no, he had an uncle Dennis. How about “ Mahlon,”the name of another new arrival. “No, she has a brother Mahlon.”
Talk shifted to “Sam” after the wife asked about my daughter (“Is she married now?”), now engaged to a “Sam.” She asked if we call him “Sammy” and says that’s what she calls her husband sometimes. The husband laughed and then the two debated about whether an adult would call another adult “Sammy”—apparently not if they didn’t grow up together. More likely, Sam said, they’d have a nickname, like his six-foot-tall relative, “Long Sam.” Of course, he noted, you could call someone “Long Sam” if he was really short too.
Later, at another home, the wife also tried, this time with her brother’s help, to place the visitor. This time I gave her all three names: “Danny Petey Jakie.” “Does he have a hook for a hand?” she asked.
I’ve run into what Karen describes more than once, which has you learning all sorts of distinguishing factors to avoid getting a blank look when you drop a name 🙂
I still believe the most difficult community is Daviess County, Indiana, where only six names make up nearly 90% of all surnames.
Have you noticed Amish names repeating themselves? How about any Amish name stories, or good nicknames you’ve heard?
All photos by ShipshewanaIndiana
The Amish Name game is an interesting facet of Amish life. I notice sometimes in some scribes’ letters in The Budget newspaper, the writer will only mention the first name identifiers, such as “Sam Johns Willie” and not include the last name. One would have to be pretty well-acquainted with that specific community in order to know who was being referred to.
I agree, in Daviess County Indiana, with only six main surnames, it can get confusing. I think the Amish there sometimes joke about it a little. Last year at an auction, I was visiting with two men-
one a Graber and one a Raber. The Graber man slowly said to me, “The Rabers are all good people, but they just have something missing.”
What would become of Holmes County if all the Yoders moved out?
It would be de-yoderized.
Holmes Co. is made up of two kinds of people: the Yoders and those that wish they were Yoders. 🙂
I got a kick out of Sam John’s Willie. There really is a Sam John’s Willie. Those strings can get a bit carried away at times, going back 3 or 4 generations.
The one thing our non-Amish neighbor seemed to get the most confused by was husband & wives’ names. Around here (and in many other communities) when you are talking about a married woman the husband’s name gets put on first to tell her apart from all the other women. So John Yoder’s wife Susan becomes “John Susan” in casual conversation to tell her apart from David Susan, Levi Susan, and Merle Susan. Sometimes it goes the other way so with all the Dan Millers in the neighborhood one is called Susie Dan and another is called Annie Dan as “nicknames” for the men, but Dan’s wife Annie is still called Dan Annie if talking about her.
Our one neighbor thought that when we said “John Susan” it was Susan’s name and they thought it was really strange for an Amish woman to be named John-Susan, but eventually they got it figured out. 🙂
I loved this Graber/Raber joke. I can definitely picture that delivery.
The Mennonite version
This reminds me of a song called “The Mennonite Game.” It’s not about trouble identifying people, but rather trying to work out possible family connections whenever one Mennonite makes another’s acquaintance. These two slightly different versions of the same song are in liberal settings. The one in the first link, especially, gives at many hints that it’s at the far liberal end of the Anabaptist spectrum, even though the writer still feels some sense of family connection to Amish. The second video is a live performance on a cruise ship!
They are both fun to listen to.
The name game
In the Budget newspaper ( it’s a weekly Amish newspaper for those that don’t know about it, and I subscribe) and the creativity that is used in relating to a person’s name. For myself and having Amish friends for over 50 years, it’s often a challenge on keeping folks straight. For the post office it would certainly be a head ache! But, if the wrong Jacob/Alvin/Daniel received a letter it would get passed on to the right one.
A family story we have had for 45 years is the letter that arrived, and it was addressed as such; Gramma, City, State and Zip code, and no return address! And the right gramma, my mother, got it! My hometown in western WI has a population of 1500/AKA small town USA. Because it was so long ago more letters went in the mail today, and being a small town the PO looked at the post mark and where it was from, and concluded that was where my sister lived! Had my mom been the wrong gramma, she would have taken it back to the po, there’d have been a good laugh, and determined the right gramma!
So, never underestimate the USPS and their capabilities!
Great story Terry. And now you’ve got me curious about your hometown. I lived in Hammond WI one summer in St. Croix County, became acquainted with a number of small towns in the area.
Hi again Erik, My hometown is Whitehall which is 45 miles south of Eau Claire. It is the county seat for Trempealeau Co. If you traveled from Eau Claire to La Crosse you’d go right through it.
The big city of Hammond huh…and if I might ask what were you doing there? We have a guy from our church that is from Hammond. Mostly farming country isn’t it? Were you Amishing as we call it, in the area?
I was there for a couple of months in 2003, in my bookselling days, before I knew about the Amish 🙂 I saw a lot of Polk County, towns like Osceola and Amery. Pretty country, I think there is some farming there though not as much as some other Midwestern places I’ve visited.
