Anyone who has a child has been confronted with the arduous task of selecting a fine and fitting name for their beloved offspring. We will certainly want to pass on our surname. How we proceed to select for our child that very best first name and possibly a middle name or two varies widely. It seems that names, in general, have been around forever. Perhaps some form of an "identifying name" or "title" has always been. It would seem this would be so, at least since the beginning of spoken language. It is our particular ability to express thought that so distinguishes us from mere animals. The most ancient references to the word "name" are found in Sanskrit (namen), in Latin (nomen) and in Gothic (namo). Our now wide-spread custom of "surnames" did not arrive in common culture until the late Middle Ages.
As one delves into the study of names, one starts to realize the impact on them created by the ongoing evolving and merging of all cultures, their languages and their customs. Most of us have little understanding of how the name we give our children came to be. America, being the melting pot of so many nationalities, serves to further blend and thus mutate, even massacre "original" forms. We might know of a particular ethnic background from whence our name came, but know not why it came into existence any more than most of us know why a "tree" is called a "tree".
Quite frankly, "names" are somewhat an interesting study in their own right. Volumes have been written on the subject. There is nothing scientific with names. Quite the opposite, names have their "roots" more in our emotions and vanity than anything else. The need to be able to identify families and individuals of families is a driving force in arriving at multiple names and titles for a single individual (as well as an individual's vain want to set himself apart). We will basically (try to) confine our objective here to taking a topical look at Germanic or perhaps, more precisely, German names. The term "Germanic", in common use, generally refers to a greater geographical area (as early Indo-European tribes spread out) than we reference here or elsewhere within our website.
All the "popular" German surnames of today are familiar in the U.S. Most correspond both in form and meaning with English surnames. Good examples are German place and occupational names terminating in -er and -mann. All the common nicknames are found among the Germans: Lange (long), Weiss (white), Klein (small), Adler (eagle), Hahn (cock) and Fuchs (fox).
Some of the common locality terminations are -au (wet meadow land), -bach (brook), -baum (tree), -berg (mountain), - brück (bridge), -burg (castle), -dorf (village), -hain (hedge), -heim (home), -hof (enclosure or manor), - horst (wood), -itz and -ow (both of Slavic origin, the former being a diminutive, the latter signifying possession), -reut (clearing), -stadt (city), -stein (stone), -thal (dale, valley) and -wald (wood).
The majority of German surnames are derived from places. The preposition "von" (of) has been retained by many German families and adopted by others because of prestige arising from its use by families of the nobility taking their names after their estates. Other aristocratic names start with the prepositions auf- or zu-. The Meir in Germany was a most important man, the administrator of a large estate, an official of the king, bishop or monastery. The Schulz was the highest judicial and administrative officer of a village or town. The Lehmanns and Baumanns were tenants but were personally free.
At an early time the Germans began to shorten their prehistoric Germanic (Teutonic) names. The kurzform names are such common pet forms as Fritz (for Friedrich), Heinz and Hinz (for Heinrich), and Kunz (for Konrad). Hinz und Kunz is the German equivalent of Tom, Dick and Harry.
Of the most common during the rise of family names in the Middle Ages were Nikolaus, Johannes, Heinrich, Peter and Jacob. Nikolaus was the most popular saint of the Middle Ages and yielded no less than 440 German family names traceable to its various derivatives. One only has to look at the early ancestors of the Pomnitz family as found within The Descendants Tree to find each and every one of these common names.
During Hitler's reign, the Nazis established strict censorship over both family and given names. If more than one given name were bestowed, the father was obliged to designate which one would be used, and if in later life a different one were selected, official permission was required. Nicknames were generally banned as first names except for some commonly used abbreviated forms, such as Klaus for Nikolaus, Goetz for Gottfried, and Hans for Johannes. All Jews were then required to have "Jewish-sounding" first names and surnames.
Some of the most popular Christian names for boys in Germany are Wilhelm, Peter, Paul, Friedrich, Johannes (Hans), Karl, Max, Erich, Otto, Franz, Georg, Ernst, Richard, and Kurt. Many girls are named Margarete (Gretchen), Martha, Frida, Anna, Elsa, Maria, Hedwig, Charlotte, Erna, and Wilhelmina.
Germanic names, comparatively, have been little influenced by foreign names. Their Teutonic nomenclature entered into the names of other countries.
Resources: Genealogical Notes of Edwin Charles Pomnitz. Treasury of Name Lore by Elsdon C. Smith (Copyright © 1967).