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What's in a (German) Name?

The Meaning and Origin of Famous German Names


Duden - Familiennamen

Duden - Familiennamen

Germanic Genealogy > Germanic Surnames > What's in a Name?

Adenauer | Daimler | Klum | Mozart | Schwarzeneggger | Weissmuller

Have you ever wondered about some of the famous German last names you've heard or read about? What's in a German name?

As I first pointed out in an earlier article on German surnames, the meaning and origins of names are not always what they seem to be at first glance. German surnames and place names often trace their roots back to old Germanic words that have changed their meaning or gone out of use entirely.

For example, the last name of author Günter Grass seems to be obvious. Although the German word for grass is das Gras, the German author's name really has nothing to do with grass. His last name comes from a Middle High German word with a very different meaning.

People who know just enough German to be dangerous may tell you that the surname Gottschalk means "God's rogue" or "God's scoundrel." Well, this name – borne by the famous German TV host Thomas Gottschalk (virtually unknown outside of the German-speaking world) and an American department store chain – actually has a much better meaning. Similar mistakes or mistranslations can arise because words (and names) change their meanings and spellings over time. The name Gottschalk goes back at least 300 years to a time when the German word "Schalk" had a different meaning than it has today. (More below.)

Arnold Schwarzenegger is another famous person whose name is sometimes "explained" in a misleading and even racist way. But his name is only confusing to people who don't know German very well, and it certainly has nothing to do with black people. The correct pronunciation of his name makes that very clear: Schwarzen-egger.

Learn more about these and other names in the alphabetical list below. Also see the list of related Germanic name resources at the end.

German Surnames of the Rich and/or Famous

Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967) - First chancellor of West Germany
Many surnames come from a geographic location or town. In the case of Adenauer, who served in Bonn as the very first Bundeskanzler, his name comes from a small town very close to Bonn: Adenau, first listed in the records as "Adenowe" (1215). A person from Adenau is known as an Adenauer. The German-American Henry Kissinger is another example of German name derived from a town (see below). Also see: Konrad Adenauer.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1770-1872) - German composer
Sometimes a name is exactly what it seems to be. In the case of the composer, the German word der Bach means that his ancestors lived near a small stream or brook. But the name Bache, with an added e, is related to another old word meaning "smoked meat" or "bacon" and hence a butcher. (The modern German word Bache means "wild sow.")

Boris Becker (1967- ) - former German tennis star
An occupational name far removed from how Becker gained fame: baker (der Bäcker).

Karl Benz (1844-1929) - German co-inventor of the automobile
Many last names were once (or still are also) first or given names. Karl (also Carl) Benz has a surname that was once a nickname for either Bernhard (strong bear) or Berthold (splendid ruler). Also see: German Inventors.

Gottfried Wilhelm Daimler (1834-1900) - German co-inventor of the automobile
Older variations of Daimler include Deumler, Teimbler, and Teumler. Not exactly a name-meaning desired by someone dealing with cars, Daimler is derived from an old southern German word (Täumler) meaning "swindler," from the verb täumeln, to overcharge or cheat. In 1890, he and his partner Wilhelm Maybach founded the Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft (DMG). In 1926 DMG merged with the Karl Benz company to form Daimler-Benz AG. (Also see Karl Benz above). More: German Inventors.

Thomas Gottschalk (1950- ) - German TV host ("Wetten, dass...?")
The name Gottschalk literally means "God's servant." Although today the word der Schalk is understood as "rogue" or "scoundrel," its original meaning was more like der Knecht, servant, knave, or farmhand. In the early 1990s Gottschalk and his family bought a home in Los Angeles (Malibu), where he could live without being mobbed by German fans. He still spends summers in California. Like Gottlieb (God's love), Gottschalk was also a first name.

Stefanie "Steffi" Graf (1969- ) - former German tennis star
The German word der Graf is the same as the English title of nobility "count."

Günter Grass (1927- ) - German Nobel-prize winning author
A good example of a surname that seems obvious, but isn't, the famous author's name comes from the Middle High German (1050-1350) word graz, meaning "angry" or "intense." Once they know this, many people think the name suits the often controversial writer. Also see: Günter Grass

MORE > Part 2: Heidi Klum - Johnny Weissmuller

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