German Ancestry Is Lost on Many Americans

"Most Americans with German surnames do not know what their names mean, and many do not even know that their names are of German origin," says George Fenwick Jones.

"A man named Schultz may be predominantly Irish, and a man named O'Leary may be predominantly German."

Jones, a history professor at the University of Maryland, is the author of a new book, "German-American Names" (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1001 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21202; $22.50 postpaid).

Interest in genealogy and ethnicity motivates many Americans to search for the meaning of their surnames. Jones' book is a prodigious, readable source for those seeking information on German names--their meanings and their history.

"Once when I told a gentleman that his name, Holthusen, was a Low German name, he was grievously offended and assured me that his forebears had been very respectable people," the author says. "What he did not understand was that Low German just means north German." (North Germany is mostly a low coastal plain as opposed to the mountainous south, where High German is spoken).

Ancient German names always consisted of two roots, usually terms denoting weapons, war, armies, courage, fame, victory and domination, such as brand (sword), ger (spear), rand (shield) and helm (helmet); hilti, gund and wig (battle); her (army), volk or diet (armed folk); hart (brave and strong), mund (protection), and rich (rule or ruler). They also took the names of brave animals such as wulf (wolf), ber (bear) and eber (wild boar).

From these popular roots came meaningful names such as Adelbrecht (brilliant through noble birth) and Hartmut (strong and brave). Sometimes the roots were combined with no rational connection; perhaps one root was favored by the father's family and one by the mother's. Thus we find Wilhelm (determination plus helmet) and tautologies such as Heldegunde (battle plus battle).

Irish and English missionaries who brought Christianity to the "heathen" Germans in the 8th and 9th centuries disapproved of the Germans' warlike names. They encouraged them to take pacific ones, especially the names of saints.

But during and after the Reformation, saints' names were discarded to be replaced by Old Testament names such as Abraham, Adam, Benjamin, Daniel, David, Jacob, Joachim, Jonas, Samuel and Solomon. Biblical names differ little between German and English, so many families named Adams, Benjamin, Daniels, Martin, Peters, Petersen and Thomas are not aware that their ancestors may have been German rather than English.

Originally, only one name was used, but as populations increased and it became necessary to distinguish among persons with the same name, the name of the father was often used. Thus Heinrich, the son of Ludwig, became either Ludwigs Heinrich, Heinrich Ludwigs or Heinrich Ludwig. Many hereditary surnames began as patronymics.

If there were two men named Heinz living in the same locale, the one living near a hill ( buehl ) might be called Heinz Buehler, whereas the one living on the brook ( bach ) might be Heinz Bachmann. Surnames based on terrain features at first were preceded by the preposition von meaning "from," but gradually the preposition was dropped by all but the nobility.

Names taken from professions (and occupations) were especially popular in Germany. Hans the shepherd would first have been called Hans der Schaeffer, with the article ( der ) being dropped until he was just Hans Schaeffer.

Many German surnames are nicknames alluding to the bearer's appearance: Gross (large), Klein (small), Lang (tall), Kurtz (short), Weiss (blond), Braun or Schwartz (brunet), Roth (red-haired) and Kraus (curly). Some are unkind: Grosskopf (big head) and Spitznas (pointed nose).

And once long ago, your German ancestor may have been nicknamed Hans mit dem Bauch (Hans with the belly).

Gormley welcomes genealogical questions for her column but cannot answer individual letters. For her beginner's how-to genealogy kit (with charts) send $4 to Kit, Box 64316, Tacoma, Wash. 98464.

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