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April 5, 2008

GENEALOGY: History of Dutch surnames can be a tangled web

TERRE HAUTE — The history of Dutch surnames is a tangled web, when, for example, compared to the history of some other European surnames.

Going back to the 1400s, the Dutch began using patronymic names as a means of identifying themselves. Patronymic means the child’s “last” name would be a form of the father’s given name. Thus, Claus, son of Barent, would be Claus Barents, Barentsz, Barentsen, or Barentszen–there were a number of endings that could be added, depending upon the region in the Netherlands a person was from or the gender of the child.

The different endings to the name above literally mean “Barent’s,” Barent’s son” (the “z” is an abbreviation of “zoon,” Dutch for “son”), or “Barent-son.” There were also female endings. So Annetje, daughter of Barent, could be called Barents, Baretnsd, Barentdtr, etc. Spelling was not a big issue back then. The ending -se (Barentse), was particular to the Dutch province of Zeeland. If you find an ancestor whose patronymic name ends in -se, you can be pretty certain he or she came from Zeeland in the southwest of the Netherlands.

Last week I discussed Dutch given names at length because they are such a big piece of the puzzle regarding patronymic surnames. For instance, children of the same father might use different patronyms, each based on a form of the father’s name. Thus Pieter, son of Denys, might call himself Pieter Denysen while his brother Matthijs might call himself Matthijs Nyssen. This is because Nys is a short form–a sort of nickname–for Denys (Dennis), their father’s given name.

The same person might also go by several different names. So it’s possible for the above Matthijs Nyssen to be called Matthijs Denysen at times. The situation can be further complicated by the fact that Thys is a nickname for Matthijs (Matthew), so he could actually be known as Thys Denysen or Thys Nyssen as well.

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