Dutch family names explained

What do painter Vincent van Gogh, presidents Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Friday the 13th’s serial killer Jason Voorhees have in common? You guessed it, they all have Dutch family names! So, let’s explore this topic. What’s the history of Dutch family names? Which ones are most common? What do they mean? And what’s up with the word “van”?

Dutch family names before Napoleon

The Germanic tribes that lived in the Netherlands from the 5th century onward didn’t have family names. One name was enough because they combined different name elements in such a way that virtually everyone had a unique name.

This changed in medieval times because of three reasons:

1. Christianity. When Christianity became the dominant religion, more people started giving their children biblical names. And, of course, a single book couldn’t offer the same variety as the infinitely creative Germanic system, especially because some biblical names were far more popular than others.

2. Namesakes. People didn’t just start naming their children after biblical figures, but also after people who were living in their direct environments, mostly family members. And many of them had biblical names, so they weren’t that original to begin with.

3. Urbanization. When more people started living together in cities, the chances of knowing more than one person with the same name increased dramatically.

As a result, people had to find ways to differentiate between multiple people with the same name. This was an organic process that happened sooner in some families and regions than in others.

Nobles who owned land were always eager to differentiate themselves from those they considered beneath them, so they were the first to adopt additional names. They mostly went with geographical names that literally referred to the land they owned.

Wealthy people in the cities followed suit. Instead of referring to land, they would often simply refer to their fathers. For example, someone might call himself “Wilhelmus, Johannes soen,” a medieval Dutch way of saying “William, John’s son.”

Other people were also given additional names, and these names were often nothing more than simple descriptors. Someone might be called “van Brussel” (from Brussels) because they came from Brussels. Brussels is a Belgian city, by the way, but borders were different back then. Someone else might be called “Bakker” (Baker) because they were a baker. While another person might be called “de Groot” (the big) because they were big.

In this informal way, more and more people got last names that stuck and became family names over time. This happened in the upper class before it happened in the lower classes, it happened in urban regions before it happened in rural regions, and it happened in the southern part of the Netherlands before it happened in the north.

Napoleon made Dutch family names official

The Netherlands as we know it today hasn’t always existed as an independent country. And for a brief period, appropriately called the French period, the Netherlands was controlled by France. This started only a decade before Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of the French in 1804 and ended only a decade after.

So, for a short time, Napoleon was in charge of the Dutch. And he wanted two things that every emperor wants: taxes and soldiers. Taxing and recruiting people was significantly easier with well-organized records, and that’s why he decided that the Dutch should be registered in the same way as the French. That meant everyone needed to have an official family name.

This policy went into effect in 1811, at which point 70 percent of Dutch people already had an unofficial family name. Most of these had not been deliberately chosen by anyone in the family. They had been acquired organically, similarly to how people end up with nicknames. Napoleon just made them official.

There’s a popular myth that some Dutch people who didn’t have a family name yet intentionally chose ridiculous family names as an act of rebellion against Napoleon, but there’s no truth to this. Dutch family names that sound silly to Dutch people today do exist, I’ll tell you more about them in a bit, but they came about in completely different ways.

Most of the people who didn’t have a family name yet actually chose extremely generic ones. For example, in the province of Friesland (historically known as Frisia), the family name that was picked more than any other name was —wait for it— “De Vries” (The Frisian).

Many other Frisian family names are also easy to recognize, by the way. The Frisians had a habit of picking family names that ended in –ma or –stra.

The meaning of prefixes like “van der” in Dutch family names

Over 70 percent of Dutch family names don’t have a prefix. But names with prefixes like “van,” “de” and “van der” are still common enough that many people ask about them. So, let’s go over them one by one.

By the way, in Anglicized versions of these names, the spaces are often removed, so the prefix and the rest of the name are written together as a single word. In the original Dutch names, the prefixes are always written separately, and they’re not capitalized unless they’re at the beginning of a sentence.

“Van” is the Dutch word for “from.” The Dutch pronunciation sounds more like “vahn” than anything that resembles a big car. It’s used in names that refer to a location. For example, the most common family name with this prefix is “van Dijk” (from dike). The first people with that name lived close to a dike or came from a place with “dijk” in the name.

There are over 1,100 Dutch family names with the prefix “van” in the Dutch family name top 10,000. And that’s just the word “van,” I’m not even including names with prefixes like “van der” in that count. The people with one of these family names make up roughly 13 percent of the population of the Netherlands.

