Geier (surname)

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Geier is a German word for a vulture. Geier is also a notable surname and less frequently is seen as a place name.

Usages and meanings of geier[edit]

The disputed etymological origins of the word geier have confounded ornithological usage of the term in poetry, literature, biblical scholarship, and English-language dictionary and encyclopedia entries, while spawning several literary and philological misunderstandings and controversies. The surname Geier also has different and somewhat inconsistent origins, traditions and meanings, and the heraldry associated with the surname likewise is confused.

Ornithological meanings of "geier"[edit]

The modern German term geier is generally recognized as referring to two distinct families of carrion-eating bird whose range includes the whole of Europe and the western part of Asia. Geier refers both to birds from the subfamily Old World vulture (Aegypiinae) and the family New World vulture (Cathartidae).

In English usage, the word geier has been associated with both the gyrfalcon and the lammergeier although neither is synonymous with “geier”. For example, "gyrfalcon" is thought to come from French gerfaucon, which is written in mediaeval Latin as gyrofalco, but the first part of the word also is said to come from Old High German gîr (now geier), as in "vulture".[1] The modifier, "gyr", “gier” or "geier" preceding the word "falcon" is now thought to be a reference to the large size of the bird rather than to its genus or family,[2] but it has not always been so regarded.

Earlier inaccurate and misleading conflations of these disparate terms resulted from reliance on imprecise biblical translations and metaphorical impressions rather than on direct anatomical or behavioral observations of the bird species themselves. In the King James Version of the Bible, in Leviticus xi, 13; Deuteronomy xiv, 17), the term "gyrfalcon" referred to an unclean bird, most likely an Egyptian vulture, rather than to the modern gyrfalcon, and did not refer to a falcon or an eagle. These biblical references to "gyrfalcon" (or sometimes "gierfalcon") probably were a misinterpretation of a Hebrew term more properly translated either as Egyptian vulture or lammergeier, the latter also known as the "lamb-vulture" or the "bone-breaker vulture", or historically as the "bone crusher" or ossifrage).

This etymological confusion has produced taxonomic confusion, as well. Some authorities actually proclaimed uncertainty whether the geier is a vulture or an eagle, and older dictionaries used the terms “geier”, “gyrfalcon” and “lammergeier”, almost interchangeably, e.g. Webster's 1913 Dictionary.[3] Poets and others often assumed that the term geier refers to a form of eagle or falcon, rather than a vulture, a matter that was commented upon in the article by Harriet C. Stanton, Poets and Birds: a Criticism, The Atlantic monthly. / Volume 52, Issue 311, September 1883.[4] Even some encyclopedia writers adopted the view that the lammergeier "is more closely allied with the eagles than with the vultures", as in the 11th Edition of Encyclopædia Britannica.[5]

Taxonomic confusion may have resulted from the physical appearance of the lammergeier. Because the head of the lammergeier, unlike most other vultures, is feathered rather than naked, it bears a resemblance to the eagle or condor. “Gyrfalcon” is also sometimes rendered as "geir eagle", although in modern usage a gyrfalcon is a member of the falcon family and is not an eagle. The Indian vulture, another true vulture species recently recategorized as critically endangered, also was described as having a distinctly "eagle-like bearing" in contrast to most other vulture species.[6]

The modern taxonomic distinction between the families of eagles or falcons and the families of vultures should eliminate any uncertainty over the respective meanings of the term geier. The Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) and the lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus) are true carrion-eating vultures. The term "geier" should not be applied to the modern gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus); the gyrfalcon is a distinct species of falcon (the largest of the falcon family), and is not a vulture.

"Geier" as a surname[edit]

Geier is a common surname in Germany and somewhat less common among German-American people. It is also found as a French surname, and as Russian surname. The latter probably is associated with German emigration to Russia in the 17th and 18th centuries. The surname Geier is often considered to be interchangeable with Geyer, although some sources ascribe a different origin and meaning to the two surnames. German migrants to English speaking countries often Anglicise Geier as Geyer, though this change has become less common in recent years. Similarly, Geier has often been mistakenly changed to Geyer, and vice versa in legal papers such as birth certificates and migration documents, especially in areas where the name is uncommon, or one version is vastly prevalent.

