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I'm curious: What does godfather (or uncle) Droßelmeier surname mean in Nussknacker und Mausekönig?

I found some translations of Droßel: 'Song thrush' (bird). It is also 'electromagnetic choke' (why?), and I also saw the meaning 'throat' (choke may be from it as a 'regulator'). I did not find what does -meier (-meyer) mean. It looks like a traditional surname.

I suppose that there can't be any exact translation, because it is a surname. So what do native German speakers 'hear' in this word?

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    While some names like "Schuster", "Schleicher" or even "Schweinsteiger" elicit the mental image of the actual profession, "Droßelmeier" or "Drosselmeier" is just a meaningless name to my native ears.
    – AndreKR
    Sep 16, 2022 at 0:36
  • So it doesn't even sound like a magical, impossible profession to you? According to the form of the word.
    – Alexander
    Sep 16, 2022 at 7:39
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    I see exactly what you mean, for some names in a story it makes sense to translate them to keep the connotations, but Drosselmeier is not one of them. I do work with electronics and cars and still no, mainly because the word "meier" has no meaning (anymore). If it was Drosselmacher or Drosselsteller or something like that, yes, but Drosselmeier no.
    – AndreKR
    Sep 16, 2022 at 18:00
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    And just to be sure, 'meier' had no meaning in 1816 already?
    – Alexander
    Sep 16, 2022 at 19:04
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    @PaulFrost: Ich empfehle die woerterbuchnetz.de Wörterbuchnetzsammlung, um solche Aussagen zu prüfen. a) findet man dort "übertragen. mdal. abwertend für eine weibliche person hinsichtlich ihrer geschwätzigkeit, ihres moralischen lebenswandels oder ihrer unattraktiven erscheinung." b) Gedrosselt hat man auch mechanisch, sicher zurück in die Bronzezeit (Wasserzufluss drosseln), siehe auch erdrosseln. Jan 2 at 10:28

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As mentioned in other answers, Meier and its variations is a very common name. It is as ordinary as names like Smith or Farmer or Taylor in English, not unusual at all as the name of a real person or literary character.

There are many compound surnames with this element, again with spelling variations, such as Niedermayer, Grönemeyer, Lohmeier, Bergmeier, Griessmeier, Altmeyer, and so on. These are often descriptive of the specific nature of the old family farm, such as Birkemeier perhaps from Birke, a birch tree, and my other examples are mainly of this kind, saying if the land is low down, grassy, forested, mountainous, etc. Sometimes, as in Kastenmeier or Kirchmeier the sense is of an administrator of a granary, of church property, and so on.

Again, most of these are quite prosaic as names, even if they are not individually very common. It is comparable to something like English Wright and derivatives like Cartwright or Wainwright, which are perfectly normal names. There are more compounds of this kind in German than in English, but they are basically unremarkable.

I find Droßelmeier to be a little more poetic, just because Droßel- has a more unusual and evocative meaning than most compounds of this type. There are some other bird-type surnames, such as Elstermeier (magpie), Gansmeier (goose), Vogelmeier (a generic bird!), but they are overall rare compared to ones like Neumeier. And I think something like Gansmeier is readily parsable as someone who would look after the geese, a regular rural sort of job. Looking after the song-thrushes is less so, and the overall name is slightly more suggestive of 'romantic' or 'magical' elements, in the context of the character. It is not as otherworldly as something like Zaubermeier, which to me sounds like definitely the name of a magician and not a real person.

English has surnames like Sparrow, Nightingale, Quail, Hawk, which are existing surnames of real people, but which also gain some resonance when used for a fictional character like Jack Sparrow. I would say Drosselmeier is a little like this. If your dentist introduced herself with that name, you would consider it an 'acceptable' but rare sort of name. When it is your magical godfather, the name seems more evocative.

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  • Thank you for this answer. Along with others it brings me significantly to the understanding not only the two parts of the word but the whole word and its 'feeling', the impression of it.
    – Alexander
    Sep 15, 2022 at 17:32
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    (+1) To the list of compound family names formed with -meier one could add Lütkemeier and Grotemeier (literally, "Little Meier" and "Big Meier") which can be found in the region of Westphalia.
    – njuffa
    Sep 16, 2022 at 0:28
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Droßel

I'm not sure when the spelling »Droßel« was correct. I guess this must have been before 1876, this is the year in which German spelling was unified for the very first time. Since then the spelling »Drossel« is correct. But the old spelling is conserved in many names.

Drossel is:

  • The name of a bird: Song thrush in English.
  • The German hunting term for the trachea of hoofed game (deers and boars)
  • The German word for throttle and choke

There also is the German verb drosseln which originally meant to lace up the throat, but this meaning is outdated. But still there is jemanden erdrosseln = to throttle/strangle someone. Now drosseln means to reduce the flow (of air, water or any other fluid). This verb is derived from the hunting term, and the German name for throttle is derived from this verb.

The family names »Drossel« and »Droßel« refer to the name of the bird.