“De” is the Dutch word for “the.” So, family names with this prefix generally describe what the first people with the name were like or did for a living. For example, a common family name with this prefix is “de Boer” (the farmer). Another one is “de Wit” (the white), referring to someone with a light skin color or light blond hair. Some names with this prefix have less clear origins, though, like “de Haan” (the rooster). Someone with that name could have lived in a house with a rooster painted on the façade, it could have been someone who bred roosters, or it could have been someone who was proud like a rooster.

There are almost 300 family names with the prefix “de” in the top 10,000. People with one of these names make up roughly 7 percent of the Dutch population.

Now, in modern Dutch, the way to say “from the” is “van de.” But back in the days of Napoleon, people would often say “van der” or “van den.” Nobody talks like that anymore, it sounds as archaic as saying “thou” instead of “you.” But family names are like fossilized words. They don’t change over time like the rest of the language. So, in Dutch family names, these are still the dominant forms.

The most common “van der” name is “van der Meer” (from the lake). And the most common “van den” name is “van den Berg” (from the mountain), which is ironic because the Netherlands doesn’t actually have any mountains. So, although heavily outnumbered, the people named “van den Heuvel” (from the hill) definitely have a more accurate name.

In total, about 5 percent of the Dutch have a family name that starts with “van der,” and about 2 percent have one that starts with “van den.” Despite being the only version of this prefix that’s actually in line with modern Dutch, only 1 percent have a family name that starts with “van de.”

In some family names, “der” and “den” are standalone prefixes. This is less common, though. And there are actually over a dozen other prefixes, but they’re all significantly less common than the ones we’ve just discussed.

Why Dutch family names are written differently than Belgian ones

Dutch names are sometimes easy to distinguish from Belgian names, even though they were written down by people who spoke the same language, because the French made the Belgians record their family names first. This happened in 1795. At that time, the Dutch language didn’t have an official spelling yet. So, people in every region just wrote in a way that made sense to them.

In 1804, however, a major effort to standardize the language was officially implemented in the Netherlands. The new spelling rules were called the Siegenbeek spelling. So, when the Dutch had to officially record their family names in 1811, the officials stuck to the Siegenbeek spelling.

As a result, some Dutch and Belgian names with the exact same origins and meanings are still written in different ways. And to any Dutch person in the present, the Belgian family names look more old-fashioned. Here are some examples:

Van DijckVan Dijk
De GraefDe Graaf
VandenbergheVan den Berg
De CraeckerDe Kraker

How dialects affected Dutch family names

Despite the reform to standardize the Dutch language, there were still plenty of regional differences. So, even within the Netherlands, there are different variations of the same names. There are three types of variations:

1. Form variations. The Dutch word for baker is “bakker.” So, “Bakker” is a family name. But so is “de Bakker,” “den Bakker,” and “Bakkers.” There are a lot of names where you can see this phenomenon.

2. Sound variations. The same words were pronounced slightly differently in different dialects, so when there was no single agreed upon spelling, family names were written down based on how they sounded in the local dialect. For example, in one part of the country, some people with curly hair got the family name “Krul” (curl), while people with curly hair in another part of the country got the name “Krol.”

3. Unique local words. Sometimes, dialects just had completely different words for the same thing. For example, the Dutch word for “tailor” is “kleermaker,” but there were four different regional words for this profession: “naaier,” “sutter,” “snijder,” and “schreuder.” There are different family names based on all these words.

The origins of funny Dutch family names

As mentioned before, there are some Dutch family names that actually sound funny to Dutch people. We can group these into three distinct categories:

The first category consists of names that were considered ordinary at the time, but because of changes in language or society, nobody knows their original meaning anymore and they’re associated with something else now.

An example of this is the last name “Fukking.” There was simply no one around who spoke English when this name was chosen, and definitely no one who expected the entire country to learn English. Two other examples are “Slettenhaar” (sluts’ hair) and “Geilvoet” (horny foot). No one knew that their ordinary, wholesome names would take on these meanings.

The second category consists of bastardized foreign names. These names were normal, maybe even classy, in other countries. But once people came to the Netherlands, their names were turned into Dutch words that sounded somewhat similar but were decidedly less classy. For example, the names Abercrombie and Copin were turned into “Apekrom” (ape crooked) and “Koppijn” (headache).

