IDENTIFYING GERMAN NAMES
Many German names have their roots in the Germanic middle ages. A name
identified a specific person and later a group of persons (family name);
at first through verbal usage, it was later fixed through writing. All
social classes and demographic strata aided in the development of names.
The earliest are the names derived from the place of dwelling and the
location of the homestead. If a person or family migrated from one place
to another, they were identified by the place they came from. The largest
group and the most easily recognizable names are those derived from the
vocation or profession of the first bearer. They tell you what the first
bearer did for a living. There is one group where the name derives from
the first names of first bearer and another where the names come for a
physical or other characteristic of first bearer. Finally there are names
which tell you the state or region a first bearer and his family came from;
the age old division in tribes and regions (low German, middle German and
upper German) is often reflected in names. But for non-German speakers
they are at first hard to "localize. Especially those on the Dutch border
and Northern Germany sound very much like Dutch or English names.
Furthermore, if you know a little German, you will be able to recognize names more
easily; if you do not know German there are a number of clues to look for.
Look for names which begin with sch, the consonant cluster and sound
represented in English by sh, like in shoe: Schaefer, (Schafer, Schaeffer,
Schaffer, Shaffer), Schlitz, Schluter, Schmid (Schmidt, Schmitt, Schmitz)
Schneider, Schrader, Schroeder, Schul(t)z (Schulz, Shulz) Schumacher,
Schu(h)mann, Schwar(t)z and Schneider.
Look for names with ue, oe, indicating umlauts; beginning with Kn: Knopf,
Knecht, Knefler, Kno(e)del; Pf: Pflaume, Pfrommer, Pfister, Pfizer;
beginning with Str: Stroh.
Names with ei are mostly German (but not all): Reichmann, Reimann, Reimers,
Eisenhower, Heilemann, Klein, Weimer, Weiss.
Neu is German for new: Neuman(n), Neuberger, Nieman(n), Nauman(n).
If a name ends in -mann, -burg, -berg, lich, -stein or t(h)al, it is a
likely indication that the name is German. But in certain settlement areas,
these endings could also refer to Swedish and Russian Jewish backgrounds.
There are German place names ending in -burg (castle), -bruck (bridge);
-furt (ford), -berg (mountain), -reuth, -rode (clearing in woods).
Names derived from profession of first bearer:
Arzt - doctor;
Bader - barber: Bauer - farmer; Bauman(n) - builder; Becker - baker;
Brenner - distiller; Brauer, Breuer - brewer, brower, brewster; Eisenhauer,
Eisenhower - iron cutter, miner;
Farber - painter; Fischer - fisher; Fleischer - butcher;
Gebauer - peasant or tiller of the field; Gerber - tanner;
Kellerman - worker or dweller in a wine cellar or tavern; Kessler -
coppersmith, own who sold or made cettles; Kramer - merchant;
Krieg, Krieger - war, warrior, in Yiddish could mean tavern keeper;
Kuster (Kuester) - sexton, Kunstler - artist or skilled artisan;
Lederer, Lederman(n) - leather maker, tanner; Lehrer - teacher;
Lesser - custodian of a forest, game keeper; Lichtermann - one who
lit lamps, lamplighter; Lichtman - candle maker;
Maurer - stone mason; Mehler (Mahler) - painter; Mehlinger, Mehlman(n),
Melman - one who works with flour; Metzger - butcher; Muller - miller;
Nachtman(n) - night watchman;
Pfannnenschmidt - maker of pots and pans; Postman(n) - postal worker,
(also a person from Postau); Puttkam(m)er - person who cleans rooms;
Rader - wheelwright, one who makes wheels; or a person from Raden (moor,
reedy place), one who thatched with reed; Reifsneider, Reifsnyder - one
who made barrel hops; Reiter - horseman, also one who cleared land for
tilling; Richter - judge or magistrate;
Saltz, Saltzman(n) - one who processed and sold salt; Sandler - one who
carts sand, repairs shoes, a cobbler;
Schafer (German with Umlaut) was a sheperd; Schenker - one who kept a
public house; Scherer - one who shaved others, a barber; Schlosser -
lock smith; Schluter (Schlueter, Schluter with Umlaut) - the keeper of
supplies; Schmidt - smith; Schmuker, Schmu(c)kler - one who decorates,
ornaments; Schneider and Schroeder - tailor; Schultz, Schultheis -
village mayor; Schreiber - secretary or scribe; Schreiner - cabinet maker;
Schubert - one who made or sold shoes; Schulman(n) - school or synagogue
man; Schumacher, Schu(h)man(n), Schuster - shoe maker, cobbler; Steinhauer
- one who cuts and breaks stone; Studebaker - one who prepared or sold
pastries; Wagner - wagoner, wagon maker;
Weber - weaver; Wechsler - money changer.