Many using the surname Geier share an oral history attributing its origins to a heroic band of peasant villagers who climbed high to an aerie and clubbed to death a gigantic raptor (a geier) which had been stealing and eating human babies from their village. See German family name etymology

As with the surname "Geier", the surname "Geyer" is primarily associated with the word "vulture". This is often used in a pejorative sense, however (as in "nickname for a greedy or rapacious person, from Middle High and Middle Low German gir(e) as in ‘large bird of prey’, ‘vulture’"). When affixed to a Jewish family, the surname "Geier" is thought by some to have a slightly different meaning. The Yiddish word Geyer means "peddler", and it is assumed that when last names became mandatory in Europe, the surname Geier was imposed upon Jewish peasants as a deprecatory label connoting a scheming merchant who takes advantage of the cupidity of others, i.e., a "vulture".[7] The word "geier" more recently has evolved as a "derogatory term for persons from the Middle East."[8]

A significant number of African American people with the surname Geier are found in Washington D.C. and across the Southern States, the European antecedents of which are unknown. As with the surnames of many African American families,[9] it is likely that the names were adopted from a European American slaveowner by the name of "Geier", but none has been identified to date.

Coats of arms[edit]

The etymological confusion associated with ornithological use of the term "geier" also has affected family coats of arms and traditions concerning family origins of those bearing the Geier surname. Some oral traditions and family histories associate the Geier surname with the eagle (as in the "Eagle's Nest" coat of arms) and with a peasant legend concerning a baby-stealing bird of prey in a medieval Swabian or Saxon village. Others associate the surname with the carrion-eating, bone-crushing variety of vulture.[10][11] In modern times, it is not unusual for the vulture in family coats of arms or logos to be rendered as a comical caricature of a slumping and sad-sack buzzard rather than a lammergeier or gyrfalcon with "the bearing of an eagle."[12]

Literary history[edit]

The ornithological and etymological confusions posed by the name or word "geier" have led to some interesting and sometimes comical confusions in literary uses of the term, as well.

Notable persons and usages of “Geier”[edit]

Florian Geier[edit]

Florian Geier, 1894.

The most notorious historical personage bearing the name Geier was Florian Geier, commonly known as Florian Geyer, a Franconian nobleman who sided with the peasants in the German Peasants' War in the early 16th century and led the ill-fated Black Company of song and fable. See Friedrich Engels, The Peasant War in Germany, passim. Several generations of the family of Florian Geyer lived in the village of Giebelstadt, where the Geyer castle is located, but the family is thought to have died off and become extinct in the early 18th century. The heraldic coat of arms of the Geyer family in Giebelstadt was not a vulture or an eagle; instead, it originally was a horse, and later became a ram in the latter part of the 17th century. See N. Shmitt, A Short Giebelstadt History (2000)[13]

Baseball: Phil Geier[edit]

One professional baseball player bearing the Geier surname is recorded Phil Geier, aka "Little Phil", who played for several major league teams between 1896 and 1904 and won the American Association batting title in 1903.[14][15]

Legal history[edit]

Two significant cases in United States jurisprudence have involved litigants with the name "Geier". In one of these, Geier v. American Honda Motor Co. (98-1811) 529 U.S. 861 (2000),[16] the United States Supreme Court held that the federal legislation requiring passive restraints in motor vehicles sold in the United States pre-empted state tort law. The plaintiff was a child named Alexis Geier who had been seriously injured in an accident while riding with her parents in a Honda passenger vehicle equipped with seat belts but not airbags. The Supreme Court held that Ms. Geier could not sue Honda for failing to install airbags in a vehicle sold in 1987 because at that time, only seatbelts were required by federal law.

The other case, commonly known as the "Geier Case", involved an African American teacher named Rita Sanders at what was then Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University, now known as Tennessee State University. She sued on behalf of herself and others in a class action to compel the State of Tennessee to end its de facto operation of a dual post-secondary education system for white and non-white students. This litigation was initiated by Ms. Sanders in 1968.[17] Ms. Sanders later married and became known as Rita Sanders Geier. The case had a tortuous history as the United States Government and a number of other plaintiffs joined in support of her position, and involved at least a dozen reported appellate court decisions, including Geier v. Sundquist, 94 F.3d 644 (6th Cir. 1996); Geier v. Richardson, 871 F. 2d 1310 (6th Cir. 1989); Geier v. Alexander, 801 F.2d 799 (6th Cir. 1986); Geier v. Alexander, 593 F. Supp. 1263 (M.D. Tenn. 1984); Geier v. University of Tennessee, 597 F.2d 1056 (6th Cir.), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 886 (1979); Geier v. Blanton, 427 F. Supp. 644 (M.D. Tenn. 1977); Geier v. Dunn, 337 F. Supp. 573 (M.D. Tenn. 1972); and Sanders v. Ellington, 288 F. Supp. 937 (M.D. Tenn. 1968). The case was "resolved" 38 years later by a consent decree or settlement agreement in 2001, which imposed a 5-year period for implementation of various programmatic measures (colloquially known as Geier programs) to unwind 200 years of segregation and discrimination in the system of public higher education in Tennessee.[18] The final confirmation of the Consent Decree was approved in September 2006. As stated in the Joint Statement in Support of the Consent Decree, "The Geier case stands first in terms of time and precedent in a line of cases devoted to the removal of a variety of vestiges of segregation from systems of public higher education."[19]

Prominent American persons named "Geier"[edit]

Well known representatives of the Geier surname include the Geier Glove Company[20] and the Geier Sausage Company,[21] neither of which have any necessary connection with each other or any other American bearer of the Geier surname.

