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What’s in a Swiss name?

Roger Federer: a hunter by name and nature Reuters

As Swiss tennis legend Roger Federer chases the ball across the court, he may not realise that, according to his surname, his ancestors were also hunters - who tracked or used birds, explains names expert Martin Hannes Graf.

Graf, whose name means Count – which does not, as he ruefully admits, mean that he has aristocratic forebears – is a linguist working on the Idiotikon, a specialist Swiss-German dictionary.

swissinfo: What are the most popular surnames in Switzerland?

Martin Hannes Graf: Popular is probably not quite the right word when talking about surnames because you can’t actually choose your name, you simply receive it, and whether you like it or not is secondary! It’s better to say there are more or less common surnames. The most common family names in German-speaking Switzerland, the largest language region, are Müller (Miller), Meier (Mayor) and Schmid (Smith), accounting for around 70,000 people in Switzerland (see info box for top ten).

There are no statistics for French-speaking Switzerland, but typical French Swiss names are Favre (Smith), as well as Picard (or Piccard, like the family of explorers), for someone from the French region of Picardie. Also famous is the name Chevrolet, like the car, which means little roebuck and probably was a nickname for somebody who was very lively.

In Italian-speaking Ticino you get names referring to hair or skin colour or stature like Neri (black), Grandi (big) or Gagliardi (strong), as well as names of professions, like Ferrari (Smith) or offices or places. One very famous Ticino name is Cologna which means someone who leased a farm and derives from the Latin colonia.


swissinfo:ch: Professions seem to make up a big group of surnames.

M.H.G.: Yes, they refer to old types of crafts and offices held. In former times people used to be named after their professions. But there are also other ways family names came about.

Until the 12th century, people generally had one name in Switzerland, what we would now call our first name. But because the stock of names to choose from reduced and the population increased, there were suddenly too many people with the same name and it was difficult to tell people apart.

Hence the custom of giving someone a second name. These are divided into five groups and are basically the same all around the world – with the exception of Iceland where, for example, women’s surnames come from their mothers.

Apart from professions, people were named after where they came from, the place they lived, their fathers, or were given nicknames based on their characters or appearance, which later established themselves as a surname.

swissinfo:ch: Does your our own name, Graf (Count), point to aristocratic origins?

M.H.G.: This would have been nice, but it’s not the case! Surnames like Graf, König (King), Kaiser (Emperor), Bischof (Bishop) belong to the nicknames group and were probably given to people who acted like they were a king or count, so wanted to make themselves appear important or had a big mouth! It could also have been that they played the role of a king or count, as these were typical figures in plays in the Middle Ages.

swissinfo:ch: What about famous Swiss like Roger Federer?

M.H.G.: Federer belongs to the professions group and means “feather” and was probably given to a hunter who specialised in wild birds – in former times people hunted birds as well as deer – or to a falconer, but in any case it means a hunter. The name comes from the Rhine Valley in St Gallen and the clan later moved to the area around Basel, Roger Federer’s home region.

1. Müller (35,394)

2. Meier (21,705)

3. Schmid (19,312)

4. Keller (15,013)

5. Weber (13,604)

6. Huber (12,017)

7. Schneider (11,823)

8. Meyer (11,774)

9. Steiner (10,611)

10. Fischer (9,728)

swissinfo:ch: Have there been many changes to Swiss surnames over the years?

M.H.G.: Migration to Switzerland means that there are now many names which do not originally come from Switzerland, but from the Balkans, Turkey, Italy, Germany, Britain or the United States – and this is ever increasing. There exist approximately 15,000 old Swiss surnames which were long-established in the country before the 18th century. But this is a rather small number when you think there are around 100,000 surnames in Switzerland today.

swissinfo:ch: What do you think is the fascination about knowing about surnames?

M.H.G.: The interesting thing about surnames is that they don’t really mean anything today, they are just a label stuck to someone and this label is an individual one that everyone has, in most cases from birth until death. Mostly we are not aware of what’s behind it all, that there is a linguistic meaning to our surnames and finding this out can be fascinating – just like place names. This exercise belongs to the interesting “aha!” moments, even if you find out that there is something not very complimentary about your surname!

The Schweizerisches Idiotikon, which is based in Zurich, is concerned with the German language in Switzerland – spoken by two thirds of the country – from the 13th to the 21st centuries. The other languages spoken in Switzerland are French, Italian and the Latin-based Romansh (spoken by 0.4% of the population).

So far, there have been 16 Idiotikon volumes published, with more than 150,000 entries.

The name derives from the Greek word for “peculiar”.

Martin Hannes Graf, who has a PhD, works as an editor there. His specialisations are dialectology and historical linguistics.

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