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German Genealogy

German Names

Different spellings of a German surnames are common because a standardized spelling of names is a recent phenomenon. Many Germans also changed or modified their surnames in America.

There are different classes of surnames. First, are surnames that are "occupational names" (Ecknahme). Some common examples are Hoffmann, Fleischer, Gerber, Mueller, Schneider, Zimmermann, and Schiffmann. Other occupational suffixes on surnames are -macher ("maker") and -hauer ("cutter"). Some examples are Rademacher, Eisenhauer, and Fenstermacher. Often occupational names were literally translated into English by the German immigrants, and the names became Carpenter, Tailor, etc.

A second type of German surname is geographic -- based on specific or general places or physical features. Some physical feature examples are Bachmann ("man of the creek"), Bergmann ("man of the mountain"), and Dieffenbach ("deep brook").  Some place examples are Anspach, Marburger, and Schweitzer. These place names at times are helpful in locating the original village of the family.

Some surnames evolved from the characteristics of the individual - such as Lang ("tall"), Weisskopf ("whitehead"), Braun ("brown"), Klein ("small") and Unruh ("restless").

In some parts of Germany surnames derived from Hofnahme ("farm names"). Surnames were taken from the name of the owner of the farm. Surnames changed when the ownership of the farm changed. This was common in the border area between Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia, and sometimes in Hesse and Hannover.

Scandinavian-style patronymics were also used in Schlweswig-Holstein and Ostfriesland until the 1800s. This practice had the surname change every generation. Stephensohn is the son of Stephen, while his father may be Christiansohn, the son of Christian. In some areas this patronymic name became a fixed name for the family.

Surnames also had changes in consonants (B and P; C and K and G; D, T, and TH; V and B, and in vowels, A, O, and U with umlauts became E.

This information on German surnames is from James M. Beidler, "German Surnames in Genealogy." German Life, June/July 2006. p 64.

  • Bahlow, Hans. Deutsches Namelexikon [Encyclopedia of German (family and first) names]. Munich: Keysersche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1967.
  • Bahlow, Hans. Dictionary of German Names. Translated by Edda Gentry. Ed. Henry Geitz and Charlotte L. Brancaforte. Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies Translation Series, Henry Geitz, editor. Madison, Wisconsin:, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1993.
  • Brechenmacher, Josef Karlmann. Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Familiennamen. Limburg a.d. Lahn: C.A. Starke Verlag, 1957. 2 v.
  • Deutsches Geschlechterbuch. (German Lineage Books) Vol. 1- , 1889- to date. Charlottenburg: F. Mahler (etc.), 1889- .(194+ volumes. Middle class, Bürger genealogies)
  • Duden Familiennamen : Herkunft und Bedeutung. Mannheim : Bibliographisches Institut & F.A. Brockhaus, 2000.

  • 18th Century PA German Naming Customs. Charles F. Kerchner, Jr.

  • First Names Germany.  Vorname and Rufname - about German Given Names
  • FOKO Database Search
  • Geogen. Surname Mapping. Geogen is the short form for "geographical genealogy" which means location based ancestor research. On this website you can create maps which show the distribution of surnames in Germany and Austria. Significant concentrations can point to a local root of the family or of the family name.
  • German First and Last Names.
  • German First Names Lexicon (Vornamenlexikon)
  • German First Names. The origin and meaning of Germanic first names.
  • German Last Names. A look at the origin and meanings of Germanic surnames. Also see our German Surname Lexikon.
  • German Names.  German surnames and their meaning. (In English)
  • German Names
  • German Names in America.
  • German Names: Part 1 Deutsche Vornamen German First Names (Vornamen) and Their Meanings
  • "German Naming Patterns and Naming Oddities Through the Centuries," Der Blumenbaum, 24, 3 (January, February, March 2007) 118-122. How did naming begin? Why did names change? How can names confuse? What cautions should we observe?
  • German Nobility Index
  • German Surname Maps. The patterns of the recent distribution of German surnames can give hints where the family is from. Often it is amazing to see how the regional restricted surnames are: even after two centuries of heavy migration. For a better resolution Germany was divided into 40 regions: the 10 smaller German states and the 30 regions (districts) of the six largest German states. In the map section you will find example maps for some surnames and also a $2-offer for a map with your surname.
  • German Surnames - Last Names German Family Names - Part 1 - Name Meanings - Familiennamen German Surnames Nachnamen) and Their English Meanings
  • Given Names
  • Glossary of Last Name Meanings and Origins - German Surnames
  • Gottschald, Max. Deutsche Namenkunde. 5., verb. Aufl. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1982.
  • Humphrey, John T. "Working with German Names." NGS NewsMagazine. 32, 3 (July/August/September 2006): 41-43.
  • Identifying German Names
  • Jensen, Larry O. "Basic Principles in Resolving Naming Practice Problems," German Genealogical Digest, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1988, pp. 17-19.
  • Jones, George F. German-American Names. 3rd edition. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co. Inc., 2006. A treasure-trove of information about German surnames.
  • Kunze, Konrad. DTV-Atlas Namenkunde : Vor- und Familiennamen im deutschen Sprachgebiet. München : Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1998
  • More German Last Names and Their Meanings. Find out the English meaning of a German surname. What do names such as Bauer, Kaufmann or Meier/Meyer really mean?
  • Name Adoption and Other Lists (German). During the first decades of the 19th century Jews were forced by law to take civil names. The following lists will help you to jump back into the 18th century to search for your ancestors. The lists were found more or less by chance while searching different archives.

  • Ortsfamilien Bücher - Family Name Books
  • Stammfolgen-Verzeichnisse für das genealogische Handbuch des Adels und das deutsche Geschlechterbuch. (Index of the Genealogical Handbook of Nobility and the German Lineage Books). Limburg/Lahn: C.A. Starke, 1969.
  • Teleauskunft  Searches for Telephone, Yellow Pages, E-mail, etc. (German, English or French)
  • Translation of First Names
  • Vornamen und ihre Bedeutung. First names and their meaning.