Making Sense Of Your Dutch Surname

If you know your surname is Dutch, then it is still very possible that you will find no match at all in Dutch online databases. This of course does not necessarily mean that your ancestors did not come from the Netherlands after all. A more plausible explanation is that your surname has been anglicized over time and that the current spelling has little to do with the original Dutch spelling. So how do you go about reconstructing the original Dutch spelling of your surname? Let's have a look first at common changes that Dutch surnames have suffered under the influence of English.

Sticky Prefixes
Many Dutch surnames have one or more prefixes like van, ter or van der, meaning of, at the and of the. These prefixes are often glued to the surname when transcribed to English. This way De Groot becomes Degroot and Van der Bilt ends up as Vanderbilt. In Dutch listings these prefixes are ignored, so if you type in Degroot you will not get a match. Groot however will yield De Groot. Common prefixes to look out for are: van, van der, van de, de, ter, op, op 't, in, in 't (of, of the, of the, the, at, on, on the, in and in the).

Sound Changes
Some specifically Dutch sounds and sound combinations proved difficult for English speaking people, and so they were adapted to the English sound set and spelling. Common changes are:
f or ph for a v: Veenstra becomes Feenstra and Filips becomes Philips
ck for a kk: Bokking becomes Bocking
ing for ink: Aalderink becomes Aaldering
a for an e: Tessel becomes Tassel.
oo for an oe: Broek becomes Brook.
les for els: Abels becomes Ables.

Sometimes the whole name or recognizable parts of it were translated to English all together. And so Smid became Smith, Den Coonink (the king) became King and Nieuwenhuizen (new houses) became Newhouse. If your surname sounds very English, have a go at translating it to Dutch with a dictionary.

Clues In Your Name
Once you know what the original spelling of your Dutch surname is, you can find clues about its meaning and origin just by looking at its form. Especially when you have no clue from which specific town or city your ancestors originated, your surname can give you vital clues as to where to start your search.

To know where to look for, you need to know a little bit about the history of Dutch surnames.

The Birth Of Surnames
Cultures tend to endlessly reuse the same names, for example to honor their ancestors. This works perfectly fine within a small community where there is probably just one Robert, Mary, and Philip.

But as population grew during the Middle Ages, names started to repeat themselves within the same community. Nicknames were introduced to tell Robert The Baker apart from Robert From The Mill. These nicknames, of course, were very volatile and changed from generation to generation.

During the 16th and 17th centuries the population had grown so much that it was perfectly possible to have more than one Robert "The Tall" or Peter "Son of Jan" in a city. Obviously this caused confusion and an administrative nightmare for the government. To solve this problem many people adopted a fixed and more or less original family name that they passed on to their children. Usually this new surname was based on a former nickname. This practice was already quite common around 1800 in densely populated parts of the Netherlands

But it was Napoleon Bonaparte that made the adoption of a fixed surname mandatory throughout the Netherlands in 1811, the same year in which he introduced the Registry Office and made legal registration of births, marriages, and deaths compulsory.

Typical Dutch Surnames
In the Netherlands four types of surnames had become popular during the 17th an 18th century: patronymic names, topographic names, craft names and metaphorical names.

Patronymic names were by far the most popular. They refer to the name of a person's father. So if Robert's father were called Pieter, Robert's patronymic would be Pieterszoon (Pieter's son). Over time Pieterszoon could become Pieters, Pietersen, Pieterse, and Pietersz. So if your surname ends in –se, –sen, –sz or –s you are most likely dealing with a patronymic name that means son of. Hence Petersen means Son of Peter and Lambrechtsz means Son of Lambrecht. Names ending in –ides are mostly Frisian patronymics.

Topographic names were especially popular in rural areas. People were named after a farm or some particular landmark. Names like Veldink (from the field) and Terpstra (from the hill) are topographic names.

The nice thing about these types of names is that they tend to end in suffixes that are specific to a certain region. Names ending –inga, –ma or –stra originated in Friesland. The suffixes –ink, –ing and –inc are characteristic of the Overijssel, Drenthe and Gelderland provinces. Often the rest of the name refers to a specific farm, street, or house. If you get lucky you could even find them on old maps!

Craft names referred to some ones occupation like Smith or Baker. Although many of them will give you no clue about the location they do give some idea of the occupation one of your ancestors may have had. Some craft names are not that obvious however. So-called metonymic names refer to an object related to a certain craft. Someone called Koek (cookie) could be a baker and Mr. Balk (beam) is likely to have been a carpenter.

Metaphorical names describe metaphorically some physical or psychological treat of a person like Vos, which means fox (after the person's red hair or wit) or Paard meaning horse (after the person's strength or, less flattering, the shape of their teeth).

Tricky Surnames
Unfortunately the meaning or origin of a Dutch surname isn't always what it seems at first glance. Take for instance the name Van Hindeloopen. One could easily interpret this as a topographic name referring to the Frisian town of Hindeloopen. However this is not the case. The name was derived from a house called Hindeloopen that was not located in Friesland at all. Another example is the name Fortuin (fortune)

which looks like a metaphorical name referring to ones luck or richness. But it is not necessarily so. It can also be an address name, derived from the name of a tavern.

Professional Help
If you still cannot make sense of your Dutch surname after reading this article you can always ask us. We'd be happy to help you out.