Until the 900's only given names were used. The establishment of surnames does not mean they were family names. The surname was simply a way of more completely identifying the individual person. Ultimately, the family name became a way of identifying the social unit (family) to which an individual belonged, generation after generation.
But, family names did not come easily or uniformly in all areas. A surname might indicate a person's occupation, the locality where he originated, or the dialect that was spoken where the name was conceived. In some instances it reflected the person's position in society, or even a physical description. In the northern section of Europe, including Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein, a man was often designated as the son of his father. This system of naming is called patronymic.
Some surnames were based on terrain features or place names. These were, at first, preceded by the preposition "von" (meaning "from") as in von Oldenburg. Later this became a sign of nobility. While many commoners dropped the "von", some people still retained it with no pretense to nobility. Other surnames indicated physical characteristics. For instance, the well-known Norse explorer Eric the Red. Others still indicated ones occupation. For instance Jan Smit (in Plattdeutsch) was John the blacksmith.
Frequently surnames were formed from given names. This was often the case with patronymics -- identifying a man as the son of another. This is obviously the origin of the common English names Johnson, Thomson, etc. In Germany, often an "s" was simply added to indicate "sohn". For instance, my earliest documented ancestor was called Lüer Lüers. Literally, this means "Lüer the son of Lüer". Already in his time, Lüers was a permanent surname, not a patronymic. But, the use of patronymics, rather than family surnames, continued until the end of the 18th century in some parts of Germany, notably Schleswig and Ostfriesland.
Any of the naming methods described in the previous paragraphs could result in surnames changing each generation. In genealogy, there is probably no greater single cause for dead-end research problems than those which result from name changes. As late as 1816, a law was enacted in Prussia requiring permanent surnames. In 1822 a law was passed which penalized anyone 50 Thalers or four weeks in jail if they changed their name without permission of the immediate sovereign. So, I guess persons researching ancestors in our area of Germany are very fortunate to find records including permanent surnames going back to the mid 1600's.
The entry for Lührs reads in part:
In essence this states that Lühr and Lührs are often found in Hamburg and Lower Germany and are contractions of Lüder and Lüders.
The entry for Lüders reads, again in part:
Here Bahlow says basically that Lüder and its variations are believed to be a lower German patronymic family name meaning descendant of Liut-her. "Liut-her" (which becomes the modern given name Lothar) means in its original Old German form "famous warrior".
Others have proposed relationships between the name Lührs and other German stem-words. For example, Lüh which was a term used to describe a stretch of woodland or fields which were situated on a higher land mass above the notorious swamplands of north Germany. Even non-German origins have been proposed. For example, Luna, a Gallic/Latin word meaning moon. However, I will leave it up to each individual Lührs descendant to decide how they care to characterize the origin of our name.
Spelling variations seem to be dependent upon both area and time. The older spelling Lüers (or sometimes Lüehrs) continues to be used east of Hamburg even today. Some Lührs lines south of Bremen have noted a change in spelling from Lüers to Lührs in the early 19th century. In general, north of the Bremen-Hamburg line, the change seems to have come a century earlier. My ancestors used Lührs back to the early 1700's. The big question is why did some people retain the Lüers spelling, and why did it change earlier north of Bremen. It has been suggested that this is due to the prevalence of Plattdeutsch or Low German in the north, and that south of Bremen more high German was used. In other words, the spelling transition was probably due to a dialect or sound shift phenomenon. But, I cannot prove it. In any case, the pronunciation is the same.
Another minor spelling variation concerns the use of the umlaut. In general, in English-speaking countries Lührs is written without the umlaut -- as Luhrs (or Luers, for those who have maintained the old spelling). In recent years, with the advent of word processors which can easily handle the diacritical marks, some people -- including members of my own family -- have reverted to the original spelling of Lührs, even in the United States.
Return to Table of Contents