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, Haguenau, 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, Strasbourg, Burgundy

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)