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Müller, Meier, Schulz: German family names

And how did past names come about?  Photo: Loretta Hostettler © iStockphotoHow did past names come about?  Photo: Loretta Hostettler © iStockphotoIn German, when one speaks in generalities relating to people, the names Müller, Meier and Schulz are often used to represent the anonymous masses – the equivalent in English to the Smiths or the Joneses. Why is that? Since when have we had last names at all? And how did they come about?

An estimated 600,000 people in Germany have the family name Müller, while Schmidt, Schneider, Fischer, Weber, Meyer, Schäfer, Becker and Koch are among the other leaders at the top of the same list. Indeed, the first 14 spots are actually occupational titles. “These professions are the least individualized names,” explains Judith Schwanke from the Namenberatungsstelle (an office for name consultation) at the University of Leipzig. She conjectures that so-called patronyms, which can be traced back to the given name of the father, are typically more diverse than the occupational titles. In northern Germany, for example, there are far more family names derived from male first names than in southern Germany: Hansen or Petersen, for instance, where the added syllable “sen” means “son”. In many cases the family name developed directly from the given name, making names like Werner, Herrmann or Otto quite common.

Names tell a story

In Germany there are about 850,000 unique family names.  Photo: Noriko Brewster © iStockphotoIn Germany there are about 850,000 unique family names, and researching and analyzing them is the main task at Schwanke’s office in Leipzig. Interest is high, too, because names typically tell a part of the family or regional history. Of course, many names are not as easy to decipher as Müller or Schmidt.

In order to find out more about the origin or significance of a name, researchers like Schwanke first try to get an overview of its regional distribution. Church records or digitalized versions of telephone books are helpful here as they provide access to roughly 38 million families and their names. If there is a conspicuous regional frequency of one particular name, researchers use special dictionaries with linguistic patterns or features from the area to find possible interpretations.

Names preserve language

It is difficult to recognize the various elements of many family names. Photo: Cecilia Bajic © iStockphotoUnlike the family names in Germany, which to a large extent have gone unchanged since they emerged during the period between the 12th and 14th centuries, the German language has been in a constant state of flux. This can make it difficult to recognize the various elements of many family names without digging a bit further. Baumkratz, for example, is an interpretation of Pankratius (Saint Pancras). Other interpretations and phonetic touchups have made Slavic names into German ones, as with Milobrat and Mühlbrett, or Sigrun and Seegrün.

The first German family names came from what is now southwestern Germany before spreading throughout the German-speaking territories. Family names then took on increased significance with the development of medieval cities and dense populations centers. Whereas Hans was pretty easy to recognize in a small village, additions became necessary in the cities to distinguish which Hans was which. We ended up with “Little Hans”, “Hans from Kirchdorf” or “Hans of the creek”. Many German family names go back to descriptions of peoples’ appearances (small, thin), the region they were from (Kirchdorf, Backhaus), or other natural features of their region (Bachmann, Talmann – creek man, valley man). In the 19th century, registry offices began codifying names and making them an inherited trait, thereby ending the pattern of development.

Names can cause trouble

The name  Goethe is presumably an abbreviated or endearing form of Gottfried.  Photo: Norbert  Speicher © iStockphotoSince that point, name diversity has been on the decline. Some names die out with their bearers while others are purposely abandoned. Some 12,000 people per year in Germany change their names intentionally because they sound too arbitrary, absurd or obscene. “And yet names that appear obscene at first glance typically are not,” assures Schwanke, referring to names such as “Ficke” (slang relating to “fuck”), which comes from the Middle High German word “Ficker”, meaning “Tasche” (bag) or the craft “Taschenmacher” (bag maker). Since those meanings have long been forgotten, however, and the modern meaning has become for the most part taboo, the bearer of this and similarly unappealing names can apply for a name change after a psychological assessment.

Ironically, the most famous poet and the namesake of the Goethe-Institut never felt the need to change his name, despite the fact that Goethe, presumably an abbreviated or endearing form of Gottfried, an ancestor, can be traced back to a common middle-class origin. He was ennobled in 1782, a change that led to the “von” Goethe name we are now familiar with.


Duden Familiennamen: Herkunft und Bedeutung von 20.000 Nachnamen. (lit. Duden Family Names: Origin and Meaning of 20,000 Family Names, Bibliographisches Institut, Mannheim, 2005)

Christiane Polus
works as a freelance journalist in Hamburg.

Translation: Kevin White
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
March 2012

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