A Note on the Name “Witriol”

That is the title of an aide-memoire that my father, Joseph Witriol, typed up and photocopied. It read:

My parents came from Galicia, in what was formerly Austrian Poland. Towards the end of the eighteenth century the Austrian emperor, Joseph II, decreed that all Jews were to register their family names (in German, the language of the Austro-Hungarian empire). Until then they had been known – as they still are in the synagogue – by patronymics, e.g. Israel son of Moses, Jacob son of David, etc.

Those Jews who did not possess a family name (i.e. surname) were offered a choice. Those who could afford it were allowed to assume “good” names, e.g. Rose, Ross, Lilienthal, Birnbaum (German for “rose”, lily of the valley”, “pear tree”). Those who could not pay for these “noble” names could choose, for a lesser fee, a “plain” name, e.g. Stein (“stone”), Feld (“field”), Eisen (“iron”). Those who could not afford a “respectable” name were saddled by the Austrian registration officials with offensive or “humorous” names such as Frochwaig (“frog’s spawn”), Nierenstein (“kidney-stone”) or Grünspan (“verdigris”). In this latter category presumably came the name Vitriol (same spelling in German and English), meaning “sulphuric acid”, which would have been anglicised by my father to “Witriol”.

See s.v. “Names” in Jewish Encyclopedia. [online here is the unedited full-text of the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia entry for personal names.]

Joseph Witriol

“What can ennoble sots, or slaves, or cowards?  Alas! not all the blood of all the Howards.       Pope – Essay on Man

As well as typing this for his family’s information and elucidation, I suppose he wanted us to have something to hand should people ask us about our “very unusual” name. “Unique, actually” is my mock-snobbish (but true in the UK) initial rejoinder to said remark.

It was I think in the 1970s that he learnt that someone in the USA had the same name, albeit with a variant spelling. He wrote to him to discover if there was any family connection. This ‘relative’ wrote back stating that my father’s grandfather had come to live with his (ie the American Witriol’s) family and hence adopted the name Witriol. At one point a (different?) Mr and Mrs Witriol visited us from America. She took this snap with the visitor behind me on the right.

An American Witriol

The Witriols

This seems plausible as he also gave my great-grandfather’s original family name(s) which tally with other names in the (sparsely branched) family tree my dad once penned out on a piece of card.

I do not know how the initial connection with the American Witriol came about and any hypothesis (looking in a NYC phone book at the Borough reference library is one that comes to my mind) vividly underlines how the Internet/Google/Facebook has changed  our ability to discover such links.

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