Another well-known representative of the Geier name was the founder of the Cincinnati Milling Machine Company (originally the Cincinnati Screw and Tap Company), Frederick V. Geier,[22] whose company is still controlled by the Geier family (but now known as Cincinnati Milacron, Inc.[23]). This branch of the Geier family has been prominent in Cincinnati civic and social affairs since the early 20th century, and has endowed the Geier Collections and Research Center of the Museum of Natural History and Science in Cincinnati.[24] Frederick V. Geier was quoted in a Time Magazine article on rearmament in 1951.[25]

Geiers in Minnesota[edit]

Two extended families with the surname Geier are found in Southern and Central Minnesota. The family associated with Lynn Township in McLeod County and with Boon Lake Township and other parts of Renville County is entirely descended from a single immigrant from Woldegk, Germany, by the name of Ferdinand Theodore Geier, a/k/a Ted Geier, who arrived in Minnesota in 1880 after spending 10 years as a wheelwright and truck farmer in Chicago, Illinois and nearby Cicero, Illinois. The other family, near Ortonville in Big Stone County is unrelated so far as is known. A small contingent of the Renville County Geiers settled for a brief time in Badger Township in Polk County before scattering to the winds in the latter part of the 20th century. The current president of the Minnesota Medical Association, G. Richard Geier, Jr., MD, of Rochester, Minnesota, is a native of Evansville, Indiana and not a member of either of these two Minnesota Geier families.

Other persons named "Geier"[edit]

A number of academics, scholars, musicians and musical groups, businesses and professionals in the United States also bear the name "Geier".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Gyrfalcon or gerfalcon (Falco rusticolus): Information and Photos". Retrieved 2012-02-17. 
  2. ^ "Adopt An Animal, Adopt A Falcon". 1999-08-25. Retrieved 2012-02-17. 
  3. ^ [1][dead link]
  4. ^ "atla Page Turner". Retrieved 2012-02-17. 
  5. ^ "LAMMERGEYER (Ger. Lamm... - Online Information article about LAMMERGEYER (Ger. Lamm". Retrieved 2012-02-17. 
  6. ^ "Indian Vulture (Gyps indicus) - BirdLife species factsheet". Retrieved 2012-02-17. 
  7. ^ "Family Facts for: Geier". Retrieved 2012-02-17. 
  8. ^ "Reference for List of ethnic slurs". Retrieved 2012-02-17. 
  9. ^ Dunaway, Wilma A., The African American Family in Slavery and Emancipation (Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 259–60
  10. ^ "Geier Family Crest and History". 2011-12-22. Retrieved 2012-02-17. 
  11. ^ Archived from the original on October 11, 2012. Retrieved August 4, 2011.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  12. ^ "LSG Stochastische Prozesse HU-Berlin". Archived from the original on 2006-10-10. Retrieved 2012-07-12. 
  13. ^ Robert H Pearson. "BriefHistoryGieb". Archived from the original on 2007-09-29. Retrieved 2012-07-12. 
  14. ^ "Phil Geier". Retrieved 2012-02-17. 
  15. ^ "Phil Geier - BR Bullpen". Retrieved 2012-02-17. 
  16. ^ "Geier V. American Honda Motor Co". Retrieved 2012-02-17. 
  17. ^ "Our History: Rich and Olympian". Tennessee State University. 
  18. ^ "Consent Decree Summary". Archived from the original on 2008-01-23. Retrieved 2012-07-12. 
  19. ^ "CIVIL ACTION N25077 (Judge Wiseman)" (PDF). 2008-01-23. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-01-23. Retrieved 2012-07-12. 
  20. ^ "Geier Glove Co". Retrieved 2012-02-17. 
  21. ^ "About Geiers". 2009-05-17. Archived from the original on 2009-05-17. Retrieved 2012-07-12. 
  22. ^ "Frederick Geier and the Cincinnati Mill". Retrieved 2012-02-17. 
  23. ^ Best Manufacturing Practices bmpcoe (2007-01-18). "Cincinnati Milacron, Inc. (now Cincinnati Machine, LLC) - Cincinnati, OH:Survey Summary". Retrieved 2012-02-17. 
  24. ^ [2]
  25. ^ Monday, Nov. 05, 1951 (1951-11-05). "PRODUCTION: The Key to Rearmament". TIME. Retrieved 2012-02-17.