Meier

This name exists in many different spellings. The word derives from latin maior (from which also the English word mayor derives) which mean caretaker/manager/trustee. Meier was the name of a profession: This was the manager of an estate or manor.


Droßelmeier

In the comments someone asked what the combination Droßelmeier means. Well, I don't know. I only can guess, because it is a compound noun, and there are many different possibilities what a compound noun can mean.

  1. One possibility is, that there was a farm where they breeded song thrushes. Songbirds used to be roasted and eaten, so maybe they also were bred, I don't know. And then you could call the manager of that farm the Droßelmeier.

  2. Maybe there was a estate manager who loved song thrushes. He had some aviaries and he loved to watch the birds and to listen to them. So the people called him the Droßelmeier.

  3. Maybe the estate manager was a hunter who loved to hunt deers and boars, and fore some reason he was obsessed by the throats of these animals. Maybe he used to cut them through as soon as he shoot a deer or boar. And for this reason people called him Droßelmeier.

  4. Maybe the estate manager was a serial killer. He strangled the gardener, the owner of the estate, the owners wife, his own wife and two of the maidens. So people called him the Droßelmeier.

  5. Maybe there was an estate named Droßelgut ("Gut" is the German word for manor or estate.) And therefore the manager of that estate was named Droßelmeier. - But now we must guess why the estate got this name.

  6. Maybe not the estate itself, but it's owner had the name Droßel (and again we have to guess why), and his employee was called Droßelmeier.

There are many more possibilities what the compound noun Droßelmeier might mean. I bet you can come up with some additional possibilities.


Joke about meanings of composite nouns:

Papa, was ist ein Rindsschitzel?
Das ist ein Schnitzel, das man aus dem Fleisch eines Rindes gemacht hat.
Und was ist ein Schweinsschnitzel?
Das ist ein Schnitzel aus Schweinefleisch.
Und ein Putenschnitzel?
Na, das weist du jetzt aber selber, oder?
Ein Schnitzel aus Putenfleisch?
Ja, genau. Bravo! Kluges Kind!
Und ein Kalbsschnitzel ist ein Schnitzel aus Kalbfleisch?
Sehr gut, jetzt hast du's verstanden!

Du, Papa?
Ja?
Ich mag mein Kinderschnitzel nicht mehr.

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    Sooo what is the meaning of the Droßelmeier name, then? "Song thrush Caretaker"? "Mayor Strangler"?
    – walen
    Sep 15, 2022 at 8:18
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    Yeah, maybe Hubert can provide another section where he brings the two parts together in his interpretation. My personal interpretation would be that it used to be the caretaker of the estate of the Drossel family. With "the" Drossel family being a notable family wherever the name was minted. The role was very important, because it was often trusted with managing stock and money of the estate, so the person would be widely known among trades and traders in the region the estate was situated in. Sep 15, 2022 at 8:52
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    Specifying which Meier was meant, would help to distinguish which of the several Meiers a trader would do business with you'd talk about. "Drossel's Meier said he'll be back in a week, so make sure to have the goods ready by then." - that would then just be compressed to one word and stick with the person and their family: "Have you heard? Drosselmeier's son was born last Sunday, he's called Frank" --> Frank Drosselmeier Sep 15, 2022 at 8:58
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    A good answer would need to take into account the context. At the core, this is a question about interpretation of a piece of literature. The etymological analysis is just a necessary part, but much more needs to be done. Just to give you an idea of what I mean, some of the hermeneutic questions coming up: What phonetic associations does the name give raise to? Were there important persons of the time which the readers could see being referenced with that name? What role does naming play in the opus of the author in general?
    – Jonathan Herrera
    Sep 16, 2022 at 9:30
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The name is unusual and somewhat quirky. It evokes the name of König Drosselbart in the eponymous Grimm's fairy tale of a king with a bearded throat, but it ends with the very common last name "-meier", causing an almost comical juxtaposition.

An alternative interpretation, considering E. T. A. Hoffman's biography, comes from the meaning of Drossel: It is the English throat (the two are indeed cognates). Drosseln means to throttle, and erdrosseln means to suffocate (which explains your choking coil). As explained below, Hoffman may have felt held back or even choked in his day job as a lawyer. Droßelmeier could hint at being "throttled", preventing him from escaping an unremarkable life. Even though a "Meier" was originally a major it is today one of the most common and unremarkable German family names.

In any case: The name is a bit quirky. I suppose it is the combination of being subtly unusual and subtly funny which made it a good choice for the character of the godfather with his hobby of building mechanical toys. That hobby, in a sense, is also a juxtaposition because its base is the technical, sedate and boring profession of watchmaking; but Mr. Droßelmeier infuses his craft with fantasy and a certain, I assume, playfulness and builds exciting mechanical toys. He is also a good storyteller, a bit unexpected for his boring day job.

