Historical story

The story behind the last name

Van Dijk. The farmer. Janssens. The lion. Healthy Dutch surnames. But how do we get our surnames? A flight through the past.

In the beginning, everyone listened to a unique name. Adam ("man"). Eve ("living with the serpent"). Abraham ("father of many nations"). Or Noah ("rest-giver"). But as we know, we multiplied. We ran out of names. The solution? Duplicate names. We encounter them in the New Testament where disciples of Jesus are called Simon Peter or Simon the Zealot. Or James the Less and James the Greater.

The Romans were less resourceful in giving surnames. With more sons, the proud fathers simply started counting:Quintus Horatius Flaccus or Octavius ​​Mamilius Tusculanus. With this, the inhabitants of the Roman Empire were one of the first who, in addition to a praenomen ('first name') also a nomen ("family name") and cognomen (‘nickname’).

From the fifth century onwards, Germanic peoples such as the Franks, the Frisians and the Saxons used a one-name system. Each had one, unique name. Often these were "desirable names" such as Brecht ("beautiful" or "famous"). Parents often named their children after themselves. That was the name of the son of Wolf and Gang Wolfgang ("to go to war like a wolf") and the son of Bern and Hard Bernhard ("as strong as a bear"). And the daughter of Mecht and Ild listened to the name Mechtild ("mighty warrior") and the daughter of Irm and Gard to the name Irmgard ("mighty protectress").

Duplicate name

The two-name system increasingly replaced the one-name system from the High Middle Ages. In addition to a first name, you also consider yourself a “last name”. Initially, it was mainly princes and nobles who attributed a family name to themselves. For these "family names" they were inspired by descent ("descendant names"), origin ("geographic names"), occupation ("occupational names") or personal characteristics ("property names").

Pedigree names indicated a genealogical relationship. This could be a descent from the father (patronym_), from the mother (metronym_) or from a person from the wider family ( extended family ) to be. Patternonyms were formed with the father's first name. They added the suffix '-son' (or '-sone') to the first name. The suffix '-son' soon corrupted into '-sen' or '-s'. Thus Willemszoon corrupted into Willemsen or Willems. Other examples are Janssens (son of Jan), Hendriksen (son of Hendrik) and Pieterse (son of Pieter). Metronyms were formed with the mother's first name. For example Beliën, Luyts, Mariën and Verleyen. Kinship names from the extended family could be De Neve or Uncles.

Geographical names indicated the geographical origin of the person. These provenance names mainly contain city, village or region names (toponyms_). How about Brusselmans, Van Leiden, Hollanders or Van Velzen, for example. Origin names could also refer to smaller geographic units (_microtoponyms ), such as farms, fields, houses, waterways and streets:Van Dijk, Uyttendaele, Van Acker, Hordijk and Verhoeven.

Occupational names referred to the profession, office or activity that the person performed. This way we can guess what the profession of Brouwers, De Clerck, Smit and Visser was. Names such as De Meier, Droste and Scholten referred to an office. Barbiers, De Baerdemacker, Kuiper, Wevers and Olieslager referred to occupations from the urban environment. And Bakker, Smets, Mulder, De Boer and Ramakers pointed to activities around the countryside.

Property names refer to personal attributes of the person in question. For example, the parents of the tall Charlemagne were called Pepin the Short and Bertha with the Big Feet (or Bertha with the Goose Feet). And how do you think Philip the Fair, Pepin with the Hump, Karel the Bald and Karel the Fat got their name?!

With names such as Bertha with the Big Feet and Philip the Fair, the Middle Ages referred to the appearance of the monarchs. But many acquired their name through special character traits. For example, Lodewijk the Pious considered prayer more important than governing, Karel the Bold ('bold' confesses 'brave') and his grandfather Jan Zonder Vrees did not avoid any conflict and Johanna the Mad did not get everything sorted out.

Some compared themselves to animals. They went through life as De Vos, De Pauw, De Hond or De Leeuw.

A few who were not yet satisfied with his "family name" added the suffix "-mans" to his name. This explains why we now find names such as Peetermans (descendent name), Puttersmans (geographical name), Boermans (occupational name) and Grootmans (property names) in the telephone book.

Those who didn't think his name was chic enough could indulge themselves in the Renaissance. Fashion was then to adopt a Latin name. Kreemer ('market vendor') thus transformed himself into Mercator and the famous Dutch Kuiper saw his rebirth in the name Couperus.


The Council of Trent (1545 – 1563) obliged everyone to give a surname. The church thus tried to register births, marriages and deaths. The state took over this “task” after the annexation of the Netherlands by Lodewijk Napoleon Bonaparte. The French emperor introduced the Code Civil (or "Code Napoléon"). With this civil code, the rules for the registry office were drawn up. Napoleon's decree of August 18, 1811 obliged everyone to confirm his or her surname with the municipal secretariat or to adopt a new surname.

Surnames were passed from father to child. If the father was unknown, if the father did not wish to acknowledge the child or if the mother wanted to prevent recognition, the little one was given the mother's name. Married women carried their hubby's last name, while keeping their "maiden name". The mayor obtained the right to name a foundling. He often named the orphan after the location (Church chair, Sandpit) or the time of discovery (Friday, Midnight).

Most registered the “family name” they carried for the mandatory registration. Some came up with a new name. One serious, the other less serious. Could the name Naaktgeboren come from this time? And what's your name?