Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Jonah, Colombo, and Related Names


by George Jochnowitz

The story of Jonah and the whale (a big fish and not a whale according to the Biblical text) is very well known. The Book of Jonah is read every year during the afternoon service of Yom Kippur, but people who have never read the Bible at all are still familiar with the account. In fact, in the opera Porgy and Bess (1935; music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin) we hear the following verses about Jonah:
He made his home in
that fish’s abdomen.
יוֹנה is the Hebrew spelling of Jonah and means “dove” or “pigeon.” It is a feminine noun, which suggests that Jonah’s name may have had a different origin. Be that as it may, the name is masculine. It is a given name, but it has also become a surname. Jona is an Italian Jewish surname and Jonas is an Ashkenazic surname. Translations of “dove” have become Jewish surnames as well. There is Taub, from German; Golub and Golomb (a spelling based on the sound of Polish gołąb) from Slavic languages; and Colombo, from Italian.

Colombo is a common name in Italian and is generally not Jewish. However, it is also found among Italian Jews. If Christopher Columbus is from Genoa (a disputed question), his surname could indeed be Jewish. In Spain, where he lived, his name was Colón, which is not the same as the word for “pigeon” or “dove,” which is paloma. As for his first name, Christopher, it is not at all a Jewish name, since it means “bearer of Christ.”

What about all the Italians named Colombo who are not Jewish? Might they be descended from Jews who converted to Christianity when Jews were expelled from Sicily in 1492 and from Naples in 1541? Or were they named Colombo because their ancestors raised or trained or sold pigeons? Perhaps there is another possibility. I don’t know.

George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937. He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects. As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at

Copyright ©2014. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. It is republished here with the author's permission.

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