I’ve lived in Germany for a while now, and, in general, I like the place. It’s well-organized and its heart is in the right place. But there are some things I will never get used to. Have I complained about them before? I’m sure I’ve complained about them before. The fascination for all things poop and pooping (there are even shelves in toilets to collect the poop on, so you can have a good look at it before you flush it away). The pickling of eggs with salt and lethal doses of caraway seeds (the recipe in this link calls for a handful of caraway seeds (Kümmel) for just 12 hardboiled eggs, which is probably less caraway than my MIL uses when she makes Soleier). The fondness for Schlager music.
But the thing that really still stops me short from time to time is how cruel some German last names can be. Or, at least how cruel they seem to be.
Sure, a list of the most common German last names will include the usual occupational ones, like Müller (miller), Schmidt (smith), and Koch (cook). Germany also boasts those sorts of patronymic names—like Lorenz (a first name adopted as a last name), Behrens (meaning Behren’s), or Mendelssohn (Mendel’s son)—that tie some long ago someone to their slightly longer ago father. Other German last names are based on places, such as Bremer for someone from the city of Bremen or Bach for a family that lived beside a stream. Not everyone who handed out last names when it came time to hand out last names that were fixed and inheritable was a jerk. Or at least, not a jerk to everyone.
The first hint of troubled nomenclatural waters comes when you stumble across Germany’s animal last names. Yes, there are those that are benign. Cute, even, or noble. There are plenty of people proud that their last name is Fuchs (fox), Wolf (take a guess), Steinbock (ibex), or Stieglitz (goldfinch). But there are also plenty of people whose last name is Hase (hare), Igel (hedgehog), or Ratte (rat). You might even meet the occasional Herr Made (Mr. Maggot) or Frau Floh (Ms. Flea).
Spouse had a friend with one of these animal last names. Or rather a friend who used to have one of these last names. Spouse likes to trot him out as an example of how forward thinking and fair his generation of males is because this guy he took his wife’s last name when they married instead of her taking his. But let’s be honest here. The one thing the wife, a veterinarian, would not do for love was go through the rest of her life being known as Tierarzt Schafstall (Animal Doctor Sheep Stall).
Then there is the legion of German last names based on attributes. Like the animal last names, they are also not necessarily bad. It’s hard to say a few hundred years after the fact, when you don’t know the details of the name-giver (kind hearted? sarcastic?) or the recipient (a dead ringer for the description or exactly the opposite?). Also, it depends upon how a person might feel about being called Krause (curly-haired), Schwarzkopf (black-haired), Groß (tall), Klein (small), or Sauer (cantankerous) all the time for all of their life.
But these names are nothing compared to the German last names that are well and truly bonkers and/or horrendously mean. The ones where you can only wonder if you heard that right and how much of a jerk would you be if you asked the person to repeat their name because you aren’t quite sure that you caught it. Here are my favorite ten.
Beer’s a big deal in Germany. These days, the average German drinks approximately 92 liters of beer pear year, which sounds like a lot, until you learn that this is down from a high of 146 liters per year in 1980. It should come as no surprise that Germany has a number of beer-themed last names. Although kudos must go to standouts like Bierwagen (a wagon full of beer for transport or sale, such as public events), Kannebier (a pitcher of beer), and Warmbier (exactly what it sounds like), my vote for the best beery German surname goes to Käsebier (cheese beer). Because what the hell is Käsebier? Beer made from cheese or cheese made from beer? Or was cheese and beer so favorite the dinner of some long ago someone that they ended up with Käsebier as their last name?
Even Germans find the name amusingly absurd, as evidenced by 1931’s wildly successful and much admired novel Käsebier erobert den Kurfürstendamm (Käsebier conquers Kurfürstendamm, or as it is published in English: Käsebier Takes Berlin), which follows the rise and fall of the hapless folksinger Georg Käsebier, object of a cynical and ridiculous marketing blitz during the last days of the Weimar Republic.
Who doesn’t love a pancake, especially when the word refers to something much more lusciously like a crepe? Probably the currently 191 people in Germany stuck with Pfannkuch (pancake) as a last name. Lore has it that when it came time to assign last names in Germany, Pfannkuch was served to the gluttonous, although I don’t really buy that explanation. It makes more sense for the name to have been doled out to the crepe-makers.
There was once a well-respected hydrogeologist named Hans Olaf Pfannkuch. In my former life as a scientist, I even read a few of his papers. The sad part of this story is that he emigrated to the USA, where the name Professor Pfannkuch did not have half the panache it would have had in Germany.
