“It’s pronounced ‘wy-ner’ or ‘way-ner,’” my Austrian grandmother insisted, when I asked her what she thought about the scandal engulfing the New York representative. “Wiener” — pronounced wee-ner — “like my cousin, Herbert, that means Viennese; Weiner, like the congressman, that’s Eastern-European.
Curious about my grandmother’s assertion, I asked the Forward’s language columnist, Philologos, to weigh in on the derivation of these common, if unfortunate-sounding, Jewish last names. (There are some 17,211 U.S. residents with the last name Weiner, and 6,027 with the last name Wiener, according to this website, which draws on data from the 2000 census.
Here’s what Philologos had to say:
“Wiener” probably indeed referred to someone who came from Vienna (German “Wien,” pronounced ‘Veen”), although as I once pointed out in a Forward column, one was only likely to be named for a town or locality after leaving or traveling away from it. (The fact of your hailing from Vienna would hardly have been noteworthy in Vienna itself, but if you moved from Vienna to Warsaw, you might very well have been called “der Wiener,” the Viennese.)
But “Weiner” — pronounced “veiner,” although the linguistically accepted English transcription is “vayner” — means a wine merchant or owner of a wine shop in Yiddish, and since this was a common Jewish occupation in Eastern Europe, it would have been natural for quite a few Jews to be given this name.
And although in the course of time a few Wieners may have become Weiners and a few Weiners may have become Wieners, my guess is that even today, the great majority of Wieners are descendants of Viennese Jews and the great majority of Weiners are descendants of Jewish wine merchants.
Let’s just say that if the disgraced congressman pronounced his name as it is apparently supposed to be pronounced — that is, vay-ner in Europe, or wy-ner or way-ner in America — this whole sorry chapter would not have yielded such funny headlines and punch lines.