German-Americans and Their Contributions
to the American Mainstream Culture:
German Names and Words

Table of Contents


Immigrants from the German-speaking countries brought with them their names, their language, customs and traditions, which were largely unknown in North America. Some of these, including a surprising number of food and drinks, caught on among their English-speaking neighbors. When there was no exact equivalent or no established English word for a German "import," the German was adopted into the American language. Noted historian Daniel J. Boorstin calls the American language " another happy American accident." As he puts it " we have an imported language along with a population of imported people."

The purpose of this unit is to introduce students to, and have them identify, German elements in the American language and way of life. Students will carry out several activities and be given assignments to identify German names and words. From these they should gain a sense of the impact of the German-Americans on the American mainstream culture.

TIME: 2 class periods. Most activities are to be done outside of class.

TARGET GROUP: 6-8; basic high school courses




GOING BEYOND: In addition, Extra Credit Projects are suggested for students who might be interested in more in-depth projects related to the German-American experience.




Hans Bahlow, Dictionary of German Names, 1993, 641 pp., $22.50, ISBN 0-924119-35-7, Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 901 University Bay Drive, Madison, WI 52705

George F. Jones, German-American Names, 1995, 320 pp., $25.00, ISBN 0-8063-1481-8, Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1001 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD 21202-3897

Gerhard Becker, "German Loanwords Related to Food and Drinks," Die Unterrichtspraxis, Vol. 25, No. 2, Fall 1992

Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, The Joy of Cooking, Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1962

Marcia Adams, Cooking from Quilt Country: Hearty Recipes from Amish and Mennonite Kitchens, New York: Clarkston N. Potter, Inc., 1989

Return to Table of Contents.

Lesson 1 - German Names


If the German Heritage Map I is used, an overhead transparency has to be made.

Familiarize yourself with the appendices and decide which should be used as handouts. Put on blackboard necessary information if handouts are not used.

Duplicate appropriate appendices for each student in the class.

Display a current political map of Europe in a spot where students can easily see it.


Announce that the topic today is German-Americans and their contributions to the American mainstream culture. As an opener you may want to ask whether someone in your class has a German name an whether s/he knows what that name means. If there are students from German and mixed German background in the class, it would be interesting to ask them how many generations ago their ancestors emigrated and from which German-speaking country and region they came. Use this as a lead-in into a discussion on immigrants' contributions to America.

Where German-Americans Live: Turn on overhead projector with German Heritage Map I. It shows the distribution of German-Americans according to the 1990 census. According to The 1990 Census: German-Americans are the largest ethic group in the U.S., with 59,947,374 persons or 23.3% of the U.S. population claiming some form of German ancestry. Point out that the map does not include Tyrol, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg, Germans from Russia and the Balkan countries,and Jewish-German immigrants.

The German-Americans: Raise the question "what is a German-American?" Refer to a Map of Germany, and explain: If used in the narrow political sense, it can refer only emigrants from Germany and its given geographical area in a specific historical period. However, the term "German" in this context does not relate to nationality and state boundaries, but to the common bonds of ethnicity, language and culture found in, and coming from, the German-speaking countries and areas of Europe. Used in the broad ethno-linguistic sense, German-Americans thus include immigrants--and their descendants--from Austria and South Tyrol, German-speaking Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg, Germans from Russia and the Balkan countries, and Jewish-German immigrants (see The 1990 Census: German-Americans).

German Names: With so many German-speaking people having immigrated to America there must be many persons with German names in the U.S.A. Hand out Appendix A - Identifying German Names or write some German names on the black board. These names can also be written prior to class and be covered up with the wall map of Europe. Explain that names were often Americanized by immigration clerks, the county clerk, census takers and on tax records by people who thought it was proper to do so or who were just incapable of catching non-English sounds and spelling. They wrote Kohlmann "Coleman" the way they heard it, and they would write Mood instead of Muth.