As I said above, perhaps E. T. A. Hoffmann's own situation informed the Droßelmeier character. Hoffman was apparently not entirely happy with his own day job as a lawyer, a mechanistic job much like a watchmaker. Especially for a man gifted with the fantasy and talent of Hoffman that day job must have been a source of frustration, and his compensation, his way out, was the storytelling where he could reveal his true self and transcend the mundane "reality", just like his character, Droßelmeier.

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Centuries ago, a Meier used to be the manager for an estate owned by a secular or clerical nobleman. The term originated from the Latin word "maior", which you maybe know from terms like "major domus". In later centuries, the term was used for a tenant who rented a piece of land to farm on it, or for an independent farmer in general.

There's quite a list of alternative spellings for "Meier", like "Meyer", "Maier", "Mayer", or even "Majer", "Mehre" or "Mager". Depending on the region, there also could be other terms for the position of a "Meier", like "Vogt", "Amtmann", "Hofmann", "Schultheiß" etc.

Many of those terms and many of the spelling variations have become surnames. But I doubt that most native German speakers are aware of the background, they probably just think of the very common last name(s). According to Wikipedia, if you add up all the different spellings of "Meier", it would be the second most common surname.

A Meierei or Molkerei can also also mean a dairy (as in milk products), but that's to my knowledge not related to the surname(s).

As you already found out, a "Drossel" could mean a family of birds, including the song thrush, or any device that would "drosseln" (throttle, restrict, curtail, curb) something. In an Otto engine, which is the basis of many modern car engines (in the area of internal combustion engines, that is), for example you'll find a "Drosselklappe" or throttle.

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  • Are you sure "Schultheiß" refers to the same role as "Meier"? I always thought, "Schultheiß", (and "Schulze") rather refer to the mayor of a small village or town.
    – Jonathan Herrera
    Sep 15, 2022 at 14:55
  • @JonathanScholbach The German Wikipedia article on "Meier" says "Für den Meier gab es eine Vielzahl regional und zeitlich unterschiedlicher Bezeichnungen wie z. B. (...) Schultheiß (...)". There are probably differences in the details, depending on which area and/or time period we're talking about. Sep 15, 2022 at 15:22
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    Thanks for the reference. My idea was based on two clues only: First, the meaning of the word Dorfschulze being "chief of a town". Second, the latinisation of the name of Michael Praetorius, originally Schultze. As latin praetorius means "principal, provost", that was adding to my impression. And now I just found the wikipedia article on Schultheiß, which also seems to back my theory: wikiwand.com/de/Schulthei%C3%9F It feels to me, as if the article on Meier was a little inaccurate. But I can't really say.
    – Jonathan Herrera
    Sep 15, 2022 at 18:37
  • A good answer would need to take into account the context. At the core, this is a question about interpretation of a piece of literature. The etymological analysis is just a necessary part, but much more needs to be done. Just to give you an idea of what I mean, some of the hermeneutic questions coming up: What phonetic associations does the name give raise to? Where there important persons of the time which the readers could see being referenced with that name? What role does naming play in the opus of the author in general?
    – Jonathan Herrera
    Sep 16, 2022 at 9:31
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According to Wiktionary, Drossel the songbird and Drossel the auto part have different etymologies. The first is cognate to "thrush" and the second is cognate to "throat" and "throttle". Wikipedia lists a Heinz Drossel, a figure in the Resistance in WWII. I gather names coming from birds is not unusual in German, for example Storch and Strauss.

To me the name Meier is associated with Sid Meier, who's name is included in several video games including the Civilization series. The other answers mention the meaning, but Wiktionary also lists Schlaumeier = "smart aleck".

One thing to keep in mind is that while many German names have meanings in German, just as many English names have meanings in English, it's not always the case. Even if the name did have a meaning once, it may be lost or obsolete in the modern language. An example in English is Wainwright = wain + wright. A "wain" is a kind of rustic cart, but the word today may be best known for the Constable painting The Hay Wain. A wright is someone who builds things, and since professions were often the source of surnames, many of them have "wright" included. Though Wainwright is a fairly common English name, I suspect that many of the people with that name don't know its origin. Another factor with German is that at the time surnames were being decided, German was not so much a language as a family of related languages. So you have to allow for regional variations in spelling and meaning. A third thing to keep in mind is that people in Europe have migrated a lot over the centuries, so you'll find German names all over and non-German names in German speaking countries. For example the Bernoulli family was not Italian as you might expect, but from Basel in the German speaking part of Switzerland. So while figuring out the meaning of German names can be interesting, it can also involve a lot of difficult research which may not lead to a satisfactory answer in the end.

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  • A good answer would need to take into account the context. At the core, this is a question about interpretation of a piece of literature. The etymological analysis is just a necessary part, but much more needs to be done. Just to give you an idea of what I mean, some of the hermeneutic questions coming up: What phonetic associations does the name give raise to? Were there important persons of the time which the readers could see being referenced with that name? What role does naming play in the opus of the author in general?
    – Jonathan Herrera
    Sep 16, 2022 at 9:31

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