Continuing with the eating theme brings us to the surname Sauerteig (sourdough). My spouse’s grandmother was born a Sauerteig. In the part of Germany that Selma came from, Sauerteig was the last name they gave to bakers when they got tired of just naming them Bäcker. In particular, they gave the Sauerteig name to bakers who made Schwarzbrot, which are dark and heavy sourdough loaves made with rye and other whole grain flours (or even unground whole grains). Beloved though this bread is by Germans, Sauerteig is a hard name to have as a kid. Selma Sauerteig certainly shed no tears when she swapped it for an unremarkable married name based on the name of the village her husband’s people must have come from.
Not all bonkers German names are actually bad. I’ve included this one because I think it would be super cool to be called Einhorn (unicorn). Herr Einhorn, Frau Einhorn, Dr. Einhorn, Prof. Einhorn… yes, please! Imagine the tales you could tell about how your ancestor staked a claim to this last name. It would certainly be more interesting than the truth, which is that the Einhorns of this world were named after buildings. In the days before numerical addresses, houses and other buildings had names. The buildings named Einhorn tended be decorated on the outside with a unicorn motif or had a sign on them depicting a unicorn.
A last name I encountered and did ask if I’d heard right is Schneemann. Yes, this means snowman. About 2,000 people in Germany have this last name, which didn’t originate once, but several times independently. That means there was more than one jerk out there who saddled a guy (and his family, if he had one) with the last name of Schneemann because he had white hair. Although it is also true that other people merely committed the crime of coming from a village or city quarter named Schnee or Schneen. Perhaps that’s not so bad. But, still… Schneemann?
Hühnerbein, which means chicken leg, is a last name that does not seem to have any redeeming qualities beyond its singularity and novelty value. Presumably, the recipient had woefully skinny legs or a strange gait. Or both.
Even nobility wasn’t safe from such an indignity (or a closely related variant). If he were still alive, Friedrich Heinrich Karl Georg Freiherr von Hünerbein (1762-1819), a Prussian lieutenant general, could tell you about that.
Now we come back to the obsession with poop and pooping with the name Kackebart (poo beard, to put that politely). There are 84 people out there in Germany today bearing this burden. How one got stuck with this last name when the time finally came for Germans to have fixed and inheritable last names, let us collectively refuse to imagine. Let us instead be filled with awe that this name is still with us given how much a last name like Kackebart must have dampened a man’s marriage prospects.
There are also Germans with the last name of Klohocker, which sounds like it means toilet seat/stool. As in, yes, what you sit on to excrete (which may be where the original Kackebart was getting things wrong). But the Klohockers of this world can take heart. One of Germany’s leading experts on last names does not accept the obvious translation. He thinks Klohocker may have been a way to say Klauenzieher (claw puller) in one of the Hessian dialects. A Klauenzieher was the guy who pulled the toes of cattle as they were being slaughtered, to make it easier for someone else to slice off the meat. Which, I guess, is a step up from being called a toilet seat.
Unsurprisingly for a country with many last names involving beer, Germany also has a number of last names for heavy drinkers. Trinker (drinker), for starters. But also Saufklever (drinking farmer), Saufaus (drunkard), and a variety of others. The one that rises above the tankard-clinking crowd is Trinkenschuh (drink shoe), also spelled Trinkenshuh. Like Käsebier, Trinkenshuh defies exact explanation. Was the first Trinkenschuh someone who only drank out of shoes? Or was it someone so desperate for a drink, they held out their own shoe for a fill-up? I suspect none of the 15 Trinkenschuhs listed in the phone book have the answer, although, admittedly, I was not impolite enough to phone them up to ask.
As delightful as Schneemann, Käsebier, and Trinkenschuh are, the crowning glory of bonkers German last names has to go with ones that are obscene. For years, this baffled me. Why? Why? Why? Why?
I mean, how mean do you have to be to mark someone for life (and for all the lives of their name-bearing descendants) with an obscene last name? And modern Germany agrees. In German law, you can’t really change your last name, except when you get married or when your name is clearly a terrible thing that is causing you anguish and pain.
But it turns out that the obscene last names are almost all only accidentally obscene. Some of these names, such as Klofik, which sounds like it means toilet f—k, have merely had the misfortune of emigrating to Germany from a country where the name meant nothing like that at all. Others, like Fick (which is the German word for f—k), used to be an innocuous nickname (such as for Friedrich).
The best of the best of the accidentally obscene German last name is Schweinsteiger. You can literally translate that as pig climber (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). But this turns out to be another name, like Klohocker, that sounds mean but probably wasn’t meant that way. The last name of Schweinsteiger was not actually bestowed upon poor louts with a fondness for barnyard animals. It was given to people who came from any place called Schweinsteig. But I doubt this G-rated origin saved Bastian Schweinsteiger, one of Germany’s best ever football/soccer players, from having had to hear smack talk about his name in the heat of sportly battle.
But what about you? Where does your last name come from? And how do you feel about it?
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