The Meaning and Origin of Famous German Names

Arnold Schwarzenegger at Sports Festival 2017
Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Have you ever wondered about some of the famous German last names you've heard or read about? What's in a German name?

The meaning and origins of names are not always what they seem to be at first glance. German surnames and place names often trace their roots back to old Germanic words that have changed their meaning or gone out of use entirely.

For example, the last name of author Günter Grass seems to be obvious. Although the German word for grass is das Gras, the German author's name really has nothing to do with grass. His last name comes from a Middle High German word with a very different meaning.

Mistaken and Misleading Explanations

People who know just enough German to be dangerous may tell you that the surname Gottschalk means "God's rogue" or "God's scoundrel." Well, this name – borne by the famous German TV host Thomas Gottschalk (virtually unknown outside of the German-speaking world) and an American department store chain – actually has a much better meaning. Similar mistakes or mistranslations can arise because words (and names) change their meanings and spellings over time. The name Gottschalk goes back at least 300 years to a time when the German word "Schalk" had a different meaning than it has today. (More below.)

Arnold Schwarzenegger is another famous person whose name is sometimes "explained" in a misleading and even racist way. But his name is only confusing to people who don't know German very well, and it certainly has nothing to do with Black people. The correct pronunciation of his name makes that very clear: Schwarzen-egger.

Learn more about these and other names in the alphabetical list below. Also, see the list of related Germanic name resources at the end.

German Surnames of the Rich and/or Famous

Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967) - First chancellor of West Germany
Many surnames come from a geographic location or town. In the case of Adenauer, who served in Bonn as the very first Bundeskanzler, his name comes from a small town very close to Bonn: Adenau, first listed in the records as "Adenowe" (1215). A person from Adenau is known as an Adenauer. The German-American Henry Kissinger is another example of German name derived from a town (see below).

Johann Sebastian Bach (1770-1872) - German composer
Sometimes a name is exactly what it seems to be. In the case of the composer, the German word der Bach means that his ancestors lived near a small stream or brook. But the name Bache, with an added e, is related to another old word meaning "smoked meat" or "bacon" and hence a butcher. (The modern German word Bache means "wild sow.")

Boris Becker (1967- ) - former German tennis star. He has an occupational name far removed from how Becker gained fame: baker (der Bäcker).

Karl Benz (1844-1929) - German co-inventor of the automobile
Many last names were once (or still are also) first or given names. Karl (also Carl) Benz has a surname that was once a nickname for either Bernhard (strong bear) or Berthold (splendid ruler). 

Gottfried Wilhelm Daimler (1834-1900) - German co-inventor of the automobile
Older variations of Daimler include Deumler, Teimbler, and Teumler. Not exactly a name meaning desired by someone dealing with cars, Daimler is derived from an old southern German word (Täumler) meaning "swindler," from the verb täumeln, to overcharge or cheat. In 1890, he and his partner Wilhelm Maybach founded the Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft (DMG). In 1926 DMG merged with the Karl Benz company to form Daimler-Benz AG. (Also see Karl Benz above). 

Thomas Gottschalk (1950- ) - German TV host ("Wetten, dass...?")
The name Gottschalk literally means "God's servant." Although today the word der Schalk is understood as "rogue" or "scoundrel," its original meaning was more like der Knecht, servant, knave, or farmhand. In the early 1990s, Gottschalk and his family bought a home in Los Angeles (Malibu), where he could live without being mobbed by German fans. He still spends summers in California. Like Gottlieb (God's love), Gottschalk was also a first name.

Stefanie "Steffi" Graf (1969- ) - former German tennis star
The German word der Graf is the same as the English title of nobility "count."

Günter Grass (1927- ) - German Nobel-prize winning author
A good example of a surname that seems obvious, but isn't the famous author's name comes from the Middle High German (1050-1350) word graz, meaning "angry" or "intense." Once they know this, many people think the name suits the often controversial writer. 