Another name that might belong in this category is “Naaktgeboren” (born naked). People often assume that this name was picked as a joke, but it might actually be a bastardization of the German name “Nachgeboren.” A name that indicated someone was born after the death of their father.

And the third category consists of names that were actually intended in the way that we interpret them today. They were nicknames that weren’t meant to be all that serious. Take the name “Oudgenoeg” (old enough), for example. Some smartass may have been asked how old they were and answered with “old enough,” only to end up with a lifelong nickname that turned into a family name.

Some other examples in this category are “de Kwaadsteniet” (not such a bad guy), “Zondergeld” (without money), and “Lachniet” (don’t laugh).

Nothing to see here, just an ophthalmologist with a normal Dutch name. (Yes, this is real.)

Dutch family names that indicate wealth

Unlike some other European countries, like England, the Netherlands is not a particularly classist country. There are exceptions, but in general, people really don’t care what your grandpa did for a living, and definitely not what your grandpa’s grandpa did.

There are quite a few Dutch family names that seemingly refer to positions of high status, though. Some examples are “de Graaf” (the count), “den Hertog” (the duke), “Prins” (prince), “de Koning” (the king), and “Keizer” (emperor). Names like these are common. However, it’s well understood that these names do not refer to ancestors who actually had these positions. So, they’re considered just as ordinary as other family names.

The only names that do suggest that someone’s ancestors might have been members of the nobility, are double-barreled names. For example, the family name “Raab” (no clear meaning in modern Dutch) would be viewed as an ordinary name, but if someone is called “van Raab van Canstein,” their ancestors may have been nobles. This isn’t always the case, though, and there were also noble families that didn’t have a double-barreled name.

So, without actually looking up a name, there’s no foolproof way to tell if someone is a descendent of nobles. And even if they are, that carries very little weight in modern Dutch society. And, of course, it’s also no guarantee that the family is still rich. Nonetheless, double-barreled names are occasionally used in fiction to suggest that a character comes from a wealthy family.

The 100 most common Dutch family names

Now that you know how Dutch family names came into existence and understand the different categories, let’s look at the 100 most common ones. One in eight Dutch people have a name that’s in the top 100. So, if you live in the Netherlands or interact with a lot of Dutch people, you run into these names all the time.

I have, of course, added a column with the meaning of each name. Many of these meanings are immediately clear to anyone who speaks Dutch, but that’s not the case for all of them. Some refer to professions that no longer exist, and some are based on words or first names that are no longer in use. So, even though every Dutch person is familiar with all of these names, most don’t know the meaning behind all of them.

