The History of Popular German Last Names (Nachnamen)

Germanic Genealogy: Tracing your Germanic roots

Smiling woman at table with old photographs and genealogical tree
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The first European surnames seem to have arisen in northern Italy around 1000 A.D., gradually spreading northward into the Germanic lands and the rest of Europe. By 1500 the use of family names such as Schmidt (smith), Petersen (son of Peter), and Bäcker (baker) was common in the German-speaking regions and all across Europe.

Persons trying to track down their family history owe a debt of gratitude to the Council of Trent (1563)—which decreed that all Catholic parishes had to keep full records of baptisms.

The Protestants soon joined in this practice, furthering the use of family names throughout Europe.

European Jews began the use of surnames relatively late, around the end of the 18th century. Officially, Jews in what is today Germany had to have a surname after 1808. Jewish registers in Württemberg are largely intact and go back to about 1750. The Austrian empire required official family names for Jews in 1787. Jewish families often adopted surnames that reflected religious occupations such as Kantor (lower priest), Kohn/Kahn (priest), or Levi (name of the tribe of priests). Other Jewish families acquired surnames based on nicknames: Hirsch (deer), Eberstark(strong as a boar), or Hitzig (heated). Many took their name from the home town of their ancestors: AusterlitzBerliner (Emil Berliner invented the disc phonograph), Frankfurter,Heilbronner, etc. The name they received sometimes depended on how much a family could afford to pay.

Wealthier familes received German names that had a pleasant or prosperous sound (Goldstein, gold stone, Rosenthal, rose valley), while the less prosperous had to settle for less prestigious names based on a place (Schwab, from Swabia), an occupation (Schneider, tailor), or a characteristic (Grün, green).

Also see: Top 50 German Surnames

We often forget or are not even aware that some famous Americans and Canadians were of Germanic background. To name just a few: John Jacob Astor (1763-1848, millionaire), Claus Spreckels (1818-1908, sugar baron), Dwight D. Eisenhower (Eisenhauer, 1890-1969), Babe Ruth (1895-1948, baseball hero), Admiral Chester Nimitz (1885-1966, WWII Pacific fleet commander), Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960, Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals), Thomas Nast (1840-1902, Santa Claus image and symbols for two U.S. political parties), Max Berlitz(1852-1921, language schools), H.L. Mencken (1880-1956, journalist, writer), Henry Steinway(Steinweg, 1797-1871, pianos) and former Canadian prime minister John Diefenbaker (1895-1979).

As we mentioned in German and Genealogy, family names can be tricky things. The origin of a surname may not always be what it seems. The obvious changes from the German "Schneider" to "Snyder" or even "Taylor" or "Tailor" (English for Schneider) are not at all uncommon. But what about the (true) case of the Portuguese "Soares" changing to German "Schwar(t)z"?—because an immigrant from Portugal ended up in the German section of a community and no one could pronounce his name.

Or "Baumann" (farmer) becoming "Bowman" (sailor or archer?)... or vice versa? Some relatively famous examples of Germanic-English name alterations include Blumenthal/Bloomingdale, Böing/Boeing, Köster/Custer, Stutenbecker/Studebaker, and Wistinghausen/Westinghouse. Below is a chart of some common German-English name variations. Only one variation of many possible ones is shown for each name.


German Surnames - Last Names
German Name
(with meaning)
English Name
Bauer (farmer)Bower
Ku(e)per (cask maker)Cooper
Klein (small)Cline/Kline
Kaufmann (merchant)Coffman
Huber (manager of a feudal estate)Hoover
Meier/Meyer (dairy farmer)Mayer
Schuhmacher, SchusterShoemaker, Shuster
Schultheiss/Schultz(mayor; orig. debt broker)Shul(t)z
English meanings for many Germanic surnames
Source: Americans and Germans: A Handy Reader by Wolfgang Glaser, 1985, Verlag Moos & Partner, Munich

Further name variations can arise depending on which part of the German-speaking world your ancestors may have come from. Names ending in -sen (as opposed to -son), including Hansen, Jansen, or Petersen, may indicate northern German coastal regions (or Scandinavia). Another indicator of North German names is a single vowel instead of a diphthong: HinrichBur(r)mann, orSuhrbier for Heinrich, Bauermann, or Sauerbier. The use of "p" for "f" is yet another, as in Koopmann(Kaufmann), or Scheper (Schäfer).

Many German surnames are derived from a place. (See Part 3 for more about place names.) Examples can be seen in the names of two Americans once heavily involved with US foreign affairs, Henry Kissinger andArthur Schlesinger, Jr. A Kissinger (KISS-ing-ur) was originally someone from Kissingen in Franconia, not too far from Fürth, where Henry Kissinger was born. ASchlesinger (SHLAY-sing-ur) is a person from the former German region of Schlesien (Silesia). But a "Bamberger" may or may not be from Bamberg. Some Bambergers take their name from a variation of Baumberg, a wooded hill. People named "Bayer" (BYE-er in German) may have ancestors from Bavaria (Bayern)—or if they're very fortunate, they may be heirs to the Bayer chemical firm best known for its own German invention called "aspirin."Albert Schweitzer wasn't Swiss, as his name suggests; the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize winner was born in former German Alsace (Elsass, today in France), which lent its name to a type of dog: the Alsatian (the British term for what Americans call a German shepherd). If the Rockefellers had correctly translated their original German name of Roggenfelder into English, they would have been known as the "Ryefielders."

Certain suffixes can also tell us about a name's origin. The suffix -ke/ka—as in Rilke, Kafka, Krupke, Mielke, Renke, Schoepke—hints at Slavic roots. Such names, often considered "German" today, stem from the eastern parts of Germany and former German territory spreading eastward from Berlin (itself a Slavic name) into today's Poland and Russia, and northward into Pomerania (Pommern, and another dog breed: Pomeranian).

The Slavic -ke suffix is similar to the Germanic -sen or -son, indicating patrilinear descent—from the father, son of. (Other languages used prefixes, as in the Fitz-, Mac-, or O' found in Gaelic regions.) But in the case of the Slavic -ke, the father's name is usually not his Christian or given name (Peter-son, Johann-sen) but an occupation, characteristic, or location associated with the father (krup = "hulking, uncouth" + ke = "son of" = Krupke = "son of the hulking one").

The Austrian and southern German word "Piefke" (PEEF-ka) is an unflattering term for a northern German "Prussian"—similar to the southern US use of "Yankee" (with or without "damn") or the Spanish "gringo" for norteamericano. The derisive term stems from the name of the Prussian musician Piefke, who composed a march called the "Düppeler Sturmmarsch" following the 1864 storming of the ramparts at the Danish town of Düppel by combined Austrian and Prussian forces.