He’s the given name of The Simpson’s Krusty the Clown, but his past is surprisingly distinguished – and could be considered perfectly on trend.
Thanks to C in DC for suggesting Herschel as our Baby Name of the Day.
You probably won’t meet a little Herschel these days. The name last appeared in the US Top 1000 back in 1963. He’d ranked every year since 1880, a steady presence, charting in the 300s and 400s for decades.
Factor in Hershel, Hersh, and Hirsch and the number grows. Hirsch comes from the German word for deer. There are plenty of animal-inspired appellations in German – Wolfgang, anyone? – but Hirsch is harder to trace back to his beastly roots.
If your last name was Hirsch, it could mean one of the following:
- You and your family kept deer.
- You or a member of your family bore a striking resemblance to a deer.
- Or, and this is where it gets really interesting, your parents were inspired by a blessing Jacob gave to his son Naphtali, comparing him to a deer.
The first is typically German; the third is almost exclusively Jewish; and the second overlaps both categories. We’ll get back to the Bible in a minute, but I was challenged by what it meant to resemble a deer. There’s an old folk belief that stags lived a very long time. It seems possible that Hirsch referred to a fellow who had outlived his peers, but I suppose the more obvious reading is that Hirsch was a quick runner.
Naphtali is one of Jacob’s dozen sons. They’re listed in the Book of Genesis, in the Blessing of Jacob. Some mistranslation may have crept in, but we generally read it as if Jacob is comparing Naphtali to a hind – a female red deer in modern parlance.
Hersh is the Yiddish form of hirsch. Yiddish has roots in German and Hebrew, with bits picked up from other languages over the centuries. It is written with the Hebrew alphabet, making for even more changes as it is translated.
Like Dov and Zev, there’s a history of Hirsh as a given name in recent decades. Hirsh Glick was a Jewish-Lithuanian poet and part of an anti-Nazi uprising in Vilnius.
Hershel and Herschel developed as diminutive forms and became surnames, too. Among the most famous families is a group of musicians-turned-astronomers. William Herschel was born in Hanover in 1738, the son of an oboist in the military band attached to the Hanoverian Guards. The guards came to England in the 1750s; eventually the family would stay there. William thrived, learning English, becoming both a noted composer and an astronomer. William discovered Uranus, as well as two of its moons. His sister, Caroline Lucretia, was his assistant, and discovered comets in her own right, and his son and grandsons became noted astronomers, too.
More modern Herschels include:
- Hershel Danielovitch became Harry Demsky when he immigrated to the US; his son became Kirk Douglas.
- Herschell Lewis, known for his gory horror flicks in the 1960s and 70s.
- College football hall-of-famer Herschel Walker, who went on to a long career in the NFL, too.
But is Herschel wearable for a boy born today? His animal nature suggests he should fit right in with Falcon and Bear. But he still sounds a little fusty – as if “Great Uncle” should precede Herschel. An option for families considering this name might be reverted to Hirsch or Hersh, names that capture the spirit of Dash and Cash and edge a little closer to the name’s origins, too.