Common German Last Names & Their Meanings

You may be surprised to learn that German Americans are the largest ethnic group in the country.* Almost 50 million people in the U.S. claim German ancestry. From hot dogs to hamburgers, Oktoberfest, and kindergartens, German Americans have left an indelible mark on American culture.

Photo: view from Patersberg of the castle Burg Katz and part of the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, Germany
Photo: view from Patersberg of the castle Burg Katz and part of the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, Germany. Credit: King (Felix Koenig); Wikimedia Commons.

Tracing your German American last name can help you learn new facts and details about your ancestors. Uncovering the surname meaning can reveal how our ancestors made a living, were remembered, or their role in society, giving us insights into their lives. What can your last name reveal about your German ancestors?

Tracing Your Roots – a Tale of Many Germanies

Whether you’re a Mueller or a Schmidt, a Meyer or a Dietrich, there’s a good chance that your ancestors did not actually come from Germany – as we know it today. Germany was not a unified entity until 1871. Before this, the country had always been either a loose confederation of principalities and city-states, or a territory of a larger, not strictly German empire. Even the term “German” itself derived from non-Germans.

While conquering Gaul (modern-day France) the Roman general – and later dictator – Julius Caesar dubbed the warrior tribes beyond the Rhine River the Germanii. These Germanic tribes, however, did not identify as such. Fiercely independent, they retained their tribal names and eschewed any idea of central unity, aside from their shared language. The concept of independence and local loyalty would influence German surnames, resulting in many of the proud geographical German last names we still see today, such as Albrecht, Meer, and Hess.

Throughout much of their history, our German ancestors remained resolutely regional in their thinking. Prussians, Saxons, Bavarians, and Hessians are only four of the dozens of regional identifiers our ancestors would have used instead of calling themselves “Germans.” Whether a part of the Frankish Empire of Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Empire, or the Confederation of the Rhine constructed by Napoleon, the men and women of Deutschland (meaning “land of the people”) were only considered Germans by those who ruled them and by those who did not understand them.

The Deutsch Come to America

The German states and principalities were often the battlegrounds of Europe as French, Russian, Swedish, Austrian and Papal armies waged war for land, loot, and religion. The Protestant Reformation and subsequent Thirty Years War, in particular, turned Germany into a hotbed of religious warfare. The turmoil and suffering of this time forced many German citizens to look elsewhere for their survival. Luckily enough for them, English settlers had already paved the way to a land where any religious sect could live in relative peace and tranquility: the New World.

The first wave of emigrants left German ports to settle in Pennsylvania and other American colonies. At this time, our German ancestors began to abandon their strongly held concepts of regional thinking – and their identity as German Americans overall would be cemented. As immigrants in a strange land, speaking a language that few of the English settlers could understand, the newly arrived Germans from every corner of Deutschland were forced to abandon their former prejudices and come together to survive.

German Surnames & What They Mean

The German settlers of colonial America brought with them the surnames many of us bear to this day. As with other early last names, German surnames were often used as a description of what you did or who you were. These are known as occupational and descriptive last names.

Occupational German Last Names

In the Early Middle Ages, a distance of a hundred miles was considered foreign soil. Most men and women lived their entire lives in small hamlets where everyone knew everyone else and strangers were looked upon with suspicion. As society progressed and the reach of civilizations widened, people began to travel more and more for work, war, or trade. No longer would you know everyone you came across, no longer were you able to identify others based solely on their given name. It was thus that surnames were born. Last names were clear identifiers of who someone was, where they came from, or what tasks they could accomplish.

Many popular German surnames were originally occupational last names. For example, the name “Wilhelm Becker” told you that Wilhelm was a baker, or “Johannes Schmidt” told you that Johannes was a smith (such as a blacksmith). These occupational last names tell a story that is different from those whose surnames are patronymic (identifying male parentage) or geographical (identifying the town or region of one’s birth).

Common German surnames ending with the following suffixes are indicators of occupational names:

  • –mann, as in “Hoffmann,” denoted that this was man of a farm (hoff), and thus a farmer
  • –er, as in “Schafer,” was one who worked with sheep (schaf = sheep), a shepherd
  • –hauer (cutter), as in “Baumhauer,” identifies our ancestors as tree cutters
  • –macher (maker), in “Schumacher,” identifies our ancestors as shoemakers

Descriptive German Last Names

Another early naming convention for last names was based on physical appearances and personalities. These are usually some of the oldest names found in Germany, stemming from pre-Christian times. German surnames like Lang (the long), Braun (the brown) or Gross (the big) tell us about the physical appearance of the first to bear our last names. Meanwhile, such last names as Wolf (wolf-like) and Hertz (big-hearted) describe personality traits that made such a lasting impression that some families carry them to this day.

