History of Dutch Name-Giving

Source:  Meertens Instituut

The history of Dutch name-giving can roughly be divided into four periods:

  1. The time in which a name given was dominated by Germanic names.
  2. The (late) Middle Ages in which Germanic names gave way more and more to foreign names of a saint.
  3. The period of stability in which the choice of a name was determined by naming a child after another person.
  4. The giving of names after 1945 in which a name had not or rarely exist prior to that time.

Germanic Names

In the Dutch language, Germanic names have the longest history and are from the oldest layer in our vocabulary. Germanic is the precursor of the Dutch language; Dutch and English arose from the Germanic.

The Germanic giving of names was characterized by variety since there were a rich array of possibilities. A Germanic name is composed from two stems, and the second stem indicates the gender of the name. In this way, for example, adel and bert give the name Adelbert (better known in its variant form, Albert) and ger and trud (a variant is Geertruida) produce Gertrud. However, adel can also be found in female names, such as Adelheid, and ger can be found in male names, such as Gerhard.

Further a first stem can also occur as a second stem and vice versa, as when ger can be used in Hartger, and bert in Bertold. Combining parts of names after family members was commonly used. A child would receive a name drawn from the name-stems of parents or other family members. Father Hildebrandt and mother Gertrud called their son for example Gerbrant and their daughter Hiltrud.

Medieval Name-Giving

In the Middle Ages foreign names of saints gain in popular use. The custom of giving children names of (patron) saints became stronger after the twelfth century because the Christian baptism initially did not occur with a Christian name-giving. (The Germanic names are non-Christian, with the exceptions of some saints with Germanic names, such as Geertruida and Hubertus). The direct influence of the church at the transition to the names of saints should not to be overestimated for this reason. As a matter of fact the church had no regulations with regard to name-giving before the Council of Trent (1545 1563).

What circumstances, then, led to people from the twelfth and thirteenth century switching to names of saints for children?. It is striking that people had to be familiar with the names of saints in order to give these names, yet not give the saint-names at the moment of baptism. There are several factors that might offer an explanation. With the Crusades, the Church had greater influence through the rise of the mendicant monks (Franciscans and Dominicans) who in turn promoted the worshipping of saints.

From the twelfth century, saints began to function as protectors for specific goals; e.g., against certain evils, as protectors of guilds, societies, and travellers, and so on. This association led to an enormous flourishing of worshipping saints. Quite naturally then, names of saints were heard repeatedly and were forced, to a certain degree, as baptismal names.

Besides religious influence the rise of towns was a positive circumstance for the spread of the custom of giving children saints’ names. Apart from an expression of religious dedication, the new custom also became a fashion and a trend. The habit, naturally, spread more easily at places with large populations. Probably the “fashion” factor has had more influence at the popularity of saints’ names than the changed role of the saints. Inquiries prove that the spread of names of saints developed via mouth to mouth advertising and not by outside influences such as the church and the mendicant monks. Furthermore the elite in the cities are, as always, the trendsetter with other social groups following their lead.

These “new” names were not so much chosen out of devotion but out of “sensibility for fashion” and “status thinking”. Moreover the names became part of the system of naming after family members. So also for this reason, relationship to a particular saint disappeared within a few generations. By the Reformation, the association with the name of a (patron) saint was not necessarily abandoned. Protestants had an aversion to the worshipping of saints; however, saints’ names were the most appealing. Thus certain names came into use through the worshipping of saints, such as Klaasje, Trijntje, Pieter, Jan en Cornelis.

Stability by naming after family members

Until recently and in many families, the rule was that children were often named after family members, mostly the grandparents and subsequently aunts and uncles. As a result of this custom and for centuries, barely any renewal of the supply of names was necessary. Therefore naming after family members is the most determinative factor in the development of name-giving during the centuries before the Second World War. In the custom of naming after family members, the transfer of a first name of a family member to a newborn child embeds the idea of reviving former generations – in name as well as genetics – a carrying on of the family line.

It is assumed that our forefathers believed that along with the name, something of essence was also passed on from the person after whom the baby was named. People could easily assign magical powers to names. From this idea it is obvious that one would be named only after deceased family members. In the course of time this limitation disappears. Nevertheless Le Francq van Berkeij in 1776 reported that “many people really do believe an old superstitious idea that somebody will pass away soon, if he, as it is said, “has been named after”.

In the course of the centuries family names became a tradition, a tradition so obvious that the names of children in a manner of thinking had already been settled by the time of a marriage. In many families the following rules for naming children after family members were in force.

In naming their sons:

  • First son is named for his paternal grandfather.
  • Second son is named for his maternal grandfather.
  • Third son is named for his father’s paternal grandfather.
  • Fourth son is named for his mother’s paternal grandfather.
  • Fifth son is named for his father’s maternal grandfather.
  • Sixth son is named for his mother’s maternal grandfather.

In naming their daughters:

  • The first daughter is named for her maternal grandmother.
  • Second daughter is named for her paternal grandmother.
  • Third daughter is named for her mother’s maternal grandmother.
  • Forth daughter is named for her father’s maternal grandmother.
  • Fifth daughter is named for her mother’s paternal grandmother.
  • Sixth daughter is named for her father’s paternal grandmother.

If the family had more than twelve children or more than six children of one gender, the above system simply extended to the next generation of ancestors. If a widow remarried, the first son of the subsequent marriage was given the name of the deceased husband.

So the first daughter was named after the mother’s mother, but sometimes after the father’s mother. This custom differed among regions. For the second child, generally, it was “the other side’s” turn. If the father’s side was named, than the name of the father or mother of the mother was given or vice versa, depending, of course, on the gender of the child. The third or fourth child usually got the name of the grandparents not yet used; if necessary the gender of the name was changed. (Cornelis becomes Cornelia, Jannetje becomes Jan).

For subsequent children, often enough aunts and uncles of the child received the honor of name transfer. In that case, the rule was in force that if the father’s parents were first used, then father’s brothers and sisters had precedence. It also occurred that when the grandparents of the child already were named, the names of the parents or great-grandparents were given. Remember also the tradition that deceased members of the family received priority in the giving of names, in other words “dead has priority over alive”.
If a child in a family passed away, most of the time the name was given to the next child or the next son or daughter.

The Period after 1945

In traditional naming there was slight overlap between official names and names by which someone is generally known, but in modern naming starting cautiously in the sixties it is different. Now official names most often are the same name by which a person is called.
Of the “pre-war” names that today are rare, we would include girls’ names, such as Bep, Annie and Mien. One doesn’t hear these often any more.

One still comes across the traditional official names, but only in the official names added to the modern name, that is the name by which someone is generally known. This habit leads to names like Kevin Martinus and Chantal Johanna Maria. This arrangement of several names is used as a compromise between a preference for a modern name and the need to use a traditional family name. If you look at modern Dutch names, it is striking that there a lot of English/American names, such as Kelly, Brian, Sharon, Kevin, Kimberley, Mike. For girls, the Dutch are also fond of using French names, such as Michelle, Esmée, Manon or for boys, Stefan, Jasper, Martijn.

There is also a rather big group of “international” names, which cannot be classed under a particular language, such as Linda, Mark, Laura, Stefan, Suzanne, Thomas, Eva, Vincent and Sophie. Almost half of the children nowadays receive only one name; more than thirty percent, two names; more than seventeen percent, three names; two and one-half percent are given four names; and rarely does an individual get five or more names. In this respect there is hardly any difference between boys and girls.