Beyond History Blog

The history of German family names – Part 3

Avatar of Andrea Bentschneider Andrea Bentschneider - 24. February 2018 - General, Knowledge, Onomastics, Germany

In our blog series we have already discussed the origins of German family names as well as professions/occupations and nicknames as last names. In the third part we will look at topographical names.


Dwelling Names

Many family names come from a description of the area where they house or farm of the person was located.  We refer to these names as "Dwelling Names".

In many of cases natural land formations were drawn upon, for example a hill or mountain (Berg), a meadow (Wiese), a tree (Baum), or a valley (Tal), but also used were human created landmarks such as: a church yard (Kirchhof), a way through a field (Feldweg), or a stone field (Steinacker).

The family name Lindemann (linden man) gives us an example of a name we can conclude was from a male who lived near a linden tree.  Mr. Berghoff (mountain farm) may have lived on a farm near or on a hill.  And family Ost (East) probably lived on the east side of the village.


House and Farm Names

Often people were not named based on the location of their residence, but were named directly after their house or farm.

Starting in the 12th and 13th centuries, houses and farms were given names. At that time there were neither street names nor were there house numbers and a large portion of the population was illiterate.  With a growing population it became important to be able to locate people exactly, even in small villages. In contrast to the development of family names the naming of houses and farms had little to do with being ordered by authorities, but had a practical basis.

An important benefit for the property owners was a clear overview of their property, feudal rights, servants, and serfs. This allowed for easier administration and better organization of military service and recording of who was required to serve.

Houses were for example named after:

  • Family names of earlier owners
  • Given names of earlier owners
  • Short forms of given names
  • Nicknames of earlier owners
  • Names of professions

For example if a farmer named Franz Meyer lived on a farm which he received from Mr. Stratmann, it could happen that he became known in the village as Stratmann-Franz. The original family name was often forgotten.

At this time development of naming was still subject to fundamental extensive reformation. Therefore, it was entirely possible that the Meyer family became the Stratmann family - the family name changed due to the ownership of the farm.  

Also, if someone was called Meyer genannt (called) Stratmann (or Stratmann genannt Meyer) it could have been due to the takeover of a farm. Even though there are various reasons for these so-called “vulgonames”, maintaining the original farm name was a common one.

To this very day these traditional house names are often used colloquially in the country side. Usually this is done by putting the house name in front of the given name (Franz Meyer of the Stratmann farm is called Stratmann-Franz).

This way of creating names wasn't only used in villages. In Mainz around 1332 approximately 50% of all family names were house names.

Businesses often displayed their professional name or guild symbol on the building. The baker (Bäcker) had a pretzel, the tailor (Schneider) had scissors, etc.  So if one was looking for a tailor they could simply look for the building with the scissors, the Schneiderhaus (tailor house). The building usually kept its name when the tailor moved out and a new tenant moved in.


Origin Names

The name didn't have to come from the current residence of the person. Often it was the place where they originated but no longer lived. The original name owner moved to another place and was there only known as the Bremer (someone from Bremen), the Wiener (someone from Vienna), or as the Hamburger (someone from Hamburg). But also countries, regions, rivers, mountains, and small towns left their traces in names: Pohl (this might have been someone from Poland), Böhm (someone from Bohemia), Schlesinger (someone from Silesia), Bayer (someone from Bavaria), Hess (someone from Hesse), Mosel (someone from the river Mosel), Niederbüttel (someone from the village Niederbüttel), and others.


Often family names aren't able to be placed in one clear category. Quite often dwelling names and origin names are difficult to distinguish, apart from the fact that there is often more than one possible place of origin that might have been the reason for the name.

For example Mr. Pohl could have descended from someone who came from Poland, or his ancestor may have lived near a puddle (Pfuhl), a low point in the land where water collected. And the name of Ms. Mosel could derive from an ancestor who resided on the Mosel River, or who may have moved to another area from the Mosel.  Also the name Stein (Stone) is ambiguous. It could relate to a stone or crag being a characteristic to the dwelling place, or a place of origin named Stein (and there are many of these).

Family names rarely deliver us precise information as to the town of origin of an ancestor, but they can give us clues. We will talk about that a little more in the next articles of this series.

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26. February 2018