Complicated, multisyllable names can pose unique challenges at school, when introducing yourself to others, and when filling out hello-my-name-is stickers at conferences, to pick just a few situations. So consider the plight of a 20th-century typesetter in Philadelphia who had 26 first names and a 666-letter last name.
Hubert Wolfstern, as he was known around the printing plant where he worked, was born in Bergedorf, Germany, and emigrated to the United States. When signing checks or filling out forms, he often used the last name Wolfeschlegelsteinhausenbergerdorff, which was all that would fit on his social security card. But his full name, as reportedly signed on a 1963 Christmas card, included a first name for each letter of the alphabet as well as a ludicrously long surname:
Adolph Blaine Charles David Earl Frederick Gerald Hubert Irvin John Kenneth Lloyd Martin Nero Oliver Paul Quincy Randolph Sherman Thomas Uncas Victor William Xerxes Yancy Zeus Wolfeschlegelsteinhausenbergerdorffwelchevoralternwarengewissenhaftschaferswessenschafewarenwohlgepflegeundsorgfaltigkeitbeschutzenvorangreifendurchihrraubgierigfeindewelchevoralternzwolfhunderttausendjahresvorandieerscheinenvonderersteerdemenschderraumschiffgenachtmittungsteinundsiebeniridiumelektrischmotorsgebrauchlichtalsseinursprungvonkraftgestartseinlangefahrthinzwischensternartigraumaufdersuchennachbarschaftdersternwelchegehabtbewohnbarplanetenkreisedrehensichundwohinderneuerassevonverstandigmenschlichkeitkonntefortpflanzenundsicherfreuenanlebenslanglichfreudeundruhemitnichteinfurchtvorangreifenvorandererintelligentgeschopfsvonhinzwischensternartigraum, Senior.
According to Wolfstern, that last name was invented by his great-grandfather in the mid-19th century. Before then, many German Jews did not use regular, passed-down family surnames, but Hamburg’s council moved to change that in 1849. (Wolfstern’s birthplace of Bergedorf was a borough of Hamburg.)
In a 1964 Associated Press story, he explained that the surname told a somewhat convoluted story about a wolf-killer who lived in a stone house in a village, whose ancestors had been conscientious shepherds, and whose ancestors before that had come to earth in a spaceship after searching the cosmos for a safe planet where a new race would be free from interplanetary attack.
It appears that Wolfstern was serious about this translation, although scholars have noted the German, listed below with spacing and punctuation, contains numerous errors. Grammar aside, it’s unknown what his great-grandfather’s sense of humor was, or the hows and whys of the Hamburg council allowing this name to register (because surely this caused a debate!).
Wolfeschlegelsteinhausenbergerdorff, welche vor Altern waren gewissenhaft Schafers, wessen Schafe waren wohl gepflege und Sorgfaltigkeit beschutzen vor Angreifen durch ihr raubgierig Feinde, welche vor Altern zwolfhunderttausend Jahres voran, die erscheinen von der erste Erdemensch, der Raumschiff genacht mit Tungstein und sieben iridiumelektrisch Motorsgebrauchlicht, als sei nur Sprung von Kraft gestart sein lange Fahrt hinzwischen sternartig Raum auf der Suchen Nachbarschaft der Stern welche gehabt bewohnbar Planetenkreise drehen sich und wohin der neue Rasse von verstandig Menschlichkeit konnte fortpflanzen und sich erfreuen an lebenslanglich Freude und Ruhe mit nicht ein Furcht vor Angreifen vor anderer intelligent Geschopfs von hinzwischen sternartig Raum.
What’s in a Name?
As names go, this one had definite drawbacks. Wolfstern’s full name reportedly stymied a giant computer at the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co., which refused to process names longer than 35 letters. The Philadelphian’s application had to be entered by hand.
Yet the appellation was also something of a point of pride. “When somebody calls my name, I don’t have any trouble finding out who they mean,” Wolfstern once said. “I like to be unique. I don’t like being part of the common herd.”
Also, he pointed out, his dizzying array of first names was very much optional. “When my father gave me these names, he gave me a choice in all of them,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1973. “When you have just two names you don’t have much of a choice.”
Wolfstern’s name made him famous, in a way. For much of the 1970s and ’80s, he held the Guinness World Record for longest name. (The category no longer exists, perhaps to discourage stunt-naming by parents.) He appeared on television shows including The Tonight Show and a 1975 episode of Record Breakers, a British children’s show featuring people who’d won various Guinness Records.
There was also at least one more tangible benefit to having such a distinctive moniker. In the 1960s, Wolfstern had some travelers' checks stolen. The thief reportedly sent them back with a note saying that forging even an abbreviated version of his name wasn’t worth the trouble.
Wolfstern died in the late 1990s, but not before passing on his extraordinary name to his two sons. The 1964 Associated Press article referred to them as “Hubert, etc. etc. Jr.” and “Timothy Wayne, etc. etc.”