Onomastics - The Origin of the Name Zacherle

Onomastics - what's Onomastics?

So, where does the name "Zacherle" come from? To answer this question we have to use the onomastics (the study of the origin and formation of (esp. personal) proper names). Although I'm really by no means a specialist in onomastics (I am a physicist), while reading some books I got some impressions that I'm willing to share. I'm not sure if there will ever be a "definite yes" to any of the possibilities I found while researching my name. Some of these ideas are more probable than others, and some even seem to be a very long shot. To see which thesis is the right one, onomastics relies heavily on the geographic origin of the family with that name. The oldest trace of my family lies in Swabia, roughly three centuries ago.

The most probable origin: The father of John the Baptist

Most of the books I read say that the name Zacherle derives or could derive from the greek form "Zacharias" of the hebrew name "sechary ah" meaning "Jahwe remembers": see [Kohlheim], [Kunze1], [Kunze2], [Linnartz2], [Schröder], [Pott]. [Kunze2] explains that Zacherle is a patronym of this first name Zacharias.

Picture of God's promise to Zacharias

Only single names

In medieval times, people only had a (single) christian name. Villages were small and a single name for every person was just enough. Only when villages started to grow in size (perhaps after 15th century), it grew more and more common that people started to use descriptive bynames such as "the big one" or "in the woods" to be able to distinguish between people with the same christian name.


[Schröder] tells us that christian names used in germany until the middle of the 12th century were those of german origin. Starting about 1200, the names "Elisabeth" and "Johannes" (John) grew very common. These names spread so much that lists of citizens of that time contained up to 40% of people with those two names! Johannes did not derive from the apostle Johannes but from Johannes the Baptist, mainly because the baptist was a heroic figure that seem to have meant more to people in medieval germany. Zacharias was the name of Johannes' father. I have to mention that according to [Linnartz2] the name Zacharias was sometimes also used in remembrance of Zacharias the prophet (old testament) and of pope Zacharias (he died in 752), but I have never seen this in another source.

From Zacharias to Zach

[Kunze] says that according to Caesarius von Heisterbach a nun had been a big admirer of Johannes the Baptist, and she told people to "name their children after Johannes or his parents Elisabeth and Zacharias". We can therefore safely assume that the name Zacharias started being used after about 1200. The german people adopted foreign names (mostly hebrew, greek and latin ones) by adapting them to their own language. This was being done for example by changing the stress of the word. In the german language, the stress of a word is on the first syllable, while Zacharias had the stress on the third syllable. We can read again in [Kunze] that one way to adapt words into german language was to simply stress the first syllable, meaning that the latter syllables had to be weakened, be drawn together or cut off. This way, Zacharias was reduced to Zach. (A second possibility of adaptation would be to leave the stress on the syllable but then to cut away the preceding syllables, resulting in the names Ries, Reis and Reisch that therefore derived from Zacharias, too). [Schröder] even mentions the reducing from Zacharias to Zacher. By the way: the first known man with the name Zacher lived 1428 in Aken (Saxonia) [Kohlheim].

From Zach to Zacherle

Where are we now? We have seen that the name Zacher came from Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist. And how do we continue from now on? There are two ways:

1. Zacherl is the bavarian-austrian form of Zacher [Brechenmacher2]. Someone sometimes added the suffix -l which was common in east Bavaria.

2. The suffix -le is the diminutive suffix used in Swabia, an area covering roughly south west of Bavaria and south east of Baden-Württemberg nowadays. The line separating the "high German language" area from the "central German language" is called the "Speyerer Linie" or "Mainlinie". Only south of this line, the diminutive suffix "-lein" and its variations are used: "-la" in Upper Franconia and Silesia, "-li" in Switzerland, "-el" is used in "Old Bavaria" and in Alsace (France), while the "-le" is used in Swabia, Central Franconia and Lower Franconia.

The suffix -le is so common there even nowadays that every german person thinks of that area while hearing a word with -le. This suffix was used to form a pet name, to say that something is nice or small. I guess that the most propable solution is to assume that a man called Zacher, Zacherl or Zacharias had at least two sons, and to distinguish between them people referred to one of those as the smaller (=younger?) one. [Udolph]. It can easily be assumed that the metamorphosis from Zacher to Zacherle could have happened there.

