Big Happy Family

Oct 42008

Try finding a Black Ploughman in Germany, or a Li'l Mason.

I’m amazed that two neighboring countries that share a language can have such different and unique mixes of surnames.

Sure, phone books in Munich, Hamburg and Vienna phone are all sprinkled with names that derive from German words for trades, such as Bauer, Schmidt, Koch and Müller. But it seems like these names are somewhat less common than Farmer, Smith, Cook and Miller among English speakers.

A Schmidt is a small potato in Vienna's goulash of heritages. He may be married to a Nagy whose great-grandparents arrived from Budapest, and live upstairs from a Schwinghammer family from Tyrol. And his boss at work might have one of those names that combines a profession with a word or a place-name. One of my co-workers is named Traunmüller, which incorporates the name of a river in Austria. Another is Nothegger, the second half of which, “-egger,” means “ploughman,” as I learned from reading an article about California’s movie-star governor, who hails from Graz, in southeastern Austria. “Hochegger” is yet another permutation, and while “hoch” (high) appears in German and Austrian names, “-egger” is still somewhat unique to Austria, and I don’t think I ever heard it north of Bavaria.

My favorite riff on such combos is the “-l” at the end of a lot of Germanic Austrian names. Yet another of my co-workers is named “Mayerl.” I’ve forgotten where “Mayer” comes from. It may be an obsolete form of “Maurer” (mason). I don’t know what the “-l” means in names, but it’s a cutesy diminutive suffix in a lot of Viennese words. A “Beißl,” for example, is a Viennese-style beer- and- wine pub place where you can get a little “Beiß,” or bite to eat. The related word “Bißl” means a “little bit.”

And then there are names such as Esterhazy, Jelinik, and Draganer, which started showing up in Vienna when it was the seat of the Habsburg family, whose empire included Hungary, Bohemia, a sliver of Serbia and several neighboring regions of Europe. The parents of my colleague Silvia Jelincic immigrated from Croatia when it was part of Josip Tito’s Yugoslavia. Several of my other colleagues or their parents came from Bohemia, Moravia or Slovakia when all three were still part of communist Czechoslovakia.

I can’t remember ever seeing so many unique (to me) names again and again and again. My magazine’s receptionist and Austria’s defense minister are both named Darabos. In Salzburg, one Rahofer runs a national journalism foundation. Another owns a newsstand across a cobblestone plaza from a shop owned by the Pühringer family. I wonder if they’re related to my colleague Markus Pühringer. Peter Czaak owns a well-known restaurant in the Altstadt. Is the Czaak trucking company part of a Czaak restaurant-trucking empire? I haven’t actually taken the time to find out.