Surname Changes

Because I have run into a great many surname changes, I have included this in my Website. I have tried to contact many people with different surnames that I felt we could be related. Some never return my message, some returned my message but are surprisingly not interested, and then some are very rude! The only reason that I can think of, is that they think something “naughty” happened, the real reason is that there are a great many surname changes.

Jeff Earhart


There are three types.

One: is just a spelling variant of the surname: Ehrhart to Ehrhardt, Ehrhard to Earhart, or a major change like Ehrhardt to Ahart.

Two: is a completely difference surname: Ehrhardt to Hart, Diehl to Dale; these were done in America because of wanting to do business with the British or with disputes with the British. There are also occupational translation surname changes like, Zimmerman to Carpenter, Weber to Weaver, Schneider to Taylor, Schmidt (Schmeid) to Smith, etc.

Three: Nothing even close. These are usually because of the following Hofname below.


Farm Names (Hofname = House name)


There are several interesting peculiarities regarding farmer and other professional names. Whenever a man changed houses or professions, he took the name of the new farm, new house, or new profession to which he was moving while leaving behind his old name.


A similar situation existed when the olden Germans changed houses. The German moving took the name of the new house and left his old name behind. A famous example of this procedure occurred in Maintz in 1444 AD. A young man by the name of "Gensfleisch" (goose flesh) set up a printing press in the house of "Guttenberg" (good mountain). We know him today as "Guttenberg, the father of modern printing". There is yet another interesting item regarding the perpetuation of the "house" or "farm" name. Farms were passed along to sons which naturally bore the house's surname but if a farmer had no sons and only daughters, whenever the daughter(s) married, her new husband then took the surname of the house (farm) thus keeping the farm's name intact. This custom is called "Stabrut" (Low German) or, "Erbtochter" (High German), and on occasion, is still practiced today, most generally in North Germany.


While some farm families, particularly in Westphalia, used the particle von or zu followed by their farm or former farm's name as a family name (see Meyer zu Erpen).



Another interesting area of Germany as far as naming customs go is the area of Westfalen and bordering parts of neighboring Hannover, Rheinland. In these areas an entirely different system of naming was established from medieval times. In this area a family's surname was called a Hofname (farm-name), however it differs in several ways from the farm names of Norway and Finland. To summarize, each farm had a surname associated with it. The surname associated with the farm was not the name of the farm, however the family living on the farm took this surname. If a daughter inherited a farm, when she got married, her husband would change his name to the name associated with the farm he moved to. During this transition period they would often list his old name and his new surname with a phrase such as genannt, vulgo, modo, sive, or alias listed between them meaning he had one surname but was called by another.

Even up until present times the hofname have continued to be associated with the farms so that often a person will change his surname when he takes over the old property.

More detailed information on naming customs and records of Westfalen can be found the Spring 2000 (Vol. 16, No.1) volume of the German Genealogy Digest by Roger Minert, a specialist in this area.



Prior to the late 19th century, Germany was not a united country. It was rather a patchwork of kingdoms, principalities, duchies, and fiefs. Naming customs throughout this vast territory differed in some areas and during different time periods.

In central and southern Germany during the 1700s you find most of the boy children had the name Johann with a second given name. The child would use the middle name that was unique in daily life unless he was given a single name Johannes. Likewise all daughters in a family might have dual given names with the first name being Maria or Anna for most of the children.

A hundred years earlier in these same areas the boys were generally called by dual given names with the first part of it Hans instead of Johann (such as Hans Georg Müller).


In northern and northeastern German areas, including much of the territories that are now part of Prussia, the Germans in the mid-1800s gave their children 3-5 given names, following the pattern of the nobility in those areas. It seemed the person was more important the more names he was given. To distinguish which of the many names a person would use in his day to day dealings the minister would underline the preferred name. Often in a marriage record the names will be in a slightly different order or might be simplified from how they are listed in a birth record.


For those who are interested in how German names were changed when Germans emigrated to America, which will be the subject of another article.


Most parts of Germany began using permanent surnames around the 1500s although some started much earlier and other areas later. In Switzerland, southern Germany, and elsewhere often a family will change over a couple generations from one surname to another. For example in a particular town in the canton of Zürich there were many families by the name Huber. One of these families was distinguished from the other Huber families with the word genannt (called) followed by the name Müller. Apparently he was the local miller in the town and after this transition, his branch of the Huber family went by the surname Müller. Other words like gennant which are used to distinguish a second nickname or surname that a person went by other than their family surname are vulgo, modo, sive, and alias.


Hereditary family names begin in urban Norway in the 16th century, but it was not until late in the 19th century that permanent family names fixed throughout Norway. People who lived in the country had three names: a first name, a patronymic name, and a “farm” name.