The Stauffer Name*

* Like many family names, there are myriad spellings. Stauffer, Stouffer, & Stover are the chief spellings found in the US and Canada.


Stauffer Names Worldwide

  • Based on data collected from phone directories and voter registration, 2005-2006, by University College London. I extrapolated using 2012 population data to account for children and adults not appearing in the directories and voter roles.
  • Stauffers include "Staufer"; Stouffers include "Stoufer."


As near as I can tell, there are generally three theories about the origins of the Stauffer name. Here they are in descending order of glamorous appeal:
  1. That the Stauffers are the diaspora of the once-mighty House of Hohenstaufen. Uh huh. Actually, I believed this one when I was a kid. It's cool to think that you're descended from the emperor Fred Redbeard, but that's just wholly unfounded fantasy. The male line of that family died out in the 13th century (a not uncommon fate for many families of the medieval warrior class). And besides, the Swiss Stauffer name (where the vast majority of us came from, via Germany to the US) predates the Hohenstaufens and the Hohenstaufen name by at least 2 centuries. (Sorry, Stauffers. I know this is a cherished family myth for many of you, but it's just not true. It's difficult to see how it could even be possible.) 
  2. That a "staufer" was a cup-bearer (court official) to the king or some other medieval big shot. Hence the cup centerpiece in the commercially marketed coat of arms above. Cup-bearer was a title of nobility and, in the German-speaking world, preceded any other title of nobility one might have. For example, a king or prince's cup-bearer might be a count (Graf). His title would then be Schenk Graf von Yuckamuck (Cup-bearer, Count of Yuckamuck).
  3. That a "staufer" was someone who lived on a stauf or staufen, which was a steep hill or mountain. Hence the hill underneath the cup centerpiece in the commercially marketed coat of arms above.
I’ve since stumbled onto a fourth theory—that a Stauffer was someone who made cups for a living—but I’m going to skip that one until I find some historical support for such a vocation. That is, I can’t find anything to suggest that any European (or otherwise) culture even boasted such an obscure specialty, i.e., someone who made strictly cups. Cups were made by specialists in certain materials — goldsmith, silversmith, glazier, potter, wood carver, etc. If anyone has any solid information on this, I'd be grateful to hear from you.

Theories 2 and 3 derive from the fact that there existed an old Germanic (technically, Middle High German) term stouf, which was used to mean both "cup" and "a steep hill or mountain." Some genealogical enthusiasts suggest that the hill stouf derived from the cup stouf because the hills had conical (i.e., upside-down-cup) shapes.

I'd like to suggest otherwise. They both became stoufs* because they have steep walls.

* I go back and forth between the spellings stouf and stauf. Stauf comports with the more modern "standard" German spelling.

From the Wörterbuch der Indogermanischen Sprachen, Dritter Teil: Wortschatz der Germanischen Spracheinheit, a German etymological (i.e., word-history) dictionary, here is the (ancient) Proto-German word for "steep", p. 330:
  • staupa - steil. ags. ste´ap hoch, emporragend (engl. steep steil), afries. staˆp hoch; mhd. stief steil, stouf, hochragende Klippe (vgl. Hohenstaufen).
Yes, it's in German. But you can see the "engl. steep" reference (English "steep") and the Middle High German word stouf appearing along the way ("mhd." = "mittelhochdeutsch" = "Middle High German"). Finally, there is a reference to a "hochragende Klippe" or "towering cliff." Then you see Hohenstaufen mountain offered as an example of a towering stouf.*
Now look at the same word (the very next entry, as a matter of fact) as it refers to a cup (p. 331):**  
  • staupa - Vertiefung, Becher (mit steilen Wänden). an. staup n. Vertiefung in einem Wege (nnorw. stopp, stoppa in ders. Bedeutung, staupa tiefe Spur), später auch Becher (diese Bedeutung aus dem. Ags.?); ags. ste´ap m. Becher, mnd. stoˆp m. Becher, ein bestimmtes Maß; ahd. mhd. stouf m. Becher. Verwandt sind ags. stoppa Gefäß, Eimer (vgl. nnorw. stopp, stoppa Vertiefung) und mhd. stubech, stübich Faß, ein bestimmtes Maß, nhd. Stübchen. Vgl. lett, staupe Pferdefußstapfen (= nnorw. staupa). (497:2)
As you can see (if you can read German), this use of the word staupa comes from the idea of a deep basin or depression (Vertiefung), especially, it seems, a rut (in einem Wege, tiefe Spur), with steep walls (mit steilen Wänden). Extension of the word to mean a cup (Becher) came later ("später auch Becher" = "later also cup").*** Again, it comes from this idea of a deep depression with steep walls. So it appears that the common denominator is the item's steep sides.

