The story of the origin of family names is pretty familiar. I know that in America, the names came from many sources, but they were mainly from the profession of the man or where he came from. Slaves were given the name of the owner of the plantation. Thousands of immigrants had their name changed once they arrived at Ellis Island. For many of us, we don’t even know what our name means or how it became our name. But the origin of names is pretty similar around the world and hundreds of years ago, names did represent what you did or where you lived.

I have not only struggled with the pronunciation of Dutch words, I have hit my wall with Dutch names. When I hear names on TV, they go right by me. When I see the names in print, I am astonished at how many vowels there are, how long the name is and how someone can say the name without passing a hair ball. I decided to look into the history of these names and find out why they are so complicated. Remember that they sound really weird to me, an American. But American names sound really odd to the Dutch. It is all about what you are used to.

And you all know, many Dutch people have immigrated to the United States. Not just to New York, but to the mid-west too. Those Dutch names have been part of American lives for centuries. It just shows how far back we are all connected, one way or the other.

Did you know that Napoleon occupied The Netherlands and was its emperor? He named his brother King Louis as the ruler of this country in 1806. But Napoleon did not like what his brother was doing, he was too permissive and was not forcing the Dutch to conform to the French ways. In 1810, he took over and ruled alongside his brother.

Napoleon wanted to conduct a census for tax purposes, so he required mandatory registrations for births, deaths and marriages and for that, people needed a surname. He even required men to serve in the French army. Napoleon and his brother instituted civil reforms, codes and laws. King Louis set up the monetary system using the Guilder.

Back then, many people did not have last names. Everyone had to register in person with a name and many Dutch people thought this was ridiculous. Some even thought that Napoleon would not last long (they were right) as their ruler and did not take the naming too seriously. They viewed this new law as temporary…until Napoleon left The Netherlands. It is believed that some Dutch had some fun at the French expense. So they made up names that amused them and the French had no clue that the names were jokes. Here are just a few examples:

  • Uiekruier        – onion crier
  • Naaktgeboren – born naked
  • Poepjes           – little poop
  • Rotmensen     – rotten people
  • Piest                – to urinate
  • Komtebedde   – come to bed
  • Van den Berg  – from the mountain (there are NO mountains or hills in NL)
  • Oudegenoeg   – old enough

So here is the even funnier thing: after Napoleon left The Netherlands, the new Dutch government liked a lot of the new laws, including the registration of surnames. And that meant that all the surnames stuck. Whether they meant them as a joke or not, those names have stayed for generations.

I can just see this line of men in the village square waiting to register their “new” names and thinking that they are being so funny. But their first names were already pretty funny (to me) and naturally, the Dutch just knew that these were typical Dutch names. Imagine a line of men named: Freek, Hylke, Sjoerd, Ewoud, Jeroen and Koos. Then add their last names. I don’t care where you are from, you have to smile at this. By the way, no matter how hard you try to pronounce these first names, you will sound like you have marbles or three tongues in your mouth…trust me on this.

Today, there are a lot of English names in the Netherlands. The current list of popular baby names is pretty much what is in America or England. But some traditional Dutch names still pop up. In the Netherlands, the J is silent. So I am thrilled and relieved that I am still called Jane and not Yane. I am grateful to the very nice Dutch people for that.

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