In an English-speaking environment it is very difficult hang on to a German name, because people always tend to anglicize it. Compare: Huber/Hoover, Pfoerschin/Pershing, Schultz/Shults, Kunz, Koons, Klein/Cline, Tischler/Tishler, Heilemann/Heileman and Freeouf from Frühauf. Ask students to check with their family, friends, and acquaintances for German names and have them find out whether anyone knows what the name means and how it may have possibly been changed. To find out the German spelling of a name, including their own, students need to look for documents in their families which show how the names were spelled some generations ago.

Germans may have also had their names changed during the two World Wars or for other expedient reasons. Doris Day was born Doris von Kappelhoff, 1924 in Cinncinnati. President Eisenhower's ancestor arrived in 1741 and the name was changed from Eisenhauer to Eisenhower. General Norman Schwarzkopf's great-grandparents came in the mid-19th century from Sulz/Neckar, but the name was not changed.

You may want to discuss German first names: Johann or Johannes--Hans/Jack/John; Wilhelm--William; Heinrich--Heini--Henry; Richard, Phillip, Max, Dietrich, Thomas; Margaret(e), Margret, Gretchen; Elisabeth--Libby; Annemarie--Ann(e) Marie; Rosemarie--Rosemary.

Ethnic Markers: Point out that this unit deals only with names, steet names and words, but there are other Ethnic Markers. To identify things German we must be able to read the many clues which dot the American landscape. These "clues" are called "Ethnic Markers," the cultural elements that allow identification of a specific ethnic group.

Examples of identifying the German element: Santa's reindeer have names such as Rudolph, Donner and Blitzen. The Indianapolis Zoo's two reindeer are named Thor and Oden and the groundhogs have names such as Phil and Henrietta. The Kroger butchers appearing in the TV ads are called Alex and Max. The German-American on the Barney Miller show is named Dietrich. Amish names are always German. The Amish refer to anyone outside their faith and community as an "English," even though that person may be visiting from Germany.

Meanings: Very few people know how their ancestors got their names. Humans have always named. In order to understand the organically and historically grown world of family names, we need to go back to the time when family names began to appear. A name, first attached to the first bearer, became a family name and a part of the inheritance passed from father to children. This practice appeared at the time when it became the custom to enter family names into civil registers, tax registers, etc. This was the "birthdate" of family names.

Give Assignments: Refer students to the derivation information in Webster's and other American English dictionaries. Hand out appropriate appendices.


Telephone books: If you have an old German telephone book , let students go through it and compare German last and first names with those in an U.S. telephone book. Have them make lists of names they can find in both and then compare the lists. They may use Appendix A - Identifying German Names. Or students can use the sample pages in Appendix B - Directory Pages. Ask them to tell you which is the page from the German and which is the one from the American telephone book.

Make a Collage: Have students go through newspapers and ads and cut out and paste a collage of items with German names.

Maps: On your state's and/or U.S. map students can identify German sounding names of cities and towns. They can make a list of place names for your state. (As an example look at Appendix C - German Place Names).

Buildings, Businesses and Rural Mailboxes: They can find inscriptions in German on churches and other buildings, and German sounding names on businesses and rural mailboxes.

EVALUATION: Students' performance can be graded based on how well they do their assignments and on participation in the class discussion. It must, however, be kept in mind that a student from a German background may have an advantage. The teacher may allow students from other ethnic groups to do the same exercises for their own group.

Return to Table of Contents.

Lesson 2 - German Words In The American Language


The class period begins with a discussion of "traces of German influence." Begin by listing on the blackboard or on butcher paper German words adopted from the German language into English. EXAMPLES: sauerkraut, gesundheit, cookbook, concertmaster, kindergarten, noodle, pretzels, hamburger (refer to Appendix D - German Words in the American Language). Ask students to add additional German words and then divide class into teams.


As a homework assignment, student teams are to collect more words from their family and community. The team with the most additional answers could win prizes.

