Tongue twisted? Not for Germans. When it comes to pet names, Germans are amazingly creative – as opposed to given names, where the authorities still apply strict rules in comparison to England. You also can’t easily change the name your parents have set you up with, no matter how bad it is.
Now don’t ask for the meaning of “Schnuckiputzi”. There isn’t any. The verb “putzen” translates to “cleaning”, but “Schnucki” is pretty free of any sense. It just sounds sweet. The Mausibärchi on the other hand is rather scary: A bizarre hybrid between mouse and bear, packaged in a cutesy word, yet still reminding me of some nightmarish creature closer to the Gruffalo than a beloved person.
German pet names are surprisingly often taken straight from the animal kingdom, unlike the English – which is curious, given that the latter do not refer to any kind of beast when addressing their sweethearts, darlings, flowers or babes, yet still use the term “pet” name.
Bear (Bär), Mouse (Maus), Bunny (Hase), also combinable with the already mentioned “Schnuckel”: Schnuckelbär, Schnuckelmaus or Schnuckelhase. Want it yet a bit more cutesy? Add an “i” somewhere, or use the syllable “chen” to make things smaller: Bärchen, Hasi, Mausi, Mäuschen.
“Chen” is generally enormously helpful in German. Everything sounds just little bit friendlier with this four letters attached: Elfchen (the little elf), Sternchen (the little star), Schätzchen (the little treasure), Fürzchen (a litte fart), Scheißerchen (the little shit… the latter actually something you might call someone you really like).
Be careful with the word “Schnecke”, though. You might hear people referring to others as “Schneckchen” (little snail), but that is a rather derogatory term, usually aimed at women. A Schneckchen is desirable, yes, but not very bright for sure. You’d always be safer calling someone “Fee” (fairy) or Engelchen (little angel).
When researching this article, I found out that I was very wrong about “Süße” and “Süßer”, though. Calling the partner “sweet” is apparently not very common in modern Germany anymore. Neither is the English “baby”, which 98 per cent of Germans despise, if the WirtschaftsWoche is to believe. A strange source for this kind of information – a usually stone dry business magazine, more concerned with medium sized companies than with interpersonal communication.
The real name trap: German Standesamt
Aside from made up pet names, Germans know little humour and fun naming each other. The German Standesamt (the registration office) has strict rules what is allowed and what isn’t. Parents who wanted to call their newborn “Pumuckl” after a famous cartoon character were denied the right to do so. Another couple insisting to spell the name “Jaqueline” as German “Schacklin” need to go to court to be allowed to brutally mishandle this lovely French name. The poor girl will have to spell her name throughout her whole life, meeting raised eyebrows and heads shook in disbelief.
The rules have been softened somewhat in the last decades, allowing for names like “Cosma Shiva Hagen” (the daughter of a famous singer), “Cinderella-Melody” or “Winnetou” – if you have never heard of the last one, you should research the legendary German writer Karl May, who made up a whole world of fantastic Wild West heroes in the 19th century, featuring sounding names like “Old Shatterhand” or indeed the Apache Chief “Winnetou”. There is probably nothing more German than Karl May’s travel diaries about journeys he never made, telling adventures that never happened. As a child, I was ever so slightly confused about the similarity of the name “Karl May” to “Karl Marx” – and they really had nothing to do with each other.
If you don’t like your name, you are out of luck. Unlike in England, where you can effortlessly change into “Michael Jackson” or “BriggyMcBriggbrog”, there’s no such right in Germany. You can try, but you’ll have to explain yourself lengthy and will most likely find your request denied after an expensive process.
My grandfather used to tell a joke about it: A man comes to the Standesamt, saying: “I want to change my name”. The public servant, from behind a desk: “Why? What’s your name?” The man: “Bernhard Mist” (that means crap). The public servant: “Oh, that is understandable! What would you like your name to be?” Answer: “Adolf Mist.”
Can you guess when this joke was born? Exactly – in the 1930s when the law about names was introduced. It is, like most of the German civil law, still in force after being introduced by the Nazi government.
The most common surname in Germany is Müller (Miller), followed by Schmidt (Smith), Schneider (tailor) and Fischer (fisherman). The first 14 names on this list are actual job titles – with the first non-work related surname appearing on rank 15: “Klein” (small). Interestingly, “Groß” (tall) ranks only at 78th – which, from my own experience, is not representative for the height of the German population.
In England, on the other hand, Smith is the most common name, but job titles are rare in the follow up. Jones and Williams are anglo-saxon names (oh how German!), and the next name on the list is actually Welsh! 215,000 people in the UK are called “Davies”, morphed from ‘Dafydd’s (son)’ over time.
As ever so often, while writing about German culture, history and language, we meet a very modern issue. While many people fear the loss of national identity due to immigration, reality shows the silliness of this thought. The first really foreign name on the list appears on rank 156. It isn’t Muslim. It’s polish: Nowak, followed by Kowalski. On rank 262 and 435 we find an actual minority: Noack and Pietsch are Sorbian names. The Sorbs are a people of roughly 80k, speaking their own language and cultivating their own traditions in East Germany and parts of Poland. Their heritage is ancient, as is their integration in German society, and nobody ever feared they might infect the native German culture with their foreign ideas.
Turkish names, by the way, appear on rank 587 on the list for the first time: Yilmaz and Kaya are the most common in Germany.
There are whole websites poking fun of the weirdness of German names. Albert One-Stone (scientist), Franz Bowl-Builder (football legend), Helmuth Cabbage (German chancellor), Bastian Pig-Climber (football player) invite to laugh about them. Honestly, they sound just as weird in German: Einstein, Beckenbauer, Kohl and Schweinsteiger are really weird names.
Not as weird as the monstrous creations of German wedding law. To make it possible for women to keep their maiden name after marriage, the German Standesamt was allowed to grant double names. Families could turn into “Meyer-Schulze”, “Schmidt-Hoffmann”, “Kleine-Weischede“ (my Latin teacher in high school), “Schneider-Ludorff” (a young lady I was smitten with as a teenager).
Want to have a real laugh?
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is the successor of famous chancellor Angela Merkel. Don’t ask for a translation. It’s too weird. I can’t wait to hear English news presenters fight with that name.