What does your last name mean

Name research: tell me what your name is!

Müller, Meier or Jansen: everyone has a surname. But few know what it means. The Leipzig professor Jürgen Udolph researches the origin of family names and which "secret messages" are hidden in them - name research with amazing insights!

Name research: how surnames came about

It was worst in geography class. Every time the subject of agriculture was discussed, Christian suffered. "What is the name of this mixture of animal feces, urine and water?" Asked the teacher. Most of them knew the answer, a few guys were already starting to laugh.

"Well, manure," said one, and then the class could no longer be held. Everyone snorted. Just not Christian. His last name is "Gülle". "Sometimes I've asked for a different name," says Christian.

But the name manure originally had nothing to do with smelly broth. The word comes from Low German, a language that was spoken over 1200 years ago. Manure means something like "puddle, pool". In all likelihood, Christian's ancestors lived by a pond. It was only much later that manure became known as liquid manure.

"Every name originally had a meaning," says Jürgen Udolph, 62. He is onomastics professor at the University of Leipzig. Onomastics is the science of researching names, or name research for short.

People have had surnames for around 700 years. Until then, the first name was usually sufficient. Anyone who came into a village and asked: "Where does Heinrich live?" Got the correct answer straight away. But then more and more people moved to larger settlements and cities. Anyone looking for Heinrich there was asked back: "Which Heinrich? The fat one, the baker or Jan's son?"

So another name became necessary - the surnames were created.

Names were based on facts such as occupation, place of residence or appearance

"There are four ways in which such a name could come about back then," explains Professor Udolph. One option was to inherit the father's first name. If the father was called Wolfram and the son Ludwig, the son referred to himself as "Ludwig, Wolfram's son", or simply "Ludwig Wolfram". This is how many names that end in -sen, such as Jansen, came about. The "sen" stands for the son, so Jansen is "Jans son".

Naming people after the cities they came from was the second option. So "Franz Hamburger" came from Hamburg, the "Braunschweiger" family from Braunschweig. Places within a village could also be used to give names: The ancestors of a "Amendt" family lived "at the end" of a village.

A third option was to name people by their appearance or character. A tall man was given the name "Johannes Groß", a little woman became "Margarethe Klein". Someone who quickly got out of their skin got an "evil" appended to their first name.

Other people named themselves after their occupations: Heinrich the blacksmith became "Heinrich Schmidt", "Schmitt" or "Schmid". Friedrich the baker was called "Friedrich Becker". Today the most common surname in Germany is "Müller": Over 600,000 people are called that! Millers used to be the operators of a mill. In Germany you needed a lot of them, because people lived mainly on grain.

There are also many "Meier" or "Mayer" in Germany: The Meier used to run a farm for his master - he collected the taxes from subordinates and settled disputes. The name comes from Latin: from "maior", which means "greater".

Name dictionaries can provide information

Until the end of the 17th century, family names often changed at will. Back then, children were not necessarily called the same as their parents. But since the 18th century, the authorities stipulated that everyone in a family had to have the same surname - i.e. parents, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren ... This suddenly meant that people of normal height were also called "small" just because their great-grandfather was small. "

Through this 'name inheritance' we can still determine today where the family originally came from and what the surname means, "says Professor Udolph. When he wants to find out where a family name comes from, the scientist always uses the same method. He uses the same method a CD-ROM containing all of Germany's telephone numbers - and thus around 38 million family names. He types the name into his computer and immediately recognizes how often the name appears in this country.

Some, like "Scharath" or "Tharun", can only be found twice in Germany. Most of the others are more common. "Manure", for example, is entered 289 times. Then Udolph tries to find out with the help of other programs in which region of Germany most people with this name live.

If he has discovered a particularly large number of them in northern Germany, he pans through dictionaries of names that deal specifically with northern German terms and their origins. "To this day there is not a single dictionary in which all German family names are listed," says the professor. He estimates that there are around a million different surnames in Germany.

Many do not necessarily mean what comes to mind when you first hear them: "Herr Eismann" was not a supplier of ice cream cones in the Middle Ages. The first part of the name comes from the old word "isan", which means "iron". The ancestors of Mr. Eismann were probably "iron men", so strong guys! The ancestors of the "Schiller" family, on the other hand, had to deal with eye problems: "Schiller" comes from "Schielender".

Around 12,000 people change their name in Germany every year

The professor has already deciphered some funny surnames. He found out that one of the ancestors of the "Donix" family was probably a lazy man: The name derives from the Low German "do nicht" - "nicht nothing". The "Deppermanns", however, were not stupid: The name translates as "Töpfermann", the job title for a potter. And the surname "Rescheiße" by no means has anything to do with feces. The word comes from "Röscheisen": someone who "roasts" an iron is a blacksmith.

But as funny as that sounds, it can be quite annoying for the bearers of the name to be called that. That is why around 12,000 people in Germany change their name every year. Many, because their name occurs frequently and can be confused with Mayer or Müller; because it sounds ridiculous, like sack of flour or sausage. Or because it reminds you of a person you don't want to have anything to do with - Hitler, for example. In such cases you can choose a new surname.

Although Christian Gülle was bullied at school, he no longer thinks about changing his name. "After the seventh grade, the anger stopped anyway," says the 27-year-old. "And today I like my last name very much."