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Many Dutch surnames remind people of lasting influence of Latin

Traceable to higher education graduates

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

Many Dutch families are known by surnames that are not particularly Dutch even though they may have little or no foreign roots. Families in this category frequently owe their identity to ancestors who followed a tradition among university and Latin school graduates to Latinize their surname. Less popular was the custom to use a Greek version of oneís surname.

This tradition did not start in the Netherlands during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but followed a practice in Italy where it was quite common among academics from elsewhere to Latinize their surname. The practice among the higher educated elite to modify their surname may appear snobbish today, however, after all it should be remembered that after all their common language in the fields of advanced education, theology, governance, literature and science throughout Europe was Latin, not the local language.

Changing a surname today involves a costly procedure. Before the introduction of the Napoleonic law in the Netherlands in 1811, there were no legal regulations that prohibited people from changing their personal identity. It has been observed before that oneís identity was often determined how others around a specific person saw him. Just think of the use of nicknames such as De Lange (the tall one, which according to the dictionary translates to Longus), De Dunne (the thin one, Tenius), De Korte (the short one, Brevis). A specific example is the Nijmegen Jesuit priest Petrus Huntgens (a Dutch equivalent would be Piet Hondjens), who Latinized his Limburg surname to Petrus Canisius. (This surname can still be found in the Netherlands ((in 2007 there were about 150 namesakes)) as well as its contracted variants: Canis, 5, Kanes, 5, Kanits, 26, and Kanis, over 750, mostly in the region around Kampen).


As well, the presence of numerous monasteries and their members, the monks, influenced local languages greatly. If the Dutch language would be cleansed of Latin influences it would be greatly impoverished. The same can be argued of other European languages, including English.

The practice among academia was fairly common throughout non-Latin Northern Europe, including the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltic countries (French, Italian, and Spanish have strong Latin roots). As far as the Netherlands is concerned, Latin schools offered university entry education well into eighteenth century while other universities offered Latin well into the nineteenth century.

That many of these Latinized surnames have survived over the centuries is remarkable. Originally numbered into several thousands, these are now holding quite well currently at 1,500 or so, with Grotius (originally Groot or De Groot) being one of those no longer found. The number of surnames rooted in the Greek language has dropped to about 100. Most Latinized surnames can be readily spotted. Schotanus (van Schoten), Jongerius (de Jong), Rusticus (Landman, Boer or farmer) and Winsemius (van Winsum) are among those mostly found in the northern part of the Netherlands, where the Latin tradition through Franekerís university (1585-1811) was quite pronounced.


Latin given names were far more common. Many of these continue in the Dutch surname culture in the patronymic category, just like Jansen and Pieters. Examples include Albertus (385), Antonius (185), Cornelius (212), Janus (204), Petrus (244), Petrusma (111), Robertus (111) and Stefanus (5). All these, as are hundreds of other given names, are also listed as patronymic surnames. It is generally thought that in earlier centuries the clergy and their recordkeeping assistants (the costers, who would have an education in Latin as well), influenced this Latinizing of given names since they recorded births and baptisms in parish registries.

Another observation is in order at this point. There is a twist to the Latinized given names of Albertus and Robertus mentioned above. The original Germanic versions are Albert and Robert and represent the huge Gernamic group of given names which were Latinized under the influence of the clergy when the opportunity presented itself. Another example is the widely known name Hendrikus from Hendrik. Given names with a Biblical origin, such as Simon and Paul but especially Jan, a contraction of Johannes, gained wide acceptance as far back as the early Middle Ages. The same is the case with the given names for women, with Anna, Maria, Elisabeth and Catharina gaining wide acceptance. By the sixteenth century the group of Biblical given names had become dominant.

There are also Latinized surnames which are hardly recognizable as such. Who would have thought that Faber (over 7,100 Dutch namesakes and many more in Canada and the USA) and Fabricius (26) are the Latin equivalents of surnames such as (De) Smit(h) or (De) Smid(t). Faberís Latin roots also would explain why this surname transcends national borders and languages: the surname can be found in Germany, the Netherlands and the U.K., countries where it is associated for over 200 years with pencil manufacture (Germany), since 1844 with producing a line of stoves and heating systems, originally started in a smithy but now sold throughout Europe, Turkey and Israel (the Netherlands) and over 80 years of publishing classic literature (U.K.) to name just one example for each country.


Another surname type that belongs in this overview is Nauta (over 2.800) although it lacks the common us or ius ending readily evident in hundreds of other Latinized surnames in the Netherlands. Anyone with some awareness of Latin origins will realize Nauta (nautical) refers to Schipper or skipper. Already in 1624, a Jan Eelckes Nauta was named in records as a Leeuwarden-based skipper. He was not the first Nauta, however. In distant Doetichem, he had a namesake, Goswinus Nauta, who already made it into the journals in 1240.

Another less obvious Latinized surname is Agricola (another equivalent of (de) Boer, Bouwman or the older version Huisman, and their numerous spelling variants). Rudolf Huisman (born in 1444), widely known as Rudolph Agricola, is considered a Dutch great humanist and classic author.

The trade name and address name categories are well-represented among the Latinized surnames. Kuiper or Cooper has as its equivalents Cuperus, Kuperus and Couperus, Bakker Bakkerus, Brouwer Brouwerius, Coster or Koster Costerus, Cramer or Kramer Cramerus, Vorst Vorstius, Schenk Schenkius, Stamper Stamperius, and Schipper in addition to Nauta a Latinized Dutch version of Schipperus as well. An exception to this is the well-known surname Posthumus: is has nothing to do with mail but everything with a delivery: posthuum or born after the death of the father. Other Dutch and Frisian variations are Postma, Postema and Posthuma.


Reformed ministers often adopted Latinized address names. This best illustrated with the example of Nijmegen students registering at the Heidelberg university in Germany in the early 1600s: Petrus Zeporinus Neomagus (1601), Coetzius Noviomagus (1603), Martinus Johannes Palmerius Noviomago (1613) and Philippus Wilhelmus Weidnerus Noviomagensis (1654). Looking at their second given name, it is unlikely they were from the same family.

A better known example is the case of Erasmus, whose complete name actually is Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, meaning from Rotterdam. Apparently, Erasmus experimented with Rotterdam because he also used Rotterdammus, Rotterdammensis en Roterdamus. His pen pal Gerard Geldenhouer Noviomagus also used Neomagus as a surname. Others from that era are known as Nethenus, Mollius, Keuchenius, Peregrinus, Schoemantius, Holtius en Rappardus.

Although much more could be added about the Latin and Greek influences on Dutch surname practices and systems, one more point in general should be made. This Latin influence goes well beyond Dutch names, especially in the more formal Dutch used in government documents and the courts.

Not every linguist welcomes such a foreign intrusion into the Dutch language. Two groups, the Bond Tegen Leenwoorden (literally the Alliance Against Loan Words) and the Algemeen-Nederlands Verbond (General Netherlandic Alliance) actively campaign for a purer version of Dutch. As for the Latin influence, it is here to stay.