German surnames mostly originate from professions.There is quite a parallel to English surnames. The most popular German surnames being Schmidt (smith), Schneider (taylor), Bauer (farmer).
The reason for this is that long ago town and communities were rather small. People only had first names. It was sufficient to talk about Karl or Peter. Everyone knew who was meant. When towns grew larger more and more duplicates made it difficult to identify who people actually spoke about. So people started helping themselves by using typical characteristics of that person after their first name.
These characteristics included:
- obviously physical traits (tall, small)
- profession (taylor, shoemaker)
- origin (the one from Rothenburg)
These three origins of further specification still reflect today in German surnames.
Let’s take a look at the first origin we mentioned: physical traits of people.
Many popular German surnames include adjectives or derivatives thereof such as Gross (tall), Klein (small) and even things like Schnell (fast). Since German surnames are passed on from father to son and from husband to wife it is possible that even funny nick names could survive for centuries.
So imagine there are two men named Hans in a small town. One would be rather small the one very tall. Naturally people used their physical appearance to specify who they meant. “I talked to Hans” – “Which one?” – “Ahh, you know Hans the tall one”. This way physical characteristics of people found their way into the German surnames.
The same happened with professions. People used to have professions that were much more obvious and simpler to understand than nowadays. Just like in the previous example people could have said “Hans the butcher”.
Professions play a major part in German surnames. Very often you can either see immediately what the ancestors of a person did for a living or after translating it from its old-German root to its modern German equivalent. Here are some examples:
- Schmidt – the most popular German surname means Smith in English
- Schäfer in English is shepherd – not the dog but the person guarding the sheep.
- Bäcker or Becker – in English baker
- Müller – in English miller – indicated a person owning a mill – note that in English there are many surnames that share the same origin such as Muller or Miller
As you can guess the surname Schumacher or its short form Schuster both mean ‘shoemaker’. The German verb machen means to make. So whenever you see the suffix “macher” in a name you know it means some type of maker. Then look at the word before macher and try to figure out what type of object that person had likely made.
There are also multiple forms how German surnames were derived from where certain people lived or came from. For example the surname Bach or Bachmann (Bach meaning river in English) was a description of ‘the one living near the river’.
Similarly the German surname Berg (hill) – the one who lives at the hill. Bergmann however probably originates from a profession again because a bergmann in English is a miner.
When people moved into a town from outside they were often marked as the “out-of-towner” by assigning them a name indicating where they had come from (people could usually tell by different accent of their language). So a guy names Peter Bayer was Peter who just moved here from Bavaria (Bayern meaning Bavaria and Bayer being Bavarian).
A great deal of the names in the US have German origins. Anything that has some combination of “sch” in it is very likely German. Consider names such as Rosenberg (German for hill of roses) or Blumfeld (German for field of flowers).