A piece of history: German surnames

© Getty Images / evrim ertik

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.

Schultheiß or Schuster: German surnames developed in the Middle Ages

In the 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 , former head of Leipzig University’s consultancy for names research (). 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)

Prof. Jürgen Udolph on the significance and origins of family names (in German only)
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 , 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 , you can generate maps for familiar surnames to see where, and how often, certain family names occur in Germany.

The married name: options when choosing a name

Names, as we learn thanks to onomastics, are anything but "smoke and mirrors" - Goethe's Faust is very much mistaken here. And perhaps knowledge about the meaning of names also influences the choice of name when getting married. In Germany, at any rate, married couples can keep their surname or adopt that of their spouse. So the family name does not automatically change when you get married.

Related links

  • On this page you can create maps of the distribution of surnames in Germany (in German only) 
  • (in German only) 
  • (in German only)
  • (in German only) 
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Comments

  • Lisa Douglas

    20.12.2023

    The surname I'm researching is Redepenning. It was also spelled Redepennig. Anyone who has info about the origin or other info can contact me at masterpeacefarm@yahoo.com. My ancestors all claimed to have come from the village of Medowitz (Miodowice), which I'm also interested in learning any history of. They immigrated to the US over about 20 years (1870-1890) and all settled in a small town in western Minnesota, right on the border with South Dakota. The first generation were all farmers. Any other help in understanding the political climate in Pomerania during that period would be welcome.

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