van (Dutch)

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Van (Dutch pronunciation: [fɑn] (About this soundlisten)) is a very common prefix in Dutch language surnames, where it is known as a tussenvoegsel. In those cases it nearly always refers to a certain, often quite distant, ancestor's place of origin or residence; for example, Ludwig van Beethoven "from Bettenhoven"[1] and Rembrandt van Rijn "from the Rhine".[note 1] Van is also a preposition in the Dutch and Afrikaans languages, meaning "of" or "from" depending on the context (similar to da, de and di in the Romance languages).[2]

In surnames, it can appear by itself or in combination with an article (compare French de la, de l'). The most common cases of this are van de, van der and van den, where the articles are all current or archaic forms of the article de "the". Less common are van het and van 't, which use the similar but grammatically neuter article het. The contraction ver-, based on van der, is also common and can be written as a single word with the rest of the surname; an example being Johannes Vermeer (van der meer "of the lake").

Names in other languages may contain a component "Van" that is unrelated to the Dutch preposition. In the name of American logician Willard Van Orman Quine, it is a given name. The very common Vietnamese middle name "Văn", often spelled in English text without diacritics, as in "Pham Van Tra", is a male given name, implying education.

Related prepositions[edit]

The preposition "van" is the most widely used preposition in Dutch surnames, but many others are also used, although not always recognised as such if the whole surname is written as a single word. Just as "van" all these prepositions used to indicate geographical locations:

  • te — meaning "at" (or/of towards), (or ter and ten, being the old dative forms), e.g., ter Beek (of the stream)
  • thoe/thor — being the old forms of te as in Thorbecke (meaning "at the brook")
  • aan — meaning "at" or "aside" (also in combination aan de, aan den, aan het, aan 't), e.g., aan de Stegge (meaning aside the road)
  • op — meaning "on" (also in combination op de, op der, op den, op ten, op 't, op het), e.g., as in Op den Akker (on the field)
  • in — meaning "in" (also in combination in de, in den, in der, in het, in 't), in 't Veld (in the field)
  • bij  — meaning "at" (exclusively in combination bij de, bij 't): Bij 't Vuur (at the fire)
  • uit — or archaic uyt (uijt), meaning "out" or "from" (also in combination uit de, uit den, uit het, uyt de, uyt den, uijt de, uijt den, uijt ten), e.g. Uytdehaage (from The Hague or from the hedge).
  • over — meaning "over" or "from the other side" (also in combination over de), as in Overeem (from the other side of the river Eem (river))
  • onder — meaning "under" or "below" or "at the bottom" (also in combination onder de), Onderdijk, Onderwater
  • achter — meaning "behind" (also in combination achter de) Achterberg (behind the mountain)
  • bezuiden — meaning "south of": Bezuidenhout (south of the woods)
  • boven — meaning "above" or "up": Bovelander (up in the land)
  • buiten — meaning "outside" or "in the country": Buitenhuis (outside the house)
  • voor  — meaning "in front of", (also in combination voor de, voor den, voor 't, voor in 't)
  • zonder — meaning "without": Zonderland (without land) or Zondervan (without van, e.g. without a surname beginning with van)

Apart from these prepositions the prefix "de" (not a preposition but an article, meaning "the") is also very common. They indicate a property, quality or origin, as in "de Lange" (the tall one), "de Korte" (the short one), "de Kleine" (the little one), "de Groot" (the big one), "de Zwart", "de Wit", "de Rode" (the one with black, white, red hair or skin), "de Rijke" (the rich one). The most widespread Dutch family name is "de Vries" (the Frisian).

For Dutch people of French (usually Huguenot) origin whose ancestors never modified their surnames to fit Dutch norms, the prefix "de" is a French preposition similar in meaning to "van".

Spelling conventions[edit]

Collation and capitalisation[edit]

Collation and capitalisation of names differs between countries. In the Netherlands and Suriname, names starting with "van" are filed under the initial letter of the following name proper, so Johannes van der Waals is filed under "W", as: "Waals, Johannes van der" or "van der Waals, Johannes".[3] The "v" is written in lower case, except when the surname is used as standalone (when the first name or initials are omitted), in which case it is capitalised, as in "de schilder Vincent van Gogh" and "de schilder Van Gogh" ("the painter Van Gogh").[4] In compound terms like "de Van Goghtentoonstelling" ("the Van Gogh exhibition") the "v" is capitalised, unless the connection between the person and the concept is or has become very