A piece of history: German surnames

What do common family names, such as Meier and Schulze, actually mean? And does the name Merkel also have some specific meaning? The Middle Ages left their mark on many of today's German surnames.

‘Nomen est Omen’ goes the Latin saying. This is true at least of the German chancellor Angela Merkel, as some of those who occupy themselves with the study of names will be able to confirm. After all, her name means more or less ‘protector of the mark’ or ‘guardian of the border’. In fact it is a diminutive form of the Germanic name ‘Markwart’, which is actually a first name with a similar meaning. The name means the same as the Spanish ‘Marquez’ or the French ‘Marquis’, although in German there is no equivalent aristocratic title. And as any language is a living thing, Markwart gave rise to a number of shorter forms like Mark and Merk, as well as the diminutive Merkel.

Müller, Schmidt and Meier: the most common German surnames

In Germany, there are about 850,000 different family names. The most common German surname, Müller (miller), is shared by around 700,000 people. This is followed in popularity by the name Schmidt (along with variants such as Schmitt or Schmitz, this comes from the blacksmith's trade), with Meier coming in third place.

Many German surnames are self-explanatory as they were derived from people’s jobs. These occupational names form the largest group among the German family names. They include Schneider (tailor), Fischer (fisherman), Weber (weaver) and Meier (also Mayer and Meyer). A Meier – the third most common German surname – was a high-ranking peasant entrusted with supervising the property of his local baron. Many of these occupations don't exist any more or, like the blacksmith, they are becoming increasingly rare. Others, such as Kramer (or Krämer), were medieval names for traders. The word itself is hardly used any more in anybody's active vocabulary, but it survives as a surname.

Digital Dictionary of Surnames in Germany and Atlas of German Family Names

The research project Digital Dictionary of Surnames in Germany (Digitales Familiennamenwörterbuch Deutschlands – DFD), online since 2015, makes it easier for the general public to research their own family names. The project was started by the Academy of Sciences and Literature in Mainz, in cooperation with Technischen Universität Darmstadt and the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz. All the family names occurring in Germany, including foreign names, will be listed in the dictionary.

The Atlas of German Family Names (Deutscher Familiennamenatlas – DFA) documents for the first time the historical development – and surprising stability – of the distribution of names around Germany. Both these projects can be found at Namenforschung.net, the onomastics website run by the name researchers in Mainz.

Schultheiß or Schuster: German surnames developed in the Middle Ages

In the top-ten surnames we also find Wagner (including the variants Wegener and Wegner = ‘the wagon builder’) and Schulz, Schulze or Schultheiß. With names like these, we can immerse ourselves in the exciting history of the Middle Ages. The names Schulte and Schultheiß come from the important office of the administrator of a manor or estate, who would have the job of collecting rent from the many tenant farmers – or, in German, ‘die Schult heischen’.

As such, the study of names is a special kind of historical research. 'Names are like petrified words, fossils of our linguistic history,’ says Professor Jürgen Udolph, former head of Leipzig University’s consultancy for names research (‘Namenberatungsstelle’). He explains why there is so much interest in onomastics: 'The origin of their names, which accompany them for the whole of their lives, remains an unsolved puzzle for most people.’

However, many names are far less puzzling than you might think. Family names only came into use in the Middle Ages, from around the 12th century, as a means of better differentiating between people. Increased mobility thanks to trade resulted in individual settlements growing together to form villages and then towns. A simple solution was at hand, and job descriptions like miller, cobbler and tailor were simply attached to people’s given names. This was then passed on from generation to generation – right through till today.

Prof. Jürgen Udolph on the significance and origins of family names (in German only)

Schiller, Krause, Adenauer: surnames as an expression of character traits or origins

Sometimes, people’s specific characteristics were so pronounced that, rather than their occupation, one of these traits was used for a surname. One example of this is the name Schiller, which came from the GErman verb ‘Schielen’ and which is ‘not always meant to be flattering,’ as Rita Heuser tells us. Heuser works as a name researcher for the ‘Digital Dictionary of German Family Names’, a project to register all the family names currently existing in Germany. Another example is Krause or Kraushaar. We can be fairly sure that anyone with this name was the proud owner of a mane of curly hair.

Other people were given the name of the region they came from. It is highly likely that the ancestors of Germany’s first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, came from the small town of Adenau in the Eifel region. In and around Adenau itself the name is rare, but it crops up a lot in the Rhineland and around the city of Aachen.

On the Internet, for example using the website Geogen, you can generate maps for familiar surnames to see where, and how often, certain family names occur in Germany.

Discussion about surnames in the Community

So thanks to onomistics, we have learned that names are not merely ‘sound and smoke’ – Goethe's Faust got it very wrong there. And perhaps the knowlegde about the meaning of names can also influence a person's choice of name when getting married. In Germany, at least, it is possible for a bridal couple each to keep their own family names or to adopt either of the partners’ names.

Are there any special German surnames that have stuck in your memory? Are some of the names in your own country also derived from occupations? And do you know what your own family name means? Tell us about it and join in the discussion with the group KULTUR - CULTURE


Author: Sigrid Born

Update: June 2017

February 2015

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21 July 2022

would like to trace the ancestors of my grand daughter's surname

Alice Pfeifer
10 July 2022

Pfeifer means "piper" and refers to a medieval pipe player, as in the German fairy tale "The Pied Piper of Hamelin."

Cherylann Pfeifer - Turner
22 June 2022

Hello. My last name is Pfeifer. It was changed from the original form of Fajfar. In the USA when most of the family immigrated. I'm looking for an translation of what it means and where it came from.

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