Here in Lancaster County, the middle initial represents the mother’s maiden surname. In fact, on some birth certificates the middle name will be spelled out. This is the case in my father’s family. It is somewhat ironic that the result is not all that different than modern hyphenated last names.
The one exception to the mother’s-maiden-surname rule for middle initials is when a child is being named for another family member (such as an uncle or grandparent), in this case the child is often given the same middle initial as the namesake. Of course, it is still common for even adult children to be known by their father’s name, such as when someone refers to “Ben’s Mose.”
A couple of interesting points, thanks for sharing J. I guess that would be a bit ironic assuming you mean that hyphenated last names seem to be fairly common in the more progressive Mennonite churches.
In trying to visit “The Budget” scribe in Parsons Kansas I stopped at one Swiss Amish persons place to ask directions. “In the paper the name was only listed as Chris _ _ Schwartz” I said to the guy. “Do you know where Chris Schwartz lives?” And he says, “Which one?” Not thinking, and not knowing the community I asked if there were many. He said, “Here in Parsons we have 89 families, two of them with the last name Schrock and all of the rest are Schwartz, so yes, we have a LOT of Chris Schwartz’s.”
So many Schwartz that at the end of the scribe letters they say something like, “All people listed above are Schwartz’s unless otherwise noted.”
I have written (but, sadly, not published) a couple of novels. When naming characters, novelists generally go one of two routes: symbolic names, or names that try to sound like the real world. I have never been much for symbolic names, so I would simply open my phone book at random once to get the first name, and again to get the last name. Well, in Elkhart County, you end up with a few too many Pennsylvania Dutch names to get it right on your first try! As my sister commented when I told her of this struggle to name my characters, “You can’t have five unrelated characters all named Yoder.”
That’s funny, Trish. If the story was written in a big Amish community, you probably could get away with 5 unrelated Yoders. 🙂
name fail :)
I’d so fail at this. I can’t even keep my cousin’s kids organized in my head…I only have 4. My wife’s HUGE family? I gave up on that years ago! 🙂
Mark: I liked those jokes and I especially laughed at the de-Yoderized one, no offense to any of many Yoders *smile*.
Terry: I think that is a sweet story about your Gramma and the old US Postal Service! My city isn’t small but is close enough that I think after a bit, even today such a letter just might make it’s way to the right Gramma!
Trish: I hope you publish your novels someday and I would love to see one with 5 unrelated Yoders. Let the readers do the work!
Finally, in any primarily Amish town, if someone with my name lived there, I don’t think there would be much of a problem finding them.
Funny. My Lutheran relatives referred to children as “Leonard’s girl” or “Clyde’s boy” – and in context to which side of the family was being visited.
Virginia’s girl was Ray’s girl at her husband’s parents’ or siblings homes, and Virginia’s girl at her own parents’ or sibings homes.
I wonder if this is some sort of Germans from Russia, or just plain Teutonic, habit.
Old school WASPs often gave their daughters their mother’s maiden name as a middle or first name. One of my maternal ancestresses was the daughter of one Elizabeth Perrine (or Perine) and her husband John Dill – and her name was Catherine Perine Dill. The same was done with boys, which could lead to duplicate a middle name and surname being duplicated if they spouses were cousins.
I don’t think that would work if everyone in town were a Yoder or a Swartzentruber.
John Schmid and Amish Nicknames
My mother used to teach German at Monroe Central in Adams County, Indiana. When she taught there, she lived in Berne. When she was setting up her bank account there, the banker glowed about his Amish customers being about the best with whom to deal, with but one exception; “They’re all named John Schwartz!”
I heard John Schmid sing a song about Amish nicknames on a CD that was from a live concert in Shipshewana. He said the song was written by Ezra Petersheim and was mostly about the folks in the Mayesville, Wayne County area, but he’d sung the song in every state he’d been in and everybody knows someone. I don’t know how to put the audio file on here, but I did find a shorter version on Youtube. Hope any who listen find it entertaining. Thanks for keeping this site going, Erik. Macht’s gut!
My pleasure Nicholas. Thanks for sharing this John Schmid clip. Seems like an Amish nickname song would be a sure hit in the right circles 🙂
Oh, I forgot to mention that in our German Baptist culture, we do the same as the Amish with the husband/wife naming, but e don’t call people by nicknames using their parents’ names. However, identifying someone by their parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles is rather common.
Writing Amish names
I love this article! Names are certainly an issue when you write Amish novels, as I do. You want to stay true to the location and the practices of each community, but people become easily confused when reading and there are 3 “Danny Petey Jakie” names. lol. Thanks for the information, Eric.
Maybe I needed to be writing “Amish novels” instead of science fiction!
I enjoyed this too Vannetta, all the credit goes to Karen here for the great inside look at the name game in NY.
I can imagine it would be unnecessarily confusing to have two or three characters with the same name. I’ve never written fiction but the closest I came to that was coming up with fictitious names for the interviewees for my Amish business book, which I did as a nod to privacy/humility. That was pretty easy as long as I remembered to keep my Stoltzfuses in Lancaster and my Troyers in Holmes County.