Origins of Dutch Surnames

A distinguished scholar reports his findings upon a subject of perennial interest to members of the Society

by Adriaan J . Barnouw


The Editor of de Halve Maen has asked me to contribute an article on the Dutch family names in the membership list of the Holland Society and explain, if possible, the etymology of their component parts and the original meaning of these in Dutch. “If possible” is a very necessary reservation, for there are many names in the roster that baffle the linguist and many others that are capable of more than one interpretation. Even those that seem clear and easy to explain may conceal a difficult linguistic problem.

Take for example the name Roosevelt. What could be simpler? Roos means rose, and veld is the Dutch equivalent of English field. But is rosefield a likely compound? Roses do not grow in masses except in nurseries, and the nurseryman does not speak of his rozenveld but will call it his rozentuin (rose garden) or rozenperk (rose bed). I cannot believe, therefore, that Roosevelt means rosefield. The Dutch language has another word roos, which is now extinct but still traceable in old compounds, like fossils embedded in the rock. Medieval Dutch used the name roosdommel for the bittern, and a good name it was for a marsh bird, for this word roos, of ancient Germanic origin, meant reed, a roosdommel being a lurker among the reed. The same old word occurs in the Flemish family name Van Roosbroeck. Broek is etymologically identical with English brook, but in Dutch it means marsh or swamp and marshy land is the natural habitat of reed, not of roses. Hence the name Roosevelt, if I am right, is a Dutch analogue of the English name Redfield, in which red is a shortened form of reed.

A cursory glance at the list of the Holland Society’s members reveals the predominance of names beginning with Van. Van is a preposition meaning either from or belonging to. It is consequently always followed by the name of a place, be it a town, a village, or a farmstead. It is not always easy to identify the particular spot the original bearer of the name came from. His descendants became speakers of English, and having lost all knowledge of the speech of their old homeland were apt to mispronounce and misspell their own names. That explains how it was possible for a name to come down in different forms, each borne by an offshoot of the clan that is no longer aware of its relationship with the other offshoots. The Van Kouwenhovens are doubtless of the same stock as the Kouwenhovens; and the Conovers, I believe, bear the same name in a drastically altered form. The Van Akens and Van Aukens are, no doubt, descended from a common ancestor; the spelling Auken represents a pronunciation of Dutch a (as in English broad) that was common in seventeenth-century Dutch and is still heard in modern dialects and in vulgar speech. That same broad sound of Dutch long a survives in Santa Claus, which in modern Dutch is pronounced Sinterklaas, with the clear a sound that we hear in English father.

The number of Van names is even longer than appears at first glance, for Van has been absorbed in the prefix Ver– in names such as Vermeulen, Vermilya, Verplanck, Ver- being a contraction of van and the definite article der in the dative case of the feminine gender. Vermeulen, therefore, is the same name as Van der Meulen, and both mean “of the mill” or “from the mill.” The name Vermilya may be a corruption of Vermeulen or is a variant of the Flemish name Vermeylen. Only early family documents could clear that up, but few old Dutch families possess ancient records.

In Holland, the commonness of Van names has won for the preposition promotion into the class of substantives. It has become a noun meaning “surname.” “Wat is zijn Van? (what is his family name?) is a question that is often asked in daily conversation? In Dutch directories and catalogues and indexes, the Van names are not listed under the letter V but under the initial letter of the word preceded by Van and the definite article that sometimes follows; hence Van der Meulen appears under M but Vermeulen must be looked for under V, a system that is adhered to in the card catalogue of the Columbia University Library.

The forms under which some of these names appear in the Society’s membership list are puzzling to Hollanders. Van Denbergh, Van Derpool, Van Derzee, Van Denuerken would be impossible spellings in Holland. They seem to indicate that the bearers pronounce them with the accent on the definite article, a subordinate word that deserves no stress. The witty poet who contributes satirical verse to The Reporter over the pen name “-Sec” began a “Johannesburg Hymn” the other day with Verwoerd, Christian soldiers Marching as to war, thus giving to the Dutch name of Mr. Strijdom’s successor the erroneous accentuation of forward.

The spelling of the name Van Deventer as Vandeventer has led to a pronunciation that stresses –ven– on the analogy of many names beginning with Van de, such as Van de Water. But in Vandeventer, the second syllable happens not to be the Dutch definite article; it is the first, accented, syllable of Deventer (pronounced Dayventr), the ancient city on the IJsel river in the Netherlands province of Overijsel.


GUEST AUTHOR: Dr. Barnouw, the Society’s Medalist in 1945, was born in Amsterdam in 1877. He attended the Municipal Gymnasium there, studied philology at Leyden from 1895 to 1900, Anglistics at the University of Berlin, and obtained his Leyden Ph.D. in 1902. Dr. Barnouw taught Dutch literature and history at The Hague Municipal Gymnasium from 1902 to 1919, and lectured on English language and literature at Leyden from 1907 to 1913. He served as The Hague correspondent for the New York Nation from 1913 to 1919. In 1919, he emigrated to the U.S., where he worked as an Associate Editor for the Weekly Review in New York from 1919 to 1921. Dr. Barnouw held the position of Queen Wilhelmina Professor at Columbia University from 1921 to 1948 and has been Emeritus since 1948. He was a visitor for the Carnegie Corp. in Indonesia in 1925 and South Africa in 1932. Dr. Barnouw was honored as Commander of the Order of Orange-Nassau and Knight in the Order of Netherlands Lion. Additionally, he translated Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” and “Troilus and Crisyde” into Dutch verse and published several books on Netherlands history, literature, and art in the English language.

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