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German family name etymology

In etymology, German family names were introduced during the late Middle Ages, in what is now Germany. Usually, such family names are derived from nicknames. They are generally classified into four groups, based on the origin of a nickname: given names, job designations, bodily attributes, and geographical references.

The preposition von ("of") was used to distinguish noble names; for example, if someone was baron of the village of Veltheim, his family name would be von Veltheim. In modern times, people who were elevated to nobility often got a 'von' added to their name. For example, Johann Wolfgang Goethe had his name changed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. This practice ended with the abolishment of nobility in Germany and Austria in 1919.

East German Jews did not adopt family names until the 18th and 19th centuries. For this reason, their names can easily be distinguished. They usually selected two-part names containing well-sounding words such as Gold or Rose. Examples: Goldblum (gold flower), Silberschatz (silver treasure), Rosenthal (rose valley). Other names ending in 'itz' indicate a clan name.

See also: German language