The Meaning of Bier

I’ve mentioned my correspondence with Stephan Bier, a former Ketzelsdorfer who now lives in Berlin.  He publishes on the history of the area and has been someone with whom I’ve been lucky enough to correspond.  Before the family trip to the homeland, one question that I hoped to have answered was, “where does the name Bier come from?”  Many from this side of the pond have suggested, joking only to a degree, that a predilection for the beverage may have something to do with it.  Indeed, even when the family was newly arrived and largely destitute, their small gatherings always included a small keg, in addition to music and card games.  These activities are still cherished by the Valentine Bier progeny to an almost universal degree, as far as I can tell.  In fact, the eventual homestead now boasts what is essentially a small private club in what used to be the pig barn, known as “Bob’s Man Cave.”  The Biers, they love their beers.

So at the risk of upsetting the familial apple cart, I proceed.  Once again, I owe thanks to John McSweeny for translating the following from Stephan’s February message:

You asked me where the name Bier comes from.   I confess that I asked myself the same question for quite awhile.  My parents (ordinary people) also did not know the answer, just as they could not explain how we had come to the Bohemian-Moravian highlands so long ago. [However], these puzzles were already solved by clever people before me.  In the book “Ketzelsdorf: A place of pilgrimage in Schönhengstgau“ by Otmar Embert (a teacher in Ketzelsdorf), Franz-Sales-Press, Eichstätt and Vienna, 1984, there are some explanations. (To be specific) there are some explanations of the names on pages 192-194. This book primarily concerns the old Ketzelsdorf residents and is only available in a small edition.

In anticipation of the question of those more scholarly than myself, this book is out of print and I can find no obvious source of a copy in my online searches.  I’d be happen to be proven otherwise to any potential sleuths.  Fortunately, Stephan transcribed the portions of mutual interest:

Origin and Meaning of Some Ketzelsdorfer Family Names

Old German names: In pre-Christian times, the Germans took a single name which was closely related to (the everyday life) of the old Germanic culture and which originally was taken exclusively from the German vocabulary. These ancient names continue to exist in many current family names. However, in the course of centuries most (of the names) have become transformed such they are difficult to recognize. For example, the current family names come (from):  

Here follows a list of such old-Germanic derived names until we come to . . .

Baar, Behr, Bier = Bear (Considered by the (old) Germans to be the king of the forest).

I mean, what else is there to say?  Our Biers, the ones who left from Ketzelsdorf, historically acquired their surname from the king of the forest.  Hopefully, this highfalutin’ derivation will provide some solace to those who will part with their stein only reluctantly.

Stephan goes on to include some information on the arrival of the Biers to their neighborhood of Ketzelsdorf and neighboring Schönhengstgau towns:

Baar – Bier. The earliest bearer of the name Baar is Gierg Par, who appears in Schöffe in 1532.  The name Bier does not appear in the early days of the city (of Ketzelsdorf) but we do find a Merten Bier in 1600 in Hemersdorf.  The [eventual] strong distribution of the two names Baar and Bier in neighboring Ketzelsdorf, which was already a part of Bohemia, is striking.

Are there Biers roaming about whose name DOES derive from the beverage to some degree?  ancestry.com would seem to suggest so, explaining that the origins of the surname Bier are several, including:

“German and Jewish (Ashkenazic): from Middle High German bier ‘beer’, German Bier, Yiddish bir, a metonymic occupational name for a brewer of beer or a tavern owner, or in some cases perhaps a nickname for a beer drinker. South German: from the short form of a personal name formed with Old High German bero ‘bear’. Northern English and Scottish: variant of Byers.”

A colleauge of John McSweeny’s at the University of Toledo reviewed the evidence, and seems to agree.  According to Dr. Bernhard Sulzer

It seems to me that the name “Bier” as it is used today and has been used earlier has at least two roots, either from bier (beer) as in the drink or from bero (bear) which, according to a site I found, was derived from the Old High German word bero for “bear” and used especially in Southern Germany and quite likely, in the parts that were once the Sudetenland.

 

So, my dears, the bear didn’t turn into the drink.  Rather, Bier seems to have come to us via two historic paths: one originating from the drink and one from the animal.  Maybe you will be slightly disappointed, but I know one person who will not be:  my brother Pete, who sports a tattoo of a bear on his back.  It is of a size that he once told me that the head is “about the size of a melon.”

 

bear by david creighton-pester

From Pinterest, by David Creighton-Pester

4 thoughts on “The Meaning of Bier

  1. Richard R. Bier says:

    Very interesting entry on the origin of the Bier name. Thanks very much to John for aiding in the translations. The mention of Jewish Ashkenazic struck me. I submitted my DNA to one of these sites advertised on TV. One of my nieces did as well to a different site. Results for both stated 2% Jewish Ashennazic. I know DNA can get complicated, but it was noteworthy. I have come into contact with a handful of Biers outside southern Wisconsin. All have either been Catholic or Jewish. I not sure there is any significance to this, but I thought I’d add it to the discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As you may know the Ashkenazim are German Jews having originally settled in Western Germany in the middle ages. Certainly some intermarriage, as well as extramarital exchange of genetic material, took place over the centuries so it would not be unusual to have some Ashkenazic ancestry as well if your ancestry is German.

      Like

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