Henry Kissinger (1923- ) - German-born former U.S. Secretary of State (1973-1977) and Nobel Peace Prize laureate
Heinz Alfred Kissinger's name is a place name meaning "a person from Bad Kissingen," a famous spa resort town in Franconian Bavaria. Kissinger's great great grandfather (Urgroßvater) derived his name from the town in 1817. Even today, a person from Bad Kissingen (pop. 21,000) is known as a "Kissinger."

Heidi Klum (1973- ) - German supermodel, actress
Ironically, Klum is related to the old German word klumm (knapp, short, limited; geldklumm, short on money) and klamm (klamm sein, slang for "strapped for cash"). As a star model, Klum's financial situation certainly does not fit her name.

Helmut Kohl (1930- ) - former German chancellor (1982-1998)
The name Kohl (or Cole) is derived from an occupation: a grower or seller of cabbage (der Kohl.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) - Austrian composer
Baptized as Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, the genius composer had a last name that comes from a term of ridicule or mockery. First recorded in the 14th century as "Mozahrt" in southern Germany, the name is based on the old Alemannic word motzen, to roll in mud. Originally a first name (with the common ending -hart), the term was used for someone who was sloppy, untidy, or dirty.

Ferdinand Porsche (1875-1951) - Austrian auto engineer and designer
The name Porsche has Slavic roots and is probably derived from a shortened form of the first name Borislav (Boris), meaning "famous fighter" (bor, fighting + slava, fame). Porsche designed the original Volkswagen.

Maria Schell (1926-2005) - Austrian-Swiss film actress
Maximilian Schell (1930 - ) - Austrian-Swiss film actor
Another name with Middle High German origins. The MHG schell meant "exciting" or "wild." Brother and sister also both appeared in Hollywood films.

Claudia Schiffer (1970- ) - German supermodel, actress
One of Claudia's ancestors was probably a sailor or ship's captain (der Schiffer, skipper).

Oskar Schindler (1908-1974) - German factory owner of Schindler's list fame
From the profession of Schindelhauer (shingle maker).

Arnold Schwarzenegger (1947- ) - Austrian-born actor, director, politician
Not only is the former bodybuilder's name a bit long and unusual, but it is also often misunderstood. Arnold's last name is made up of two words: schwarzen, black + egger, corner, or loosely translated, "black corner" (das schwarze Eck). His ancestors probably came from a location that was forested and seemed dark (like the Black Forest, der Schwarzwald). 

Til Schweiger (1963- ) - German screen star, director, producer
Although it seems related to schweigen (to be silent), the actor's name is actually derived from Middle High German sweige, meaning "farm" or "dairy farm." Schweiger has also appeared in several Hollywood movies, including as a villain in Laura Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003).

Johnny Weissmuller (1904-1984) - U.S. Olympic swimming champ best known as "Tarzan"
Another occupational name: wheat miller (der Weizen / Weisz + der Müller / Mueller). Although he always claimed he was born in Pennsylvania, Weissmuller was actually born to Austrian parents in what is now Rumania. 

Ruth Westheimer ("Dr. Ruth") (1928- ) - German-born sex therapist
Born in Frankfurt am Main as Karola Ruth Siegel (das Siegel, stamp, seal), Dr. Ruth's last name (from her late husband Manfred Westheimer) means "at home / living in the west" (der West + heim).

Books on German Family Names (in German)

Professor Udolphs Buch der Namen - Woher sie kommen, was sie bedeuten
Jürgen Udolph, Goldmann, paper - ISBN: 978-3442154289

Duden - Familiennamen: Herkunft und Bedeutung von 20 000 Nachnamen
Rosa and Volker Kohlheim
Bibliographisches Institut, Mannheim, paper - ISBN: 978-3411708529

Das große Buch der Familiennamen
Horst Naumann
Bassermann, 2007, paper - ISBN: 978-3809421856

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Flippo, Hyde. "The Meaning and Origin of Famous German Names." ThoughtCo, May. 16, 2021, Flippo, Hyde. (2021, May 16). The Meaning and Origin of Famous German Names. Retrieved from Flippo, Hyde. "The Meaning and Origin of Famous German Names." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).