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Why are there so many “Van”s in the Netherlands?


Let’s go back two hundred years to the 19th century. Napoleon had just conquered the Netherlands and is surprised to learn that Dutch people have only a first name. The Emperor quickly issues a decree ordering the population to add surnames and register immediately at the local imperial office.

Although prior to the French invasion dutch people did not have surnames, they did use to add descriptive nicknames to their given names, which commonly referred to tiger place of origin. For example, if your name is Edvin and you lived by a lake, you would most likely be called Edvin Van der Meer, meaning Edvin from the lake.

Notably, it was only after Bonaparte’s Imperial decree that those nicknames were registered and became official. 

Bonus fact 1: Some Dutch people chose to add the head of the family’s profession as a surname. For example Houthakker (lumberjack) or Beckman (baker).

Bonus fact 2: Many Dutch people did not take Napoleon’s decree seriously, and chose to register funny names in the imperial offices. For example “Lange” meaning “long” or “Blootgat” meaning “bare buttocks”.


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