The first Germans to use surnames were the nobility and wealthy land owners. After that, merchants and general townspeople started using surnames, with rural people adopting the practice last. It was two or three hundred years before it was commonplace to use last names, though most people were using them by the late Middle Ages.
German surnames generally started out as one of four different types.
1. Occupational. This is the most common form of German family name and can often be identified by its ending, such as -er (as in Geiger, one who played the violin), -hauer (hewer or cutter, such as Baumhauer, a tree cutter), -macher (one who makes, as in Fenstermacher — one who makes windows), and -man/-mann (as in Kaufman, one who sells, or a merchant).
Some other examples of family names from occupations include:
- Bauer (farmer)
- Becker (baker)
- Fleischer or Metzger (butcher)
- Klingemann (weapons smith)
- Maurer (mason)
- Meier (farm administrator)
- Muller (miller)
- Schmidt (smith)
- Schneider (tailor)
- Schulze (constable)
- Topfer/Toepfer (potter)
- Wagner (carter/cartwright)
- Weber (weaver)
2. Patronymic. Often, a person was distinguished by a reference to his or her father, which eventually turned into what we now know as a last name. A man named Simon whose father was named Ahrend might have become Simon Ahrends (Simon, son of Ahrend). Johann Petersohn was Johann, son of Peter. Patronymics most often come from the northern areas of Germany.
Because some early German records were written in Latin, last names were sometimes written with the Latin ending “-i” (sometimes spelled “-y”), as in Martin Berendi, who would have been Martin, son of a man named Berend.
At first, patronymic names would change with each generation, as they were just describing one person by that person’s father’s name. This continued until laws required adopting a permanent surname that passed down hereditarily. People were sometimes reluctant to comply with these laws, and sometimes several decrees were passed. In the Schleswig-Holstein area of northern Germany, for instance, such laws were passed in 1771, 1820, and 1822.
3. Descriptive. Many German surnames are descriptive names based on a physical characteristic, such as Brun/Braun (brown hair or a swarthy complexion), Krause (curly-haired), Klein (small), Gross (big), Schwarzkopf (black headed), and Hertz (big-hearted). Older, non-Christian names are often of this type.
4. Geographical. These names derive from where a person lived or came from. They may stem from the name of a city or village or the location of someone’s home, such as Kissinger from Kissingen and Schwarzenegger from Schwarzenegg. Someone named Berger may have who lived on a mountain.
Since about 1600, only aristocratic families were allowed to use the “von” prefix in Germany. So if someone was baron of a village, his family name would be “von” and the village name. In older names, though, “von” sometimes merely indicated that a person was from an area: Lukas von Albrecht may have been Lukas from Albrecht. German immigrants to North America who used the “von” prefix almost never had used it previously in their native country.
A geographical name could also be one that derives from a landmark (Busch was named after a certain bush, or Springborn after a spring or well), or a family might have been named after an inn or farm.
Some German surnames had local dialectical characteristics. For instance, in south German, Austrian and Swiss, diminutive endings included -l, -el, -erl, -le, and -li. Some examples are Kleibel, Schauble and Nageli.