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.
Hans. Deutsches Namelexikon [Encyclopedia of German
(family and first) names]. Munich: Keysersche
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
- 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
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
German First and Last Names.
German First Names Lexicon (Vornamenlexikon)
German First Names. The origin and meaning of Germanic first
German Last Names. A look at the origin and meanings of
Germanic surnames. Also see our
German Names. German surnames and their meaning. (In
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
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
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?
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
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.
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.