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What is in a name?

On Saturday, young Thomas Müller saved Bayern's hide by scoring the crucial first goal away at Freiburg. That happened four days after national coach Joachim Löw announced he would call up Müller for the friendlies against Chile and Ivory Coast next month. If and when Müller makes his national team debut, he'll be the 16th man by that family name to play for Germany. A few of his predecessors come to mind easily - Bayern's Gerd Müller, Stuttgart's Hans Müller, Cologne's Dieter Müller. Others are obscure, like Hertha's Ernst Müller, who made his sole appearance in 1931, or people you don't immediately think of simply because they played for East Germany. Like Lok Leipzig goalkeeper René Müller, who won 46 caps. It's no surprise so many Müllers have run out for Germany, as this is the most common family name in this country. It is one of those names that refer to an occupation and means, of course, miller. I say "of course" since a great many German surnames will be familiar to you if you're of Anglo-Saxon descent or speak English (which is, after all, a Germanic language). In fact, the very word - "English" - is of German origin. It refers to a tribe known as the Angles, who came to Britain at about the same time as the Saxons, another German tribe. (Whence "Anglo-Saxon".) Oh, by the way. If you have the sneaking suspicion that this column has nothing whatsoever to do with football - spot on. It was supposed to be about a former player we can, for the time being, call Sebastian Shafter, but recent events have given me cause to write about family names. But back to Gerd Müller, Jerry Miller to you, and his many namesakes. We could lengthen the list of internationals carrying that name by including the likes of Andreas Möller or Frank Mill - their family names are but versions of Müller. The second most widely used name here is Schmidt, which goes back to the German word for smith: "Schmied". Actually, you could say this name is the true number one, because its manifold variants are found very often, namely Schmitz or Schmitt and the like. There have been six Schmidts playing for Germany and one Schmitt, but - strangely - no Schmitz. As you can see, it's not hard, even for an English-speaking person, to identify the professions hidden in the most popular German names. You'll detect the weaver in Weber, the fisherman in Fischer or the shepherd in Schäfer. (If you wonder why Schneider bears no resemblance to the corresponding English word, namely tailor, that's because the Old English word "snithan", meaning to cut, went out of use in Britain.) Sometimes names which refer to an occupation can lead you into the wrong direction, though. In German, a basin or a sink is a "Becken". And the verb "bauen" means to build. So was the original Beckenbauer a guy who built sinks? Not at all. In the Kaiser's case, "Becken" comes from the German word for baker and "Bauer", as a noun, means farmer. Thus the guy who gave the Beckenbauer clan its name held down two jobs to make ends meet. Those days are over for the family for sure, methinks. The Beckenbauer example will make you wonder what kind of job Bastian Schweinsteiger's ancestor may have had. The first part of the name means pig, the second stems from the verb for "to climb". But don't bashfully avert your glance just yet. Explaining names is as much a science as it is sheer guesswork, and while I'm not 100% sure about Schweinsteiger, I have a hunch I consider solid enough. Family names often go back to a local place of residence. And centuries ago, "Steig" or "Stiege" usually meant a narrow and steep path. So I'd venture there once was a man who lived near a path that was used to herd pigs from one field to another. Talking of fields, that's also how Paul Breitner's family got its name. It harks back to someone who owned or lived near a wide open field, as wide is "breit" in German (think: broad) and a "Breite" was such a field. A similar thing could explain the family name carried by another 1974 World Cup winner, Georg Schwarzenbeck. "Schwarz" is black and the "-beck" bit comes from the German word for brook. So Georg's name-giving forefather may have lived near a very dark stream. More likely, however, is that he was named after a settlement such as Schwarzenbach (there are a few villages by that name). You'll find many towns in family names. Mario Basler had a forebear who came from Basle in Switzerland. And someone who, generations down the line, gave us another 1974 footballing hero in Wolfgang Overath, once left the town of Overath and moved to... well, why not to Cologne, 15 miles to the east, where Wolfgang would one day win fortune and fame? Perhaps you wonder why I say Wolfgang's ancestor must have left Overath. Well, today's family names sprang up as the sort of nickname you give to a person to tell him apart from someone else by the same first name. Let's say that, a long time ago, there were a few men called David in or near Beckham, the village in Norfolk, England. People added something to their first names in order to differentiate between them. So one guy was known as David who lives in the woods (= David Woods), another as David, the son of John (= David Johnson), and so on. However, none of them will have been referred to as the guy "from Beckham", because that, of course, went for them all. It wasn't until one of those Davids decided to leave his home and move to, say, Norwich that people started calling him David from Beckham. This also explains why small towns make for more common surnames than big cities - people often moved from the former to the latter, rarely the other way round. Within such towns and cities, people were also regularly named for their social rank. For instance, you might translate Sepp Maier as Joe Tennant. (Both surnames originally refer to a farmer or someone who held land from an overlord.) And Berti Vogts is none other than Hubert Reeves. (A "Vogt" was someone who guarded and governed a territory, the ancient English term is "reeve".) However, when you think back to your childhood, you'll remember that quite a few of the nicknames your mates were known by were not really nice and tended to reflect an outer appearance (Fatso) or a character trait (Rat). Of course this descriptive system of naming people was just as wide-spread in the not-so-squeamish medieval times, when family names began to appear. There must have been hundreds of insulting family names such as Ugly or Dumb, but for obvious reasons families decided to get rid of them. And so, as a rule, the descriptive names that survived were neutral - such as "Weiss" (= white) for someone whose hair or skin was very light - or downright flattering. Helmut Schön's family understandably never changed this name, as it means "beautiful". But a few of those uncomplimentary names are still around. I kind of like the fact that one of our 1974 World Cup winners is named Bernd Hölzenbein. The ancestor who gave Bernd's family the name either had a leg ("Bein") that was indeed made of wood ("Holz") or that leg was simply stiff. Now, I suppose I owe you an explanation for the recent events which have led me to write about names. One was that I found the line-up of a game between Argentina and England in June of 1977 and I asked myself what the English strikers will have made of the fact one of Argentina's defenders was called Daniel Killer. The other event is upcoming. Two days from now, on Thursday, my wife, my son and yours truly will change the family name and fairly soon (give and take some German red tape) we'll all be called Hesse. No more double-barrelled tongue twisters, then. Finally, I mentioned Sebastian Shafter. Now, a shaft (in the sense of the pole used to harness animals to a vehicle, the American term is drawbar) means "Deichsel" in German. The man who made such things was a "Deichsler". And that became, over time, the family name carried by Sebastian Deisler. Who'll be the topic next time around.

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