What’s in a (German) Name

Every  so often, a snippet of saved information comes up that strikes me as so useful that it’s a crime not to amplify it, even at the risk of boring the more experienced among us.

I rediscovered today’s snippet  during my fall computer-file reorganization. (When the kids go back to school, I do too, figuratively speaking.)

It’s about how Germans handle first names, which can mystify the average American investigating German ancestors in the 19th century and earlier.  My mother’s paternal ancestors, for example, largely confined themselves to Johann and Georg for baby boys. Occasionally they would go wild and spring for Johann Georg. But even that combination repeats — my grandfather was one of two Johann Georgs, born six years apart. Fortunately for our sanity, Grandpa emigrated to the U.S. and began calling himself John, leaving the original form to his older brother, who remained on the family farm.

Now, a lot of us are familiar with the practice of re-using a given name for a younger sibling in the sad event that a child dies young. But that isn’t what is happening in my mother’s family tree. Having three surviving Johanns or two Georgs or a couple of Johann Georgs in the same sibling group bothered her ancestors not one bit.

Especially from a present-day U.S. vantage point, where a passion for … inventive first names is a given, this ancestral approach looks pretty strange. Also  confusing. How did they call everyone in to dinner? The answer, as you might guess, is that German baptismal names in this period were rarely the name you used every day.

Back in 2009, Rootsweb’s Hesse mailing list contained a great explanation from German member Thierry Dietrich, who spelled out the important terminology:

Vorname = First, or given name(s). If there are additional given names, there isn’t a separate term for “middle name.” Germans simply use the plural, Vornamen.

Rufname = The name you actually use, which could be an abbreviated form of the baptismal name, a middle name, or a completely unrelated name. (Dietrich gave as an example a Theresia-Maria whose Rufname was Rosemarie.)

Spitzname = The most accurate translation for the English term “nickname.” The Rufname and the Spitzname are not necessarily the same thing. It’s possible to have a Rufname and a Spitzname.

The post is archived here and is well worth a look.

In addition, Mr. Dietrich provided some insight into how first-naming practices have evolved in modern  Germany. It’s all very interesting if, like me, you have a lot of Johann Georgs to keep straight.

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