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The Origin of Common German Family Names

In the most recent U. S. census, one in four Americans reported they were of German descent. In parts of Pennsylvania, especially the southcentral counties, that figure rises to one in two. If your neighbors are Konigs or Kohls, they probably reognize their German ancestry. But they may not know that their names are, quite literally, as different as kings and cabbages. 

Throughout Europe most people acquired family names in the late Middle Ages as populations increased and became more mobile.  At the time people began taking surnames, there was no united nation of Germany, but rather a collection of kingdoms and duchies under local rulers. Modern family names often reveal what region a person's ancestors come from. Schwabs were from Swabia, Sachs from Saxony, Bayers from Bavaria, and Flemings from Flanders, now in Belgium. The common name Hess refers to Hesse in central Germany, the home of mercenaries, called Hessians, who fought for the British in the American War for Independence

Others in the Middle Ages took their surnames not from the region they lived in, but from their occupations. Koch was a cook and Faulkner was a falconer. Hauer was a "hewer,"  a lumberjack, while Eisenhauer (spelled "Eisenhower" by the U. S. president) was an "iron hewer," a miner. Ackerman was a farmer, from the same root word that gives us "acre." Bauer was also a farmer, but hopefully not a "boor," a word for farmer used by city-dwellers.

Timmerman and Zimmerman were carpenters, their names related to our word timber. Lederer, was a "leatherer," or leather worker, while Wagner was a waggoner, or cartmaker. Schneider is in German "one who cuts," a cutter of cloth, a tailor.  From the same Germanic root we get snide, as in a snide remark, which is literally-speaking a "cutting" remark.

Other cutters are Metzger, a butcher, and Fleisher, literally "flesher," another meat cutter. Koch, the cook, might prepare the meat for you, and Kohl, whose name means cabbage, could provide the side dish. (The same German word gives us cole slaw, or "cabbage salad," as well as that dangerous-looking vegetable in the supermarkets called kohlrabi.) 

To go with your meat and vegetables, you might want some beer provided by Brauer, the brewer, and Moltman, the maltman. Germans are famous for their beers. Budweis is a town near the Czech border, while Schlitz is a river in central Germany. Lowenbrau means "lion's brew." Jungling beer, brewed here in Pennsylvania and popular among twentysomethings, means "young one." 

If you are in a festive mood, you might want to call in Fiedler, the fiddler, Kantor, the singer, and Denzel, the dancer. But don't get too rowdy if you are a Kirk, living near the church, or a Kirchner, a church official. 

Many German names describe some personal feature of an ancestor. Stark is strong and Klein is little. Rothbart has a red beard, while Geller and Gelhart have yellow (blond) hair. Schwartkopf means "black head," for one's dark hair. Holbein means literally "hollow bones," someone who walks bow-legged. 

Other personal names are equally uncomplimentary. Klapp is a gossip, Horch is an eavesdropper, and Grimm is, well, grim. Schimmelpfennig means "mouldy penny," for misers whose coins spend a lot of time in their purse or pocket. There was a famous federal General Schimmelpfennig in the battle of Gettysburg, whose brigade was overrun and who spent two days hiding out in a pigpen--unfortunate man with an unfortunate name. 

Some family names bespeak humble origins, such as Huber, a peasant. Other names sound more impressive, such as Konig (king), Herzog (duke) and Graff (duke). But before Americans with these names board a plane for Europe to find out if they own any castles, they should know that their surnames are usually not derived from aristocrats themselves, but from servants in their households. The most their ancestors might hope for would be to become a Hoffman, or headservant, or a Meyer, a major household official. 

Other German names are drawn not from one's role in society, but from nature. Bach and Beck live near a brook, while names ending in -baum refer to various kinds of trees. Holt, Hurst, and names ending in -wald all refer to woods. (Schwarzwald is the German name for the Black Forest.) Adler is "eagle," Hirsch is "deer," while Kray is "crow" and Strauss is "ostrich." Bernhart is 'brave like a bear," Eberhart is "strong like a boar," while Hummel is "busy like a bee."

Finding out the meaning of one's name may make one Freud (cheerful) or Grimm, but in any case, it offers an intriguing glimpse into the lives and habits of one's distant ancestors in "the old country." (Source: Dictionary of German Surnames by Hans Bahlow.)

Recent Publications

The Way We Word 





KINGS AND CABBAGES: The Origin of Common German Family Names 


DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE: Names of Pennsylvania's Rivers and Creeks



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