1de JongLiterally “the young.” Before it became a family name, it was used in the same way as “junior” for a child named after a parent.
2JansenJan’s son. Jan is a male name similar to John, so it’s basically the Dutch version of Johnson.
3de VriesThe Frisian
4van den BergFrom the mountain
5van DijkFrom dike
7JanssenJan’s son. Same as Jansen (#2).
10MeijerEssentially a steward, the name has the same origin as the word “mayor” in English.
11de BoerThe farmer
13de GrootThe big
14BosLiterally “forest.” Could be the son of someone named Bos, or someone who lives in or near a forest.
16PetersPeter’s son
17HendriksHendrik’s son. Hendrik is the Dutch equivalent of Henry.
18van LeeuwenLiterally “from lions.” “Leeuwen” was just the name of a town, though.
21de WitThe white
22DijkstraEssentially the same as “van Dijk” (from dike) (#5).
23SmitsSmith, same as “Smit” (#9).
24de GraafThe count. People with this name were generally just working for a count.
25van der MeerFrom the lake
27JacobsJacob’s son
28van der LindenFrom the tilia, a tree known as basswood in the US.
29de HaanThe rooster
30VermeulenFrom the mill
31van den HeuvelFrom the hill
32van der VeenFrom the peat
33van den BroekIt’s intended as “from the swamp,” but “broek” is now more commonly used as the word for “pants.”
34de BruinThe brown
35SchoutenPolice officer/sheriff
36de BruijnThe brown, same as “de Bruin” (#34).
37van BeekFrom brook
38van der HeijdenFrom the heath
39WillemsWillem’s son, the Dutch version of Williams.
40van VlietFrom the stream
41HoekstraFrom the corner. This could be where a river turned a corner.
42MaasThomas’s son
43VerhoevenFrom the farm
44KosterSacristan/church officer
45van DamFrom dam
47BlomBlommert’s son
48HuismanLiterally “house man.” A term for an independent farmer.
49PeetersPeter’s son, same as “Peters” (#16).
50de JongeThe young, same as “de Jong” (#1).
52van der WalFrom the shore
53van VeenFrom peat
54PostLiterally “mail.” Usually a reference to a mailman or sentry.
55KuiperCooper, same as “Kuipers” (#51).
56VeenstraFrom peat, same as “van Veen” (#53).
58van den BrinkFrom the village green. This used to be at the edge of a village, hence the name “brink.”
59ScholtenPolice officer/sheriff, same as “Schouten” (#35).
60van WijkLiterally “from neighborhood.” It’s a reference to a town with “wijk” in the name.
61PostmaPosthumous, a way of saying that someone’s father died before they were born.
62MartensMarten’s son
64de RuiterThe rider
67van de VenFrom the pond
68GerritsenGerrit’s son. Gerrit is the Dutch equivalent of Gerard.
69JonkerSon of a knight. People with this name were generally just working for the son of a knight.
70van LoonFrom Loon, a reference to a town with “Loon” in the name.
72WillemsenWillem’s son, the Dutch version of Williamson.
73SmeetsSmith, same as “Smit” (#9).
74de LangeThe tall
76de VosThe fox, same as “Vos” (#15).
77van DongenFrom Dongen, a town in the province of North Brabant.
78SchipperCaptain of a ship
79de KoningThe king. This could refer to many things, but no actual king had this name.
80KoningKing, same as “de Koning” (#79).
81van der LaanFrom the lane
82DriessenDries’s son. Dries is derived from Andreas.
83van DoornLiterally “from thorn,” but it’s a reference to a town with “Doorn” in the name.
84HermansHerman’s son
85EversEvert’s son
86van der VeldenFrom the fields
87van den BoschLiterally “from the forest,” but it’s a reference to a town with “Bosch” in the name.
88van der MeulenFrom the mill, same as “Vermeulen” (#30).
89HofmanLiterally “courtyard man.” A word for someone who lived and worked in a courtyard.
90BosmanLiterally “forest man.” A reference to someone living in or near a forest.
91WoltersWolter’s son
92SandersSander’s son
93MolLiterally “mole,” the animal, but meant as an abbreviation of miller.
94van der HorstFrom the hill
95KuijpersCooper, same as “Kuipers” (#51).
96MolenaarMiller. Unlike “Mulder” (#12), this is actually the word for miller used in modern Dutch.
97de LeeuwThe lion
98VerbeekFrom the brook, same as “van Beek” (#37).

Vincent van Gogh, the Roosevelt family, and Jason Voorhees

Let me end this article with the meanings behind the names I started with.

Vincent van Gogh has one of the most mispronounced names on the planet. So, if you want to know how he pronounced it himself, this short clip will help you out:

The name “van Gogh” simply means “from Gogh.” “Gogh” refers to a border town that is now known as “Goch,” which is located on the German side of the border between the Netherlands and Germany. It’s not a German name, though, because it has the Dutch prefix “van” instead of the German prefix “von.”

The first “van Gogh” in Vincent’s family had moved away from this town generations before Vincent was born, though. Vincent himself was born in Zundert, a Dutch town that’s actually right on the border with Belgium.

Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt were descendants of Claes Maertensz. van ’t Rosevelt, who moved to New York in 1649, back when New York was still called New Amsterdam. The problem is, however, that we barely know anything about Claes. So, there are two theories about the family name, and we can’t rule either of them out.

To any Dutch person today, “Rosevelt” looks like “rozenveld,” a field of roses. And this straightforward theory is definitely possible. The other theory, however, is that the “rose” in “Rosevelt” comes from the German word “rausa.” In that case, we’re not talking about a field of roses, but a field of reeds. Either way, it’s definitely a field.

Lastly, the fictional serial killer Jason Voorhees, from the Friday the 13th movies, has a Dutch family name that can be  traced back to the settler Steven van Voorhees, who actually existed and crossed the Atlantic in 1660.

The name, which no longer exists in the Netherlands itself, was originally written as “van voor Hees.” It literally means “from in front of Hees.” Steven’s paternal grandfather lived in front of Hees, a hamlet in the province of Drenthe. Visit at your own risk.