Destinations Magazine

Dutch Names

By Amsterdam City Tours

Most of us North Americans have a tendency to be jaded when it comes to names. Names are so varied, both in historical origin and spelling, that there are very few first or last names that could truly shock anyone (weird celebrity names aside, of course). North America, and to some extent other New World are immense melting pots of nationalities, ethnicity, and heritages. It is inevitable that with all these comes a huge variety of naming traditions, some of which are a mystery even to their bearers. Coming across a North American with a German, Italian or Chinese name that the individual in question freely admits to not knowing the meaning or correct pronunciation of is common. And there is nothing wrong with that at all! We can hardly be expected to know the personal histories of all of our diverse ancestors who likely left their homelands and native cultures decades before our births. Coincidentally, place names in the New World also often have histories that can be traced to the Old World...

English: A map with Dutch place names in the s...

To a New Worlder, the complex tradition and history of Dutch names, then, is particularly interesting. The Netherlands is home to some truly unique names such as "Jop," "Joke," "Aart," and "Freek" that may seem silly to us English speakers, but let's face it, traditional Anglo-Saxon names can sound just as silly to Dutchies (For example, Bill=Buttock).  Historically, Germanic-rooted first names are the oldest, dating back to the pre-medieval times. The Middles Ages saw religious and Biblical first names become fashionable - literally! Having a Christian first name was a fashion statement as well as a status symbol. Many would also name their children after dead relatives and friends because of a widespread belief that it would contribute to the reincarnation of the person after whom the parents would be naming their child. Names only started become less influenced by religion after the Second World War. And as with many other traditions, naming traditions were varied in different parts of the country.

Dutch last names, however, are a unique case of sounding ridiculous not in any one foreign language (although they can be particularly hard to spell for foreigners!), but in their native Dutch. In my head, that just indicates to the fact that the Dutchies of centuries past must have had terrific senses of humor.  For example, the very much real last name "Naaktgeboren" translates as "Born Naked," the common last name "Niemands" means "No one" and the last name "Niemandsvriend" rather sadly translates as "Nobody's Friend." (Ouch!) One's mind boggles even thinking about how the original Misters Poepjes (poop), Holvast (ass grip), and Klootwijk (village of balls) came by their surnames back in the days of yore.

Of course, not all Dutch surnames names are as silly as the aforementioned ones. There are over 100,000 last names in the Netherlands, and many of these are the result of forced name registration procedures enforced under Napoleon's rule in 1811.  A popular myth states that 19th century Dutchies did not see last names as a permanent fixture in their society, and did not take the matter of picking their last name seriously coming up with funny-sounding last names just for the heck of it. The accuracy of this version of events has always been under question, especially considering that many in the south of the country already had fixed last names by 1811. Many Dutchies today also have last names based on where the family historically lived - ergo, the prepositions "van" and "de" meaning "from" or "of". For example, the forefathers of the famous Dutch opera singer Elma van Den Dool grew up on a farm called Den Dool, which is a pretty awesome naming tradition I wish we still had today (Alisa of Ossington has a certain ring to it, y'know?) The most common last names that became permanent in 1811 were, however, patronymics: for example, a son with a father called Jan would be called Jansen, etc. Last names based on patronymics are popular in Dutch-speaking Belgium, less so in the Netherlands.

Thus, when you think of making fun of the name of your new Dutch friend Dirk Zonderbroek -  or Dirk "Without Trousers" - remember that his ancestors had a terrific sense of humor. That or they lived in a swamp, (broek also could mean "swamp") which is even more badass.

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