Sunday, March 24, 2013

What's In A (Dutch) Name?

Elizabeth, William, Frederic, Margaret, Jasper, Cornelis, Louisa, Barend . . . Jacques.

There are multiple examples of each of these names in our family tree, except the last one. (More about that later.) "Elizabeth" has given us those nicknamed Lijsje, Liz, Lizzie, Beth, Betty, and Betsy. "William" has given us a Bill, Billy, Will. "Frederic" has given us more than one Fred and Freddie, and on the other side of the Atlantic, at least one Freek (pronounced "Frake.") Margaret and its Dutch version Margriet have given us Marg, Marge, Mardi, Peg, Greet, and Grietje. And so on.

Grandma Elizabeth's Family ca. 1903

Dutch naming customs were so stable in earlier times that you could almost predict at a wedding how the couple's children would be named. The first son would generally be named after the paternal grandfather, the first daughter after the paternal or maternal grandmother, depending on the custom of the particular region. With the arrival of the next child, it was the turn of the other side of the family. The third and fourth children were thus often given the names of the grandparents who had not yet been named. Later children were named after aunts and uncles on either side of the family. An exception to alternation of the two sides of the family was that upon the death of a child, the next one born was often named after the recently deceased child.

Grandpa VandenBergh (Barend, here labeled ("Pop") and family ca. 1910

My grandparents, Elizabeth Daams and Barend Vanden Bergh, followed a modified version of these old Dutch naming customs. I see from the names in the two photos above that they named all eight of their children after their own siblings, i.e., after the children's aunts and uncles. At least some of these names also corresponded to grandparents' names. As was typical as well, sometimes the gender of the name was changed to fit the gender of the child; for example Cornelis to Cornelia.

So much for first names (voornaam in Dutch). At this point you may be wondering who was the Jacques in the family tree and why he was given a French first name. He was the son of our first Dutch ancestor to settle in the New World (Nieuw Nederland)  --  Cornelis Van Slyck. Cornelis married a Mohawk woman named Otstoch, from the Mohawk "castle" or stockaded village about 50 miles west of the settlement at Fort Orange.

Family legend tells us that Otstoch was the daughter of the French coureur des bois, Jacques Hertel, and one confirmation of this hypothesis is the fact that Cornelis and Otstoch named their second son Jacques, presumably after his maternal grandfather. (A first son, Cornelis, is only mentioned in the records once or twice; perhaps he died at a young age.)

Jacques almost certainly had a Mohawk name as well, but after spending his childhood in Canajoharie, he settled in Schenectady with his father. And so the Dutch knew him by his French first name, or an adaptation thereof, "Ackes," since the initial consonant in "Jacques" does not exist in Dutch. Indeed, upon his deathbed, he signed his will "Ackes."

In earlier eras, the Dutch commonly also used a patronymic, a name derived from the father's name, as a second or middle name. Thus Jacques Cornelissen Van Slyck would have been this ancestor's full name. The patronymic suffix zoon (son) was often abbreviated as sen or simply sz.

Prior to the French occupation of the Netherlands (1810 - 1813, during the Napoleonic Era), custom rather than law dictated what people could call themselves. But when the civil register was introduced in 1811, births, marriages, and deaths had to be recorded in this register, and people had to choose family names, rather than simply use a first name and patronymic. Most family names were based either on one's occupation (e.g., Bakker, Schipper, Bleeker) or place of origin (Vanden Bergh, Van Breuckelen). But on a yellowed piece of paper that I found in my mother's old Dutch-English dictionary, I came across a list of quirky last names that she had jotted down:

- Blijleven  =  happy life

- Blikenstoffer  =  dustpan and brush

- Zevenhuizen  =  seven houses

- Zoetemelk  =  sweet milk

- Zeldenrijk  =  seldom rich

- Bril  =  spectacles (i.e., glasses)

These names were perhaps told to her by her cousin Jasper, as examples of unusual names that Dutch people chose in protest against the new naming rules and perhaps indirectly, against the the occupation itself. Indeed, although churches had been registering baptisms and marriages since at least the 16th century, most of these church records were confiscated by the state in 1811, ostensibly to form the basis for the new civil registry, but perhaps also as a convenient source of information for the Napoleonic conscription.

Along with the civil register came new laws for first names as well, also based on French law. These rules generally limited names to those on the calendar of saints' days and names from ancient history, including Biblical names. This law remained in effect until 1970, and nowadays popular international names join traditional Dutch voornamen on the list of the most commonly given first names in the Netherlands. Thus, popular boys' names are Daan, Bram, and Lucas; girls may be Emma, Sophie, Julia or Anna.

So, what's in a Dutch name? A liberal dose of history and genealogy , as well as an identifying or endearing moniker.

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Gerritzen, Doreen. De naamwet. ; accessed 1/27/2013.

Gerritzen, Doreen. De naamwet vroeger. ; accessed 1/27/2013. 

Gerritzen, Doreen. Geschiedenis van de Nedelandse naamgeving. ; accessed 1/27/2013

(The above articles were written by a researcher at the Meertens Institute, which focuses on ethnological study and the linguistic study of the Dutch language.)

List of popular Dutch names from "Dutch Daily News":

See also "Trace Your Dutch Roots," for information about the civil register and early church records, as well as tips about Dutch genealogy research.

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