In general, surnames were originally assigned only to individuals, usually based on ones occupation, physical characteristic, place of birth, or father ("son/daughter of"). One's children would have entirely different surnames based on their own circumstances. Surnames gradually became inherited from father to child in England and the German states between 1200 and 1500, first among the elites and finally among the peasantry. At some time a particular family or clan would decide it was a good idea to pass down a surname through future generations. Because most people were illiterate, the surname spellings were at the whim of those who could write. By the time most were literate and surnames became standardized in the 1800s, the surname spellings for the various branches of the Kimmel/Kümmel family had become quite varied.
The German word Kimmel (meaning caraway in English) and Christian German surname Kimmel evolved separately to become spelled the same way. Professor Hermann Kümmell's report in the Deutsches Geschlechterbuch (Vol. 66, which offers the lineage for Johann Michael Kimmel of Gimbsheim's ancestors back to Dilmanus Kumel of c.1391 Neuenkerken) cites the research of the then-renowned German genealogist, Dr. Schoener of Marburg.
Doctor Schoener traces the Kimmel surname back to "Chunemar." The name comes from "kuoni" (kühne, or "brave") and "mar" (berühmt, or "famous"/"celebrated" and also kampslustig und stark, or "bellicose/pugnacious and strong.") Loosely translated into English, the name Kimmel means "a brave and powerful warrior." The Deutsches Wörterbuch (1873, Grimm & Grimm) supports this.
Compare the meaning of Kimmel with its English counterpart--the name Kimble. Surnames of the United Kingdom (Harrison 1969) noted that Kimble came from the Old Cymric "Cynbel", meaning "cyn" (chief) + "bel" (war). Kemble was translated from ancient Saxon "Cynebald", meaning royally bold. A Dictionary of British Surnames (Reaney 1958) groups Kemble, Kemball, Kimball, Kimbell, Kimble, Kimmel and Kemple together with the "cyn" + "bel" origin offered in the other book. This comes mighty close to what the German surname researchers found. The Kimbles are supposed to have migrated to England with the Saxons of northern Germany and that is probably where the association with the Kimmels lies. It is conjectured the surname evolved further in Scotland to become Campbell.
It is evident this family did not descend from an individual, but a clan--a group of families with some common bond. The family Kimmel/Kümmel is split among at least four separate bloodlines--haplogroups E1b1b1, I1, I2, and R1b1b2. Pre-revolution America recognized the German-English-Scottish tie well enough that Palatine Kimmels in New Netherlands (now New York) adopted the more acceptable name Campbell and immigrant Kimmels in colonial Virginia were assigned the anglicized name Kimble. And for Kimmel and Kimble to be traceable back to a common meaning, this clan was a very old one--going back to the Old Saxon migration that occurred during the time between the 5th century A.D. and the 1066 Norman Conquest.
The name evolved among families in Germany over the centuries roughly along this path: Chunemar > Chumil > Cumel > Komel > Kommel > Kummel > Kümmel > Kimmel. This isn't exact. In reality, the name never stayed stable in its spelling, and wasn't even the same with each individual at different times until the 1800s. Variations included Khummel, Kömmel and Kummelious. As in early America, there was no real pattern as to when the names were spelled with a single "m" or two, or a single "l" or two.
Prof. Kümmell noted that Jost Kümmell, who migrated from Kassel to Weisbaden in 1597, may have been the first family member to use the surname spelled as "Kimmel." That spelling appears to have caught on with other branches of the family about the time many were leaving for America in the mid-1700's. Old Pennsylvania German church records still used Kümmel at the time but the families were Kimmel in other public records.
The Jewish east-European surname Kimmel had an origin different from the Christian German surname. Most European non-rabbinic Jews did not have surnames until the mid-1800's, when families in the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires of eastern Europe were forced to acquire surnames for recordkeeping purposes. Many families there chose surnames based on their occupation. Yiddish-speaking Jewish families who were spice suppliers or grocers, may have picked the surname Kimmel, the Yiddish word for caraway seed.
The most common American variations are Kimel, Kimmel and Kimmell. Cimmel was used in a few early cases but never caught on. A few Germans coming to America took on the old German version Kummel. Most of the time a spelling change was intended to make the family more accepted or to give it status. Generally a Kimmel adopted the surname Kimmell because it had more status; for example, professionals and gentlemen were more likely to be Kimmells in public records than common farmers and workers. In one case an "l" was reportedly added (Kimmell) to distance the family from whiskey-producing relatives. Adopting the spellings Campbell, Keehmle, Kiemle, Kimbel, Kimble and Kimmal made the name more "American" and therefore more acceptable in the United States. For a time the Philadelphia doctors and lawyers in the Keehmle family went a step further in claiming status by using the spelling Keehmlé, making it more French, which at the time was the language of aristocrats. An Illinois Kimmel family dropped an "m" (Kimel) for a practical reason--it fit better on the bags of flour at their mill, but the reason for the Kimel family in North Carolina is unknown. In another instance the military dropped the last "l" in a Kimmell family members' record and the Kimmel spelling was kept so he wouldn't risk losing pension benefits.
Kimmel (or its Kümmel variation) came to mean things besides caraway or caraway seed. In America was Kimmel corn, a hardy variety of corn developed by Henry H. Kimmel of McLouth, Kansas. Kümmel was also a cherry-flavored brandy in Germany, and one who overindulged in drinking--particularly with brandy--was said to have kimmeled. (Actually, "verkümmeln" or to get drunk.) Caraway-flavored liqueurs called kümmel or kimmel are drunk today in areas of Russia, Germany and the Netherlands, but the term comes from the fact that the seed is involved and not because of any association with the Kimmel family. The same is true for foods such as Kimmelkäse (caraway cheese). Kimmel was a popular alcoholic import to the United States, its contents defined as brandy sweetened and flavored with coriander and caraway seeds.
Another use of the name involves Admiral Husband Kimmel. The Admiral has been credited with--among other things--getting the American naval forces in the Pacific in shape prior to World War II. In Pearl Harbor, the Verdict of History, Gordon Prange tells of how much a stickler Admiral Kimmel was in maintaining the efficiency and dignity of his personnel. He was strict to the point of insisting they wear formal uniforms, including ties and hats, when ashore in Hawaii, even though more comfortable attire was officially acceptable. Says Prange, "The officers especially resented the hats, which they dubbed 'Kimmels.'"
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