Schleswig-Holstein Naming Customs

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Naming Customs

Surname[edit | edit source]

Where does your surname originate from and what does it mean?
Surnames were not always a given. Until the 12th century a given name sufficed, however, to differentiate between a father and son and at the same time showing that they were related to each other, very creative forms of given names appeared. An example is Hildebrand and his son Hadubrand from the German epic "Hildebrandslied". The father "Hildebrand" used part of his name "-brand" and combined it with a new prefix "Hadu", thus signifying that Hadubrand definitely belonged to Hildebrand. Among famous people we find an addition to the given name, such as Karl der Große, Friedrich Barbarossa etc. but among simple folks many shared the same given name, such as Heinrich, Christoph, Friedrich etc. The appearance of cities was among other developments important to give persons an additional description. Therefore, we read of Hans the blacksmith, the tall Hans, Hans from Altenburg etc. However, the new names were neither uniform nor legal and with that not guaranteed.

The reason we have such a variety of surnames stems from the fact that until the 17th century it was totally unproblematic to change ones name. Bavaria curtailed this possiblity with a decree in 1677, other parts of Germany did not. The appearance of a legal family name occurred with decree issued by Napoleon in 1811. The final step in uniformly written surnames appeared with the rise of civil registration (Standesamt), when it was no longer possible to change a name without a valid reason.

Family names usually follow these patterns:

1. given names

2. names of origin

3. names of places

4. names of professions

5. names characterizing a person (Übernamen)

When analyzing ones own name, the above mentioned categories need to be at the bottom of ones deliberations.

Family names deriving from given names such as the patronymic patterns, the influence of the church, influences from other countries, origins and professions seem easier to determine than are family names signifying Übernamen. In these cases the characterization can include parts of the body, intellectual features, peculiarities, customs, relationships, age, sex, secular and ecclesiastical dignitaries, animals and parts of animals, plants, part of plants and fruits, foods and drinks, garments, raw materials, work related products, weapons and armaments, coins, measures, weights, numbers, business, law, obligation and possession, religion, mythology and superstition, time and meteorological phenomena.

To analyze a family name is not easily done and can lead to false conclusions when attempted by non professionals. There are some professional websites such as and which will give some assistance. The website will provide name distributions in Germany and Austria.


Jürgen Udolph, Sebastian Fitzek. Professor Udolphs Buch der Namen. Bertelsmann Verlag, 2005

Patronymics[edit | edit source]

Until the end of the 18th century we find rotative family names in Schleswig-Holstein. When a male child was born, he received the suffix “sen” to his name after his father. For instance: Peter, son of Jens received the name Peter Jensen. Peter himself received the name Nissen from his father, Nis Ericksen and so forth. Women received the genetiv “s” to their name. Cathrin, who was married to Tim, was called Cathrin Tims. Cathrin who was the daughter of Peter was called Cathrin Peters or Cathrin Peters daughter.

On November 8, 1771 a decree by the Danish king (Christian VII) was issued that henceforth definite family names were to be used in the duchies. The decree was partly adhered to and mostly ignored. The old rules were still used in many villages into the 19th century. “There are two major problems which often result from the patronymic naming system.

1. The changing of surnames with each generation makes it difficult to locate the christening record of a person and to establish the names of the parents.

2. The constant repetition of given names can result in two or more Jens Nissens, for example, being born to different Nis Petersens in the same parish and in the same time period.

To resolve this type of research problem, you must use the process of elimination in order to determine and verify you own ancestor and eliminate the others. The following records could be used to accomplish this: Christening records of the brothers and sisters to determine the name of the mother. Death records to eliminate those with the same name that died before or after your ancestor died. Marriage records to eliminate those with the same name that married earlier or later and who married someone other than the person your ancestor did. Move-in and move-out records to determine those that moved in or out before your ancestor did”.

After the decree of 1771 parents started to give their children permanent family names, preferably rare names. This could be a different family name for each child. Once a family name was given, it was against the law to change it.

“Three major problems resulted from the new law. Children born just prior to the decree received the patronymic forms and had the right to give their children permanent surnames after they married." This practice was in operation until the 1820s. "Children, who were given permanent surnames at christening, reverted back to the patronymic form when they were confirmed, married and raised their own families.”

It is very difficult to establish families when some members go by patronymic forms and others by permanent family names. “To trace an ancestor who was christened with a permanent surname but who went by his patronymic name in life, you must first determine the ancestor’s date of birth or at least the year of birth. This may be possible by using any type of record that would give the individual’s age, such as confirmations, marriages, deaths, census and often military records. If more than one child has the same name and was born about the same time period, you will have to follow the process of elimination mentioned above".

Source: Jensen, Larry O: Naming Practices. A Genealogical Handbook of German Research,1978 pp.99- 104