The hair in the soup

The derivation from Zacharias to Zacherle seems to be the most popular one. Unfortunately, you have to take that with a grain of salt. [Udolph] tells us that if a name is geographically concentrated, it is obvious that the origin of this name lies in the dialect used there. And yes, the name Zacherle is geographically concentrated. I have reached the point where I can say that 95 percent of the Zacherle living in germany at this time have their origin in a single village (still working on the last 5 percent). There are older traces of that name but I don't know if/how they are related to me.

The City of Zach

[Schröder] lets us know that names with the ending -er were very uncommon in northern germany but very common in southern germany where they meant "coming from" (just like "The New Yorker" ). Zacher could therefore be related with the city Zach - and yes, this city exists, as [Naumann] tells us. Zacher could mean "The guy who came from Zach". There is also a city called "Zachariä" in pomerania that takes us to the name Czacheris [Brechenmacher1] that is demonstrable in Görlitz in 1459 (Mattis Czacheris)

I heard it from the Grapevine

When I was speaking to a eastern bavarian girl in 1989 she told me that she had the byname Zacherle. Bynames seem to be a speciality in parts of bavaria. They are not authorized by national bureaucracy and therefore are not mentioned in any official document. She told me that the name Zacherle comes from the bavarian slang, where " D'Sache" sound like "Zache" and stand for "Die Sachen" a la "the things". The man called Zacherle would therefore be the one responsible for the village goods like tools. My ancestor, a local material guard?

The Persevering Meaning

[Brechenmacher1], [Kohlheim] and [Naumann] mention that the name Zach could also come from the Middle High German word Zach that means a "person with stamina" or a persevering person. [Brechenmacher1] even states that this possibility is more probable than the one deriving Zach and Zacher from Zacharias! In [Brechenmacher2] the same author tells us that the pronunciation of this word survived pretty good in southeast germany, where the origin of this word lies (and where the origin of my family seems to be according to my family tree!)

To investigate the meaning of the word Zach, please see the online version of "Deutsches Wörterbuch" by the brothers' Grimm (really!).

The Weaver Thing

The second meaning of the Middle High German word Zach is "woollen things", so that Zacher or Zachner would be the man either making or dealing with woolen things.

In the Middle of It All

Two is not enough? Yes, there's a third meaning of the Middle High German word Zach(e): "wick" (i.e. of a candle). In that case my Greatgreatgreat...father was making candles or dealing with them.

To investigate the meaning of the word Zache, please see the online version of "Deutsches Wörterbuch".

Down south: Austria

According to an online dictionary Austrian-German [Ostarrichi.org] Zacherle is derived from an outdated term "Zähre" for a tear. This term was used in former standard Austrian language.

Introducing Umlauts

Introducing Umlauts into our thoughts, the "Raitzettel der Allerheiligenkapelle" (receipt book of the "Chapel of All Saints' Days") of the city of Hall in Tyrolia that is referenced in [Hall] refers to the building of the sacristy (which is called "Zächer") in the tower of the chapel. This tower was built in 1345.

Perhaps it's not by accident that the oldest reference to the Zacherle family is from this same little town? There have been Zacherle in Hall in Tyrolia for at least 400 years - and perhaps our name points to the sexton of this church? Through the centuries, members of the family were recorded sometimes as Zacherle and sometimes as Zächerle, switching back and forth between these two names. Priests, who were usually the only people who could read and write, wrote down the names as they heard them (and how they thought they should be written), so every time a name was noted its spelling could vary.

The Gothic Origin

According to [Förstemann1] the name Zacher could be of gothic origin, coming from the gothic word "tahjan". [Heintze] tells us the same, specifying that tahjan means "rip" or "to shake together".

Another hebrew possibility

In [Menk], the author describes Zacherle as a name that was also used by german jews who lived in Mönchsroth near Nuremberg after 1813 but who came from Oettingen originally. The name could derive from the given name "Sakher", a hypocoristic form of "Is'sakhar", meaning bear.

Zacco - or not?

There is also the faint possibility that Zacherle derived from the old high german word "Zacco" [Pott] that has an unknown meaning and was also spelled Zacho or Zaccho in 8th century [Cascorbi]. The same idea is used by [Brechenmacher2] who states that an old german name must be part of the game here. How else could we see the shift from "vir nobilis Zaccho" in 1100 to "Wernher Zacherlin" in 1238? Wernher is a medieval noble title that is well known since Wernher von Braun, the man who built the first rockets for germany in the 1930s and 1940s and was later working for the Apollo missions of the NASA.

