Why So Many Dutch People Have "van" In Their Name

October 8, 2020

I hardly ever think about my own last name, “Van den Berg”, but I do know that a lot of foreigners think that Dutch surnames sound strange. My own surname triggers a lot of questions for foreigners: ‘why all those Dutch people have "van" in their last name’ and ‘what does “van’’ actually mean’? Well, I will try and explain that to you in this blog!

Why do Dutch have van in their names?​ The literal meaning of “van’’ is "from" and "of". The word is often used in Dutch as a prefix to a surname. In surnames it often refers to the place or area where your ancestors came from when they had to choose their last name.

A well-known example is Rembrandt van Rijn. His ancestors probably lived near the river De Rijn when they had to choose their last name. Of course there are many other examples of famous people with a surname like this one. The word "van" also has multiple meanings in the Dutch language. Read on as we go further in-depth on this interesting topic.

The Reason Why Dutch People Have "van" in Their Name

To find out the exact reason for this, we must go back a long way in history.

Even before surnames were officially required by Napoleon in 1799, many people already used surnames. The reason being many people had the same first name and this could easily cause confusion.

So, many people based their last name on the place or area where they came from. This way, everyone knew exactly which person they were dealing with or talking about.

Rich people, during the Dutch Golden Age, used “van’’ in their surnames to indicate which castle or estate they owned. They would use the name of the estate or castle as their last name and place the word "van" in front of it. This is the case for example in the name Willem van den Bergh.

The word "van" appears in surnames of all layers of the population. Some of the more common and traditional last names of families from the lower to middle class are van Beek, van Bergen en van Bilthoven.

In The Netherlands it is quite normal to have just "van" in your last name. However, there are several variations with the word "van" in Dutch surnames. In these instances, other prefixes are added to the surname, my own surname is an example of this, ‘van den Berg’, others include “van de”, “van der” and “van het”.

These extra prefixes usually do not change the meaning of the surname, although it is said that the longer the combination of prefixes, the more likely it is the name has its origins in the aristocracy.

As language evolves over time it is natural that there are surnames that used to include multiple prefixes and that these have slowly evolved or disappeared over the centuries. For example, “van de” could have started of as “van den” or “van der”.

Famous People With "van" in Their Names

Because there are so many surnames in the Netherlands with the word "van" in it, it is logical that there are a lot of famous people in The Netherlands, as well as around the world, who carry a surname including “van’’.

Example of famous people with "van" in their names:

Vincent van GoghFamous Dutch painter
Rembrandt van RijnFamous Dutch painter
Willem van OranjeFounder of the Dutch nation
Virgil van DijkDutch football player
Marco van BastenDutch football player
Edwin van der SarDutch football player
Armin van BuurenFamous Dutch DJ
Carice van HoutenDutch actress
Eddie van HalenGuitarist of Van Halen
Ludwig van BeethovenComposer and pianist
Martin van BurenPresident USA (1833 - 1837)

Even the surname of the king of the Netherlands is an example Willem-Alexander van Oranje-Nassau and his ancestor Willem van Oranje - Founder of the Dutch nation.

Do You Capitalize "van" in Dutch Names?

In the Dutch language a number of rules apply as to whether or not you write the word "van" in a surname with a capital letter. Whether "van" should be capitalized depends on what is written in front of the surname. If there is no first letter, first name, last name or other prefix, you should write "van" with a capital letter.

If there is a first letter, first name, last name, or other prefix in front of the word "van", then you should write "van" without a capital letter.

Why do so many dutch people have van in their name

Example of when to write "van" a capital letter:

Vincent van Gogh
V. van Gogh
mister Van Gogh
painter Van Gogh

Is That The Only Meaning of "van"?

Now that I have explained the meaning of the word ‘“van’’ in Dutch surnames I would like to point out that the word “van’’ has many other meanings in the Dutch language. As many people have told me, ’Dutch is one of the most difficult languages to learn’. For a crash course in the uses and meanings of “van’’ in the Dutch language read my explanation below.

The literal English translation of the Dutch word "van" is "of" or "from", but it can be used in different ways in the Dutch language. Its meaning depends on the context of the sentence.

How to use "van" in different sentences:

Isdieautovanjou?
Is = isdie = thatauto = carvan = ofjou = you
Isthatcaryours?
Watvindjijervan?
Wat = whatvind = thinkjij = youervan = of it
Whatdoyouthinkofit
IkgavanAmsterdamnaarNew York
Ik = iga = govan = fromAmsterdamnaar = toNew York
IgofromAmsterdamtoNew York

Conclusion

So, now that the use of the prefix “van’’ in Dutch surnames might be a little bit clearer, any of you have discovered that you might have Dutch roots just by looking more closely at your own last name?

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Written by

Leo van den Berg
As a Dutchman I am extremely proud of the beautiful country in which I live. My goal is to convey my passion and love for the Netherlands to as many people as possible.

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