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Placename Etymology

Meanings of common elements in Germanic place names.

German placenames are very commonly a compound of a determinant word (Bestimmungswort) and a common root (Grundwort), usually in that order. Karlstadt, for example, derives from the root Stadt, meaning city, and a personal name, Karl.

Caution should always be taken when interpreting placenames. The current form of a placename is often a corruption or hypercorrection of the archaic form, and thus may not carry the original meaning. The roots are often hard for modern German speaker to interpret correctly. One thus should always find all extant historical attestations of a placename before interpreting a placename.

Determinant Words

The determinant words are of great variety, but can be categorized thusly:

  • Personal names, of individuals, groups, or deities.
  • Town descriptive terms, of the form, location, characteristic, or age of the town.
  • Jurisdictional terms, of seats of government, justice, or punishment
  • Words from nature, whether mineral, water, plants, animals, or mixed forms.

Root Words

see -INGEN

Meaning: meadow (?)
Examples: Lindau, Hagenau, Hanau
Explanation: Towns with such names indicate that the settlement grew in a low-lying meadow with water flowing through it.

Meaning: stream or brook
Examples: Reichenbach
Explanation: Towns with such names indicate that the settlement grew near a stream or brook.


Meaning: baths
Examples: Baden-Baden, Marienbad, Bad Ischl, Bad Mergentheim
Explanation: A natural springs site where Roman baths and their imitators were established.

Meaning: mountain
Examples: Bamberg, Königsberg, Nürnberg
Explanation: Always relatively speaking! In flat areas, refers to a rise or a hill.

Meaning: farmer
Examples: Kaufbeuren, Ottobeuren
Explanation: Derives from the word gabûron, meaning a peasant farmer who owed annual payments or services to his lord, but was not a slave.

Meaning: bridge
Examples: Innsbruck
Explanation: Located at an important bridge.

Meaning: property, land
Examples: Wolfenbüttel
Explanation: Often originally used for settlements of the minor nobility with no regular marketplace.

Meaning: fortress
Examples: Hamburg, Augsburg, Strasburg, Burgund
Explanation: Such names indicate that the settlement grew around a fortress. Many of these date from Roman times or before, for example, Teutoburgium.

Meaning: village
Examples: Düsseldorf, Franzdorf, Ostendorf
Explanation: Originally this root meant just the residence of a single family, but this meaning shifted later.

Meaning: ford
Examples: Frankfurt, Schweinfurt
Explanation: Town founded at a ford, where a river could be crossed by wading.


see -MUND

Meaning: harbor
Examples: Friedrichshafen, Bremerhaven
Explanation: A port city.

Meaning: salt place
Examples: Hall, Schwäbisch Hall
Explanation: Many of these names derive in fact from Celtic times and reflect the importance of salt in prehistoric times.

Meaning: house or houses
Examples: Nordhausen, Wolfershausen
Explanation: Often used for early, 6th century Frankish trading settlements founded at crossroads, though also appearing in towns founded later.

Meaning: home
Examples: Mannheim, Rosenheim
Explanation: Large settlements founded by Franks around the 6th century and later. There are also "false" "-heim" towns, such as Bornheim, Dammheim, Queichheim, etc. which do not date from this period, but were named in imitation of these.

Meaning: court, manor
Examples: Hof, Mayerhof
Explanation: Originally used for 8th-century manorial residences, but later applied also to groups of farms, or to villages that had grown together.

Meaning: settlement (?)
Examples: Unterhaching, Sigmaringen, Dudelange, Wetzikon, Etziken
Explanation: Such names refer to settlements named after a prominent person, less often after a geographical entity like a body of water. Sigmaringen, for example, means that the settlement was founded by a Teuton called Sigmar and his kin. The "-ing" suffix tends to be found in Bavaria, "-ange" in Lorraine, "-ingen" in Swabia while "-ingkon", "-ikon", "-iken" -- 13th century shortenings of "-inghofen" -- are found further east and south in Switzerland.


Meaning: fortress
Examples: Bernkastel
Explanation: From Latin castellum (fortified camp or fortress)

Meaning: church or chapel
Examples: Garmisch-Partenkirchen
Explanation: Often appears with the local lord's name, probably indicating the church's founder.

see -MÖNCH

see -REUTH

Meaning: monastery
Examples: Klosterreichenbach, München
Explanation: Denotes an abbey, convent or monastery.

Meaning: mouth
Examples: Dortmund, Münden, Gemünd, Gmünd, Travemünde, Swinemünde, Wesermünde, Neckargemünd, Emden (from E-mutha)
Explanation: Located at the mouth of a river.

Meaning: clearing
Examples: Bayreuth, Osterode, Reutlingen, Wernigerode
Explanation: points to a wooded area which had to be cleared of trees (in German this process is called roden) before anything could be built. These were mostly settlements dating from the 12th - 13th centuries.

see -DORF

Meaning: lake
Examples: Titisee
Explanation: Town at a lake.

see -HAUS

Meaning: town
Examples: Karlstadt, Hochstedt
Explanation: Signifies a town, but more the place than the buildings. This term has been in use since the earliest times of Germanic settlement.

Meaning: A heated room
Examples: [[Berchtesgaden}}
Explanation: This term dates only from the 13th century.

Meaning: valley
Examples: Wuppertal
Explanation: In a valley.

see -DORF

see -FURT

see -HEIM

Meaning: country-house, farm

Examples: Appenweier, Rottweil, Oberwil
Explanation: This is the major non-German root used in the names of German settlements of the 7th - 9th centuries; the name comes from the Latin word villa. The form "-wil" is used in Switzerland.

Meaning: house, also bay or trading place
Examples: Braunschweig, Greenwich, Osterwieck
Explanation: 9-11th century. Braunschweig means "Bruno's house".


  • Bahlow, Dr. Hans, Deutschlands geographische Namenwelt (Baden-Baden: Suhrkamp, 1985)
  • Helbok, Prof. Dr. Adolf, Die Ortsnamen im Deutschen (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1944)

Contributions by Rick Heli, Jim Eggert, Johannes Froebel-Parker (contribution edited from soc.genealogy.german), Carsten Läkamp (contribution edited from soc.genealogy.german), Wolfhart Seelentag, and Arthur Teschler.

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