What's in A Dutch Name?

by Muriel Kooi

Surnames were not common in The Netherlands until 1811 during Napoleonic rule. (Many people treasure the documents from The Netherlands in which their family took a name to comply with the law.) Prior to the legal surnames, the system of patronymics was used. For example, Jan, the son of Hendrik, would be known as Jan Hendrikzoon (Hendrick's son). Later, Jan would name his first son Hendrik and that son would be known as Hendrik Janzoon. A girl child would be Janna or Jantje and would have Hendriksdochter or Jansdochter with her name (dochter being daughter).

Talk about mass confusion! With an increased mobility of the masses with population increases, only the Dutch could figure out the relationships of persons. The French found it an insurmountable obstacle in organizing families for record keeping and taxation. Orders were issued and the Dutch complied, not always willingly, but they could certainly see the necessity of the edict.

Some of the Dutch chose toponyms, which were names for the villages from which they came, such as Van Heukelom or Van Essen. Others chose geographic names, Vermeer giving the connotation of "living by the lake," or Vander Linden, "from the place of the linden trees." The Dutch do not capitalize the "V" but Americans do.

Physical attributes were often chosen such as de Zwaart, someone with a dark skin. Other names were chosen which pertained to jobs or professions: de Bakker (the baker), Mulder for the miller, and de Kuiper for the cooper who made barrels.

The well-known attribute of the Dutch, tongue-in-cheek humor, entered in the choice of names. There were also names chosen because of lack of understanding, and many Dutch names were rather odd. One story which is often told in Pella is about the soldier from Napoleon's staff in charge of name registration. The soldier is said to have asked a Dutchman about his surname. The Dutchman, either not understanding or thinking it all a big joke, shrugged his shoulders in the familiar gesture of "I don't get it." The soldier, in anger, said, "How were you born, you ignoramus?" (Implying, what was your birth name?) The Dutchman replied, "Ik ben naagtegeboren." Translated that means he was born naked. The French soldier wrote it down and that was the man's surname. (The name is still found in Pella phone books.)

Many Dutch names were misspelled at the time of emigration when those taking the names spelled them as they heard them, not as the Dutch spelled them. It was easier for the emigrants to simply go as the name was written, and one researching often has to become quite imaginative with names. Upon reaching America, or reaching their destinations, the Dutch soon Americanized their names. However, the remaining names are still interesting to read and the Pella phone book is a litany of Dutch surnames.

Many Dutch names reflect a French flavor as many from that country, in a time of religious persecution in France, escaped into Holland. Spanish derivatives are also found in Dutch names, for Spain ruled Holland for many years, as did the French. Troops billeted in The Lowlands found the Dutch women to their liking and subsequent marriages or liaisons resulted.

The Dutch names of Pella people still fascinate others. The name De Boer implies that the origination of the name was for a farmer. Buitenwerf denotes an outer wharf. (Many Dutch names have to do with the sea or with water.) Dam was a dike, Ver Duin a dune. If your ancestor chose Engle he thought of himself as an angel. Someone large or tall was known as De Groot someone small was Klein. Vander Hoek translated is "of the corner" and De Huis is the house. Ver Steeg means "of the alley," where the person might have lived. A carpenter was a Timmer, an artist a Schilder. Ridder was a knight and Visser a fisherman. Vos was a fox, Van Zee the sea and De Wild spoke of game animals.

The writer of this article married into the Kooi family. The people from his family pronounce it like "kooee," spelled in Dutch koe, which means cow. Another family in town has the same name but pronounces it "coy," which is really the correct way. A kooi is a cage used in trapping birds. I answer to either pronunciation.

After World War II, a civil registration was taken in The Netherlands. Called Familienamen (family names), the register includes family names for ten separate books for the cooperating provinces. (Limburg did not participate.) The twelfth province, Flevoland, was not in existence at the time of the register.

The prefix of "van" is used extensively but not usually in Friesland. The suffix "se" is often added to Biblical names (such as Gabrielse) in the province of Zeeland. In Utrecht the stems of "laar, "horst" and "brink" are common. "En" and "ens" often end names in North Brabant while endings of ing,""ink," "ingh" or "inck" are used in Gelderland.

In Groningen the population is Frisian or Saxon and the Frisian suffix "sema is common, as are names ending in "ma." Others in that are are "huis" or wold" suffixes and prefixes. Frisian names are small in number. Twelve per cent have the names of De Vries, De Jong, Dijkstra, De Boer, Visser or Hoekstra. A third of the people have names ending in "a" such as Buwalda, Ozinga, Meidema, etc.

If you, as a tourist, have a chance to glance into a Pella phone book, it will be an itneresting study for you. Be sure to turn to the section of V -- there is a preponderance of Van, Vander, etc. -- almost 600 of them!

Our Dutch names are unique, often humorous, but identify us as an Iowa ethnic group proud of an ancient heritage.


The Meaning of Some Dutch Surnames

Bogaard - an orchard.
Hietbrink - the edge of the hearth.
Vander Putte - a pool formed by removing peat.
Vander Waal - near the river waal.
Vande(r) Voort - low place to cross a river or stream.
Vanden Broek - marsh land.
Zylstra - northern word for sluice or lock.
Van Donselaar - a knight's estate.
Hogenakker - high, plowed fields.
Vande Zande - near the dunes of sand.
Van Veen or Veenstra - has to do with a peat bog.
Vander Meiden - hayfield.
Wiersema or Terpstra - man-made mounds (wiers or terps).
Hagendoorn - hawthorne tree.
Ver Hulst - originated with the holly plant.
Vande Kieft - from kievit, a lapwing bird.
Kloosterman - cloister or monastery.
Andeweg - on the way.
Ketelaar - a kettle maker.
Kolenbrander - one who burns charcoal to smelt iron.
Messemaker - one who made knives.
Vogalaar - bird catcher.
Vander Schaaf - carpenter's plane.
Goemaat - good mate.
De Geus - the beggar.
De Waard - keeper of the inn.

Transcribed by Nancee (McMurtrey) Seifert from Pella, Iowa - A Touch of Holland, published in Spring/Summer 1995 by the Pella Chamber of Commerce; reprinted here with permission of the author.

Reformatted by Al Hibbard 7 Oct 2013