On the other hand, [Förstemann2] states that the name of the City "Zachenberg" (District of Viechtach, Bavaria) comes from the word Dag where first the initial sound was intensified to lead to Tag, then in high german language it was moved to Zach, but that the Name Zacher would not come from Dag but from Zacharias.

Slavic Ancestry?

[Brechenmacher2] mentions that in eastern germany slavic words were blending in: in 1409 Johannes Zcach lived in Breslau, and only two years later Friedel Zach demonstrably lived in Mehring in Bavaria.

Tough men and women. A spectacular view in the Alps, a steep path, and centuries of tradition.

The last possibility that I found to possibly reveal where our name originates from takes action in the Italian Alps. You can find the story here.

Literature used:

[Brechenmacher1] Brechenmacher, Josef Karlmann: "Deutsche Sippennamen" 1936, Verlag für Sippenforschung und Wappenkunde C. A. Starke, Görlitz

[Brechenmacher2] Brechenmacher, Josef Karlmann: "Etymologisches Wörterbuch der Deutschen Familiennamen" 2. Auflage der "Deutschen Sippennamen", 1963, C. A. Starke Verlag, Limburg

[Cascorbi] Cascorbi, Paul: "Die Deutschen Familiennamen, geschichtlich, geographisch, sprachlich", 7. Auflage, 1933, Buchhandlung des Waisenhauses G.m.b.H., Halle/S.; Berlin

[Förstemann1] Förstemann, Ernst: "Altdeutsches Familiennamenbuch", Band I, 2. Auflage, 1966, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, München

[Förstemann2] Förstemann, Ernst: "Altdeutsche Personennamen, Ergänzungsband", 1968, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, München

[Hall] Stadtgemeinde Hall in Tirol: "Hall in Tirol" 2. aktualisierte Auflage 1996, Innsbruck

[Heintze] Heintze, Albert: "Die deutschen Familiennamen - geschichtlich, geographisch, sprachlich", 1903, Verlag der Buchhandlung des Waisenhauses, Halle a. S.

[Kohlheim] Kohlheim, Rosa: "Duden, Familiennamen: Herkunft und Bedeutung", 2. Auflage, 2005, Dudenverlag, Mannheim; Leipzig; Wien; Zürich

[Kunze1] Kunze, Konrad: "dtv-Atlas Namenkunde: Vor- und Familiennamen im deutschen Sprachgebiet", 4. Auflage, 2003, Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, München

[Kunze2] Kunze, Konrad; Nübling, Damaris: "Deutscher Familiennamenatlas", Band 2, 2010, De Gruyter, Oldenbourg

[Linnartz1] Linnartz, Kaspar: "Unsere Familiennamen", Band I, 3. Auflage, 1958, Ferdinand Dümmlers Verlag, Bonn

[Linnartz1] Linnartz, Kaspar: "Unsere Familiennamen", Band I, 3. Auflage, 1958, Ferdinand Dümmlers Verlag, Bonn

[Linnartz2] Linnartz, Kaspar: "Unsere Familiennamen", Band II, 3. Auflage, 1958, Ferdinand Dümmlers Verlag, Bonn

[Menk] Menk, Lars: "A Dictionary of German-Jewish Surnames", Avotaynu, Bilingual edition, May 30, 2005

[Naumann] Naumann, Horst: "Familiennamenbuch", 1. Auflage, 1987, Bibliographisches Institut, Leipzig

[Ostarrichi.org] Koschutnig: Entry to the online dictionary Austrian-German (http://www.ostarrichi.org/wort-17562-at-Zacherle%2C+Zachern.html), accessed on Dec. 12, 2010

[Pott] Pott, August Friedrich: "Die Personennamen, insbesondere die Familiennamen und ihre Entstehungsarten", 2. Auflage, 1968, Dr. Martin Sändig oHG. Verlag, Wiesbaden

[Schröder] Schröder, Edward: "Deutsche Namenkunde", 2. Auflage, 1944, Verlag Dandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen

[Udolph] Udolph, Jürgen / Fitzek, Sebastian: "Professor Udolphs Buch der Namen", 1. Auflage, 2005, Bertelsmann Verlag, München