This surname was from the Hebrew word KOHEN meaning a priest. Priests are traditionally regarded as members of a hereditary caste descended from Aaron, brother of Moses. Not all Jews bearing the name Cohen belong to the priestly caste: when many Jews were being forced to join the Russian Army for 25 years, a number changed their surnames to Cohen because members of the clergy were exempt from service. When traditional Jews were forced to take family names by the local bureaucracy, it was an obligation imposed from outside traditional society, and people often took the names playfully and let their imaginations run wild by choosing names which either corresponded to nothing real in their world. No one alive today can remember the times when Jews took or were given family names (for most Ashkenazim this was the end of the 18th century or the beginning of the 19th) although many remember names being changed after emigration to other countries, such as the United States and Israel in recent years. During the Middle Ages, when people were unable to read or write, signs were needed for all visual identification. For several centuries city streets were filled with signs of all kinds, public houses, tradesmen and even private householders found them necessary. This was an age when there were no numbered houses, and an address was a descriptive phrase that made use of a convenient landmark. At this time, coats of arms came into being, for the practical reason that men went into battle heavily armed and were difficult to recognise. It became the custom for them to adorn their helmets with distinctive crests, and to paint their shields with animals and the like. Coats of arms accompanied the development of surnames, becoming hereditary in the same way. The name is found in Ireland in the Anglicized form of the Gaelic O'Cadhain. In many parts of central and western Europe, hereditary surnames began to become fixed at around the 12th century, and have developed and changed slowly over the years. As society became more complex, and such matters as the management of tenure, and in particular the collection of taxes were delegated to special functionaries, it became imperative to distinguish a more complex system of nomenclature to differentiate one individual from another.
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