Names derived from location of homestead:
Zumwald - at the forest;
Kaltenbach - cold creek; Waldschmidt - smith at/in the woods. Meer -
from the sea, ocean; Borg (northern German) or Burg - from or near a
fortified castle; Bullwinkel - corner where bulls were kept; Adler
(zum Adler) - eagle, may have derived from a house name; Rabe - crow.
The place a person came from:
Cullen from Koeln/Cologne; Dannenberg,
town of Dannenberg - pine tree covered mountain, three places in Germany;
Dresdner from Dresden; Halpern or Halperin - one who came from Heilbronn in Wurttemberg;
Mel(t)zer - can be a brewer or a person who came from Meltz; Berlin,
Klutz and Lowenthal - place names in Germany; Silberg - two place names
in Germany; Stein - numerous villages in German-speaking countries;
stone, rock, marker; Sternberg - name of ten places in Germany;
Shapiro, Shapira, Shapero, Shapera - one from Spyer, in the middle
ages spelled Spira, and by Jews spelled Shapira; Pollack - one who
came from Poland; Frank - from Franconia; Rockower, Rockow - ow is
frequent and only in the low lands of Germany; Schlesinger - one who
came from Silesia or Schleusingen in Thuringia; Schwei(t)zer - person
from Switzerland, but also a dairyman.
First names of first bearer:
Friedrich, Fritz, Albrecht (Albright),
Dietrich, Dietz, Eberhard(t), Georg(e), Heinrich, Heinz, Hinz, Konrad,
Kunz, Ludwig, Lutz, Ott(o), Paul(us), Reinhard, Werner.
Names derived from a physical or other characteristic of first bearer:
Altmann - old man; Hellmann - light man; Dick - fat person; Klein - short;
Lange - the long one; Kurz - the short one. Lustig - happy person;
Grossmann - the big one; Rot(h)bart - red beard; Weiss - white appearance;
Schwar(t)z - black appearance; Schwarzkopf - black haired; Sus(s)man -
affectionate person; Unruh - agitator or trouble maker; Schatz -
treasure; Stamm, Stump - trunk (as of a tree); Stammler - stutterer;
Stock - stick, tree trunk.
Dating back to the old Germanic world:
Albrecht (Albright), Die(d)trich,
Gu(81)nther, Hagen, Hildebrandt, Hillenbrand, Oswald, Siegfried (Seyfried).
Short forms: Konrad-Kunz, Heinrich-Hinz.
Names of saints:
Lukas, Matthias, Matthaeus, Paulus, Ruprecht and Nikolaus, which became family names.
After days of the week: Montag, Freitag, Sonntag; or Month: May.
Relating to objects/materials:
Hammer - hammer; Nagel - nail; Knopf -
button, Stahl - steel; Eisen - iron; Erzberger - ore mountain; Gold -
gold; Silber - silver; Baum - tree; Holz - wood; Stroh - straw; Keller -
cellar, food storage space.
Diminutives (-chen, -lein, -lin) can indicate regional origin. Examples: Buechlein, Boeglin.
Allemanic (Switzerland, Alsace, Baden) endings in -li; Swabian: -le;
Bavaria/Austrian: -erl; North German: -gen, -ken.
Schleswig-Holstein and Friesland share the North-European tradition of
adding -sen or -so(h)n to the father's name: Hansen, Claussen, Petersen,
Petersohn, Jacobsohn, T(h)omsen.
Where immigration from the northeastern provinces of Mecklenburg and
Pomerania was strong, you will find names ending in -ow (but note that
Polish and Russian have that ending too).
Hans Bahlow, Dictionary of German Names, 1993, 641 pp., $22.50,
ISBN 0-924119-35-7, Max Kade Institute for German-American
Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 901 University Bay Drive,
Madison, WI 52705
George F. Jones, German-American Names, 1995, 320 pp., $25.00,
ISBN 0-8063-1481-8, Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc.
1001 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD 21202-3897
From the Max Kade Center's Teaching Unit: GERMAN-AMERICANS AND THEIR CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE AMERICAN MAINSTREAM CULTURE: GERMAN NAMES AND WORDS
Common German Words in everyday American usage and cognates.
Another useful source: Do You Have a German Name?