In distributing the assignment, give a hint by raising the question: "What areas of activity are associated with German (Austrian and Swiss) accomplishments?" Suggest:

a.) In your local grocery store, try to find the following: knackwurst (or knockwurst), bratwurst (or brats), wiener (often misspelled weiner!), wiener schnitzel, frankfurter (or franks), hamburger, liverwurst, braunschweiger, Thüringer sausage, sauerkraut, German potato salad, kuchen, streusel cake (or topping), apple studel, torte, Kaiser rolls, pumpernickel bread, pretzel, marzipan, noodle, zwieback. Look for Entenmann pastries and baked goods and check out the names on their selections. Wunderbar cheese, Muenster cheese, Limburger. Ask your grandparents about Liederkranz cheese; unfortunately it is no longer available.

b.) If there is a German restaurant in the area, look whether it features: Sauerkraut, Sauerbraten, Knoedel, Hasenpfeffer, Knackwurst (or Knockwurst), Schnitzel, Kloesse. What other food items do you find?

c.) Check the Joy of Cooking by Rombauer and Becker (Bobbs-Merrill Co.) or other cookbooks for German recipes. Cooking from Quilt Country by Marcia Adams (Clarkson N. Potter, Inc.) has wonderful Amish and Mennonite recipes.

d.) Students cannot do this themselves, but they could have someone look in a liquor store for the following designations on liquor and wine bottles (disregard imported bottles): Schnapps, Kümmel, Kirsch, Lager Beer, Bock Beer, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Auslese. You may also have them look for Sutter's Home Wine from California. It is named after Johann August Sutter, who lost his land in California to the Gold Rush. Or the teacher could bring empty bottles to the classroom so students can check the labels themselves.

In the final discussion, it can be pointed out that many German cultural elements have survived to this day in America. The German language in North America lost significant ground as a "heritage language" during World War I, when speaking German in public was prohibited and German church and civic groups were asked not to use German. Even so, German is still the everyday language of some U.S. citizens, and many others have knowledge of German either because of family background or because they have learned German in school and/or through overseas exposure as a foreign language.

EVALUATION: Students performance can be graded based on how well they do their assignments and on participation in the class discussion.

Return to Table of Contents.

Extra Credit Projects

In the school library's Webster's Third International Dictionary of the English Language, look up words from your list of German words. Copy those you find, together with the given meaning. Try to find out something of their history if possible. (Gerhard Becker's article "German Loanwords Related to Foods and Drinks" is an excellent source for this.)

Here is an example: Many people think that hamburger originally was a burger with ham in it or on it. Hamburger is derived from the German city of Hamburg. The original name of the fried meat patty was hamburger steak, meaning a steak the way they ate it in Hamburg (the Germans call it "deutsches Beefsteak"). The word burger, which came from hamburger, led to cheeseburger, veggieburger, Burger King, etc. Hamburger steak (without the bun) is said to have been sold by a German street vendor in New York in the 1870s -- possibly on Coney Island. Another source states that the hamburger was introduced by a native of Hamburg at the St. Louis World's Fair.

Kindergarten: Find out the original meaning of this word and the person who introduced it. Here is a hint. The first American kindergarten was founded in Watertown, Wisconsin, by a woman with the last name of Schurz, who hand just immigrated from Germany a few years earlier. She was the wife of the 1848er Carl Schurz from Liblar near Bonn, who became Secretary of the Interior.


A heritage project can begin at the cemetery. If you want to know whether a German community was at a specific location at one point in the past, look for German names on the graves. The gravestones will tell you who the first area residents were, how long they stayed, whether they changed their names. You can follow German families over several generations, and you can also find out who other ethnics were, who lived there. The graveyard was usually located near a church, established by the early settlers, and most of the time the homes were also nearby.

Return to German-American Teaching Resources.
Updated: 28 June 2009, BAS
Comments to: IUPUI Max Kade German-American Center,
This home page sponsored and maintained by IUPUI University Library.

IUPUI School of Liberal Arts

IUPUI University Library

IUPUI Home Page