Sunday, February 05, 2012

Cousin Victor [not really] fills us in

Victor Mair at Language Log:
Before I went to my ancestral village of Pfaffenhofen, Austria in 1967, I had always assumed that "Mair" was an Anglicization of "Maier" or some other spelling of the German surname (e.g., Meyer, Meier, Mayer, Maier, Mier, Meir).  Indeed, many people used to ask me if I were related to Lucy Mair, the British anthropologist, but I knew that could not be so because her name was of Scots or English origin, while mine was of German derivation.  It is interesting that I am listed in Wikipedia as being a person with the surname Mair in a Scots context, though I'm sure that it won't be long after this post goes up that the Wikipedia editors shift me to the much smaller group of people named Mair in a German context.  In any event, when I went to Pfaffenhofen, I discovered that there were many individuals whose surname in the church record books and on tombstones was given as "Mair", and in the Innsbruck phonebook there were scores of people surnamed "Mair".  Even more surprising to me was that it was not uncommon for families to change their name from "Maier" (or some other spelling) to "Mair" and vice versa, depending upon fashion or personal preference.

For those who might be curious, the German surname "Mair" derives from Middle High German meiger, meaning "higher or superior", often used for stewards of landholders or great farmers or leaseholders; today a Meier is generally a dairy farmer. Meier and Meyer are used more often in Northern Germany, while Maier and Mayer are found more frequently in Southern Germany.
How about that. I had often wondered where our family name came from. But why would you change your name from Maier to Mair when the former is so clearly superior [heh heh] in every way? I mean, really.