12 July 2014

How did all those Dutch last names come about?

There are five distinguishable types of last names, which all say something about the original bearer of that name in their own way.
Gerrit Bloothooft
Dr. ir. Gerrit Bloothooft
Linguist
Register van het Utrechtse Nicolaasklooster, 15e eeuw, Het Utrechts Archief. Naamlijst met ‘onse doden susteren die by ons ghestorven sijn’ en achter elke naam het overlijdensjaar. Foto: Het Utrechts Archief.
Registry of the Utrecht Nicolaasklooster, 15th Century, Het Utrechts Archief. Photo: Het Utrechts Archief

Before the Middle Ages, there were no last names in use. You had a first name and an occasional nickname. You could call it a last name if such a nickname was passed on to the next generation, and that did not happen on a large scale in the Netherlands until the 17th century.

Last names mandatory in 1811

The trend to have a last name moved from the south to the north, from France to Flanders to Holland and lastly to Friesland. In 1811, during the French period, everyone was ordered to have a fixed last name. However, most Dutch people already had one.

Five distinguishable types of last names

There are five distinguishable types of last names, which all say something about the original bearer of that name in their own way. They can be described with questions: who do you descend from? (Jansen, Sikkema, Abbink), where do you come from? (De Vries, Sneekstra, van Asten), where do you live? (Van ’t Klooster, Van Dijk, Uittenboogaard), what do you do for a living? (Kuiper, Ottevanger, De Jager), which characteristics do you have? (De Lange, Vondeling, Rood).

In many cases, an accurate explanation cannot be found

The peculiar thing is that what was actually true for the progenitor does not have to apply to the descendants. If Jan Bakker (Baker) really baked bread and passed his last name on to his descendants, not all of them would be bakers. In many cases, an accurate explanation for a last name cannot be found because there are multiple possible interpretations and records were barely kept at the time.