*  Peering down the old etymological trail, I wonder if staupa derives from or is at least related to the Sanskrit word stupa (literally "crown of the head"), which refers to a mound, slope, crest, mound-shaped monument, etc.
*** Typically, as these things go, the natural phenomenon got the name first, then we applied the name to man-made objects (like straw and pipe). So it's fairly certain that staupa as applied to a mountain and its inverse, a natural basin, came first, then we started calling a cup staupa based on its resemblance to the basin (depression) called staupa.

I think the big killer for Theory 2 is that we know the Old (500-1050 AD), Middle (1050-1350 AD), and Early New High German (1350 - 1650 AD) words for the title of "Cup-bearer to the Big Shot," and it wasn't staufer or anything based on stouf. It was skenko in Old High German (Köbler, Gerhard, Neuenglisch-althochdeutsches Wörterbuch, 2006, p. 104) and Schenke in Middle and Early New High German. It's Mundschenk in today's parlance.

Our Proto-Germanic dictionary (on the top of p. 301) refers to "cup-bearer" (Mundschenk) in the etymology of the Proto-Germanic word skanka. Skanka seems to be the forbear of the words meaning "to pour" (einschenken) and "to give" (schenken), which, etymologically speaking, is an act of pouring out.

So it seems to me unlikely that the Middle High German word stouf as applied to a cup ever rolled into an official title for cup-bearer. You just don't find anyone in that position ever called a stoufer or staufer or anything with stouf in it.

For example, have a peek at Luther's bible. The cup-bearers in Genesis 40:1, 1 Kings 10:5, 2 Chronicles 9:4
, and Nehemiah 1:11 are called Schenke.

Also notice the family-name origin of the noble house of (von) Stauffenberg. The full name is Schenken von Stauffenberg. (You know the guy with the eye-patch who tried to kill Hitler? His family.) They got their name from the medieval forefather who served as the cup-bearer (Schenke, or just "Schenk" as customarily spelled in these family names today) for the Hohenzollerns. The von Stauffenberg part came from the mountain (berg) Stauffenberg just outside of Hechingen, Germany. (There are other mountains called Stauffenberg.) The vocation part of the family name is Schenk. The location part is von Stauffenberg ("from Stauffenberg"). In fact Schenk von Stauffenberg is the last of half a dozen or so names that family tried out. Each name they used all started with "Schenk von" (e.g., the first one they tried, Schenk von Zell). That is, despite the different names, they each began with "Cup-bearer from/of..."

And check the heraldry registration roles. They're packed with Schenk von Something-or-Others. So the Schenken (plural) von Stauffenberg are not an isolated case. (Grueneberg's lists 35 families. This Wikipedia article on Schenk [and Erbschenk] lists many more.)

Another case in point: Look at the Hohenstaufen link under Theory 1 above. The folks maintaining that site call the family Stauferspeople who took their name from the high (hohen) staufen where they lived. It's certainly not because they were cup-bearers. They were dukes, kings, and emperors.

This is not to say that stouf didn't survive as a word for cup. The term is found in the Grimm Brothers' (19th-century) dictionary of the German language as stauf. They also list other cup words such as staufglas (glass), staufbier (beer), staufwein (wine), and stäuflein and stäufchen (little cups).

Their entry for staufer, however, points to the second entry for stauf (stauf II), which means a "spitzer, kegelförmiger berg" (i.e., a pointed, cone-shaped mountain). So for the Brothers Grimm, a staufer was understood to be someone from a stauf.

So my money's on Theory 3. 

Regardless of its word history (i.e., even if its name had derived from its cup shape), a stauf is a steep hill or mountain. And the inhabitants of at least some of those staufs became known as Staufers.

So that, I'm sure, is where our Swiss-farmer forbears got their surname. They were the inhabitants of a stauf.

I know it's not as glamorous as having noble, royal, or even imperial ancestors, but I'm very grateful to the Swiss Mennonite farmers who eventually made their way to the U.S. so that I could get four college degrees and sit around and bicker online about where their name came from. I couldn't be prouder of them if they'd been crown polishers to the Holy Roman emperor himself.