Geographical Last Names – the “vons”

We often hear “von” separating first and last names of famous German characters. For example, the famed von Trapp family singers, or the tragic political figure of Paul von Hindenburg. The von means “of” or “from” followed by the last name, which will inevitably be geographical. Most of the von’s were nobility, the barons of towns and lands, and they each wanted everyone to know exactly which of these (geographies) they owned.

It should be noted that most German American last names that include von may likely only include it as a later addition. The majority of landed gentry and Germanic nobility did not emigrate from Germany to the United States due to the lack of a necessity to do so.

10 Common German Surnames

Here are 10 of the most popular German surnames found around the world:

  • Becker: on the surface, it may seem obvious that the Becker’s were bakers by trade. However, there is strong evidence to support that Becker may also have identified a family as carpenter or toolmakers. Whatever the case may be, the Becker’s served an essential function in any German city.
  • Hoffmann: the peasant farmers of rural Germany would be the first to bear this occupational name, as they toiled on the hoff (farm). The name would later become a surname used for the farm owners, managers, and foremen, rather than the day-to-day workers in the fields.
  • Klein: a descriptive surname that means “small.” This would have been used to describe the original namesake’s physical stature. The popularity of the surname Klein paints an interesting and rather humorous picture of a small individual who, despite their size, made a large mark on history.
  • Meyer: derives from the medieval German word for “superior” or “mayor” (meiger) which could be interpreted to mean a feudal lord or land overseer. As wealthy landholders, the Meyer’s held a high-class status.
  • Mueller: What is the origin of the last name Miller? An occupational last name meaning “miller.” Almost every language has a last name meaning miller as a result of the job’s traditional importance.
  • Schmidt: another occupational surname, the German form of “Smith.” Blacksmiths, coppersmiths, goldsmiths, gunsmiths, and locksmiths were all highly valued jobs in late medieval society.
  • Schneider: the Schneider’s were tailors by trade. Coming from the word “schneiden,” meaning “to cut,” these were the clothiers who dressed the barons and baronesses of Renaissance Europe.
  • Schulz: coming from the German root word “schulteize” (tax collector), Schulz could also mean sheriff or magistrate. In essence, these were the police who protected the investments of their feudal lords and kept the peace in their particular townships. There is also a Jewish origin to the name (also written as Schultz) which may have meant rabbi.
  • Wagner: the teamsters of their day, Wagner comes from the early German word “waganari,” which could mean “wagon maker” or “wagon rider.” The Wagner’s were the transporters, the traders, the men and women who drove goods to market and ensured that trade remained open and the people did not wait for food or luxuries.
  • Wolf: a descriptive German last name. Wolves were often used as heraldic animals and as symbols of independence and skill in hunting or battle, suggesting that Wolf was given to people for their nobler qualities.

Understanding Our German Ancestors

In many other cultures, we find there is a much higher density of patronymic and geographical last names, but the propensity of occupational German surnames tells us something different about our Deutsch ancestors themselves: they valued their work above all else. What a person did was as, or more, important than where they came from or who their father was.

It is interesting to note that many of our German ancestors who arrived at Ellis Island during the late 1800s and early 1900s became the Smiths, Bakers, Millers, and Tailors we know today. This is due to both the American immigration officials and the immigrants themselves choosing to use the English translation of the German surnames, to ensure societal acceptance and facilitate rapid cultural assimilation.

Learning more about the roots of our German ancestors, who they were and what they did, can help you better understand your family history from family traditions to beliefs. Tracing the roots of your last name is just the start. Learn more about your German ancestry and uncover new facts and stories shared in German American newspapers. Search your name and watch your German family history come to life!


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29 thoughts on “Common German Last Names & Their Meanings

  1. This is a fascinating and very helpful article. There seems to be a prevalent misconception that Ellis Island officials changed immigrants’ surnames to Americanize them, rather than by the person’s own choice or for occupation identity. I come from Kirchers (churchmen), Meyers (as you explain above), Buhlmanns (men of the hills?) and Folz & Sehi — I have to look those two up. Thank you for the encouragement and avenues to do so.

  2. I appreciate this opportunity to share Family Ancestral Beginnings and learn more about our individual ancestors — although I did know a large amount of my Mother’s ancestry (Elizabeth Marie Sommers/Zurbrick), her parents both being of German ancestry, and some of my Father’s (Edgar Z) from our Zurbrick/Zurbruck/Zurbriggen ancestry through Christopher Z and a cousin I’ve located in Switzerland who has helped me find a small amount of information from their life in Bern, Switzerland, prior to Christopher (and perhaps his parents) moving to the USA.

    I had wondered as a child what our last name came from. As a ‘Zurbrick’ (otherwise known as Zurbrigg/Zurbruck/and probably so on. I did know that my paternal Great grandfather, Christopher Zurbruck(k/en), was from Switzerland and emigrated from there around 1850 (as far as we know), and married a woman from Canada, then moved over to the Lower Peninsula of Michigan where they settled and raised their family. My Grandfather George Henry Z was born in Michigan, had about 6 siblings, and my Father, Edgar Z, was born in 1901 in the Deckerville area. I never got to meet my Grandmother, Pearl Edna Fox Z, as she died in 1932 and I wasn’t born until 1936. She obviously had English ancestry and may have come through Canada; I believe that’s where George Henry Z met her, as I have some pictures of George when he was in Canada near the Canadian border by Detroit, Michigan. Her father, Henry O. Fox, had eventually settled in Michigan also. I had always been so proud of my ancestry and still am as toward the general population of Germany, however, do have problems thinking of WWII and the many atrocities done there to so many of their own people who happened to have a different religion than what was considered the norm.

    I’ve always been proud of my maiden last name and have used it even in my marriage to a man of English descent. My Grandfather, George Henry Z, was one of Christopher & Martha ‘Jane’ Jickling Zurbrick’s. George & Pearl Edna (Fox) Z settled in Marlette, Michigan, and my Father, Edgar Z, settled in the Pontiac, Michigan, area (Keego Harbor, Michigan) after marrying my Mother (who was of German ancestry, John Bernard Sommer(s), who had settled in Holland/Netherlands and moved to the USA through New Orleans, LA, in 1867, and later settled in Missouri. My Grandfather, John ‘Henry’ Sommer(s) and his wife, Mary Ann Kleekamp, married in Pana, Illinois, had 13 kids (of which my mother was #11; she moved from Illinois to Michigan where she met my Father, Edgar Z, in the 1920s. Their 1st child died at birth and the 5 (eventually) later kids of which I am the last born, settled in Keego Harbor, Michigan. I’ve lived in several states, including Alaska, and returned to Michigan in 1997 to stay here.

    1. Hi LoisAnn,
      Just read your entry.
      Zurbrigg is probably the common spelling of our name in Canada…Zurbrugg and Zurbruegg most commonly in the US. Far as I know…it ALL originated from ZURBRUGG….from the German….meaning…….”to the bridge”… shown on the several Z Coats of Arms.
      Zurbrick and Zurbruck also found a lot.

  3. Very informative. I enjoyed reading the article and some history about the German surnames. I have Meyer, Merkle, and Lang that I know of. They all immigrated to the U.S. before 1850.

  4. My great-grandfather & his brother came to America in 1890 to escape being drafted in the German Army. They had a paternal uncle who had lived in southern Indiana for many years. He had married and had several children so it was easy for my great-grandfather & his brother to settle down. For years I only knew they came from Wuerttemberg. When they left Germany, they left their father, step-mother and sister. By luck my godmother (she got me started in genealogy) looked at some records from Oschingen and there they were. I have viewed the church records back to 1600’s. The biggest surprise was the name was spelt exactly the same. I was so surprised it had not been changed when they (including their uncle) arrived at Castle Garden. Especially since it is often mispelled and mispronounced here. But I have do have plenty of Beckers, Meiers, Schmidts, Schneiders, & Wagners also. I have German ancestry on both sides.

  5. Very interesting and informative. My surname came through several spellings (Setser/Setzer, Setsen/Setzen, Setsenberg/Setzenburg). The last configurations I have not been able to verify since I cannot read German. These spellings were told to me by my Grandfather, Brady Dewey Setser/Setzer, (1899-1966). Thank you for sharing the different variations of spelling and why.

  6. Do the same with French names that have been modified from French such as d’Auge to Dozier. and d’Aubigne to Dabney and Souille to Swilley.

    Also, French names that translate to English Reynard to Fox and LeRoy to King.

  7. My name was Emigh….when my brother signed up for German Class in college, his professor called his name, pronouncing it like “Amy”…my brother said, “How did you know how to pronounce it… no one ever knows how” The professor said “well it’s German…there’s no other way to pronounce it”

  8. Very interesting. Thank you for the information. I enjoyed reading it and the replies.
    My 2nd great grandfather immigrated from Germany. He and his wife, children, brother, and brother’s family arrived in New Orleans in 1872. They initially settled in San Antonio, Texas. My GGF after 1890, moved to El Paso, Texas. He was described as a grocer, baker, confectioner. The family name was Gimbel. He was Johann Peter Gimbel. If the information on location, they were either from Bavaria [and I remember some family stories that said they were from there]. 1st GGM was either Post or Dietz.
    To add to your meaning list I found that previous generations included: Stahl = “steel” or 1″armor.” Theiss= “Matthias,” “Matthew,” “gift of God,” Boltz, Thiel. Jung=”young,” Stalp. I looked them up in several sites. Two of them were: [fairly searchable]

  9. Very interesting article. My mother’s paternal side goes back to von Ruden, which I didn’t know about until I started searching, mostly for my paternal side. Didn’t get very far. My maiden name was Baseler, or Basler ???? and only found back to my great grandfather. Prussia was not part of Poland. Family history has it they owned a fishing business on the Baltic Sea with outlet stores in Stettin and Kolburg. Grandfather’s 1/2 brother and sister were land owners. As for my grandmother, Peters, I have found nothing. Her father was a tenant farmer on my great aunt’s farm. My mother’s side is Roesch, with Breidenbach and von Ruden marriage, and I traced that back to my 13th Great Grandfather Stratmann. All ancestors Prussian/German born. Been quite an adventure. My father’s parents immigrated thru Baltimore in 1892, settling in Winona, MN, until after 1905 when my Dad was born, moving to Milwaukee, WI. They lived for a time with Borth cousins. Haven’t found anything on that. Don’t know where to look anymore.

    1. Shirley,

      Thank you for sharing some of your ancestors’ journey from Europe to the United States! It sounds like you’ve done quite a bit of digging and I commend you for your efforts!

      I don’t know how familiar you are with FamilySearch (, but I would highly recommend that you set up a free account with them and search their site for answers that you seek. They have an excellent Wiki ( which will help you come up with resources and potential research leads to follow.

      As with anything involving family history research, begin with what you know. You can plug in names and locations and I believe that you’ll be pleasantly surprised with what you’re able to uncover. I wish you success in your worthy endeavor to discover more about your roots!

  10. Hi. I am wondering if the surname “Buffell” or “Buffel” is German. I have Buffell/Buffel ancestors. Thanks, Susan

  11. Susan- The Biffle Name Meaning as found in Dictionary of American Family Names ©2013, Oxford University Press
    “The Biffle name comes from late Middle High German büffel ‘buffalo’ (in some areas ‘bull’); the surname may have arisen from a house name or a nickname for a loutish person. from a pet form of the Old German personal name Bodefrit.”

  12. Susan; I just realized you wanted to know the origins of the name Buffell, not Biffle. Sorry. The Buffell name has been harder to narrow down. The Buffell names seems to appear most often in the UK. I can’t give a definitive answer for this name.

  13. My maiden name is Trapp. I am a Black American woman. I am aware that the Trapp name has its origins in Germany. Would love to know more about the history of this last name and how we acquired it.

    1. Hi Robbin,

      Here is what I found so far on the meaning of the “Trapp” surname:

      “English: metonymic occupational name for a trapper, from a derivative of Middle English trapp ‘trap’. German: nickname for a stupid person, from Middle High German trappe ‘bustard’ (of Slavic origin). German: topographic name for someone living by a step-like feature in the terrain, from Middle Low German treppe, trappe ‘step’, or by a flight of steps, standard German Treppe.”

      Source: Dictionary of American Family Names ©2013, Oxford University Press

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