The Digital Dictionary of Surnames in Germany (DFD)


Names play a significant role in defining personal identity: Not only given names, but also surnames are perceived as integral parts of individuals’ personalities. The evolution of German surnames goes back to medieval times, when they developed from initially impermanent by-names. Surnames preserve linguistic material, cultural conditions and mental attitudes, the whole range of professions and also important clues about settlement and migratory movement in the late Middle Ages. This makes them a valuable source not only for historical linguistics, but also for cultural anthropology, mentality research, religious studies as well as research on migration and settlement. Accordingly, there is a strong interest from the public and the scientific community in the meanings, distribution and origins of names.

The Project

Objectives and Approaches

The research project “Digital Dictionary of Surnames in Germany” (Digitales Familiennamenwörterbuch Deutschlands (DFD)) explores the current inventory of surnames in Germany and makes the findings easily accessible to users in digital form. The long-term project was initiated at the Academy of Sciences and Literature Mainz in cooperation with Technische Universität Darmstadt and Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. For the first time, all surnames currently found in Germany – including names from foreign languages – are to be lexicographically recorded, mapped and etymologized (taking into account recent insights into the names’ geographical distribution).

According to the Telekom database (as of 2005), there are around 850.000 different surnames in Germany, a number previous estimates vastly fall below. The currently available dictionaries of surnames contain 70.000 different names at most – less than 10% of the total number. The DFD will include every surname with ten or more phonebook entries, making up a substantial core of 200.000 surnames. The treatment of names primarily follows their frequency in descending order (Müller, Meyer, Schmidt), also covering less frequent variants (Meyr, Mayr). Concurrently, relevant sets of names are worked on, with regard to subject matter on the one hand (e.g. all occupational names referring to smithery like Schmitt, Faber, Schmiedel, Pinkepank) and formal criteria on the other hand (e.g. compounds like Messerschmidt, Kleinschmidt, Blechschmidt, Schmidthuber). The dictionary has been accessible as a beta version since mid-2015.

The new surname dictionary’s main objectives are:

  • consolidation of differing analyses in the available literature on surnames,
  • specification of previous analyses and amendment with additional information,
  • re-evaluation of previous analyses, i.e. elimination or critical assessment of improbable/implausible interpretations,
  • first-time inclusion of names that are variants of more frequent (and already evaluated) ones and don’t require detailed analysis,
  • first-time analysis of surnames that are not included in any of the trans-regional surname dictionaries,
  • new analysis of surnames with previously incorrect interpretations.

Example of a first-time analysis: The surname Fixemer (Map 1) is not accounted for either in the consulted German or in the relevant foreign-language dictionaries. It is a locational name derived from the French place name Fixem (French commune in the Moselle department, north-east of Thionville).

Example of a new analysis: The surname Schillo (Map 2) has until now been interpreted as an occupational name or a nickname derived from Sorbian šylo ‘awl’. However, the mapped distribution shows that this must be incorrect since the name can only be found in the Saarland and the southern Palatinate, far from the Sorbian language area in Lusatia. Due to this geographic distribution, Schillo can be interpreted as a germanized variant of the French surname Gillot (derived from the given name Ägidius).

Map 1: Distribution of the surname Fixemer (source: Digitales Familiennamenwörterbuch Deutschlands)
Map 1: Distribution of the surname Fixemer (source: Digitales Familiennamenwörterbuch Deutschlands)
Map 2: Distribution of the surname Schillo (source: Digitales Familiennamenwörterbuch Deutschlands)
Map 2: Distribution of the surname Schillo (source: Digitales Familiennamenwörterbuch Deutschlands)

Compilation and Publication

In order to adequately record and present surnames, their meanings and their linguistic contexts in an electronic dictionary, a digital work environment with the name Onodi was specially created for the Digital Dictionary of Surnames in Germany.

Onodi is modular and consists of the XML editor oXygen for editing entries, the native XML database eXist for storage and the content management system TYPO3 as publication and query platform. These three core components are complemented by the reference management system Zotero and the mapping software. These building blocks are connected through interfaces, allowing for optimal use of each component’s strengths.

For easy and consistent creation of dictionary entries, a graphical user interface was set up in the XML editor, allowing authors and editors to efficiently write individual entries. Base entries have already been generated in the database for each name, containing basic information like frequency and rank. By means of the developed interface with TYPO3, completed entries can be marked as ready for publication with a single click in the user interface. This sets in motion an automated publication process for the entry and all associated material like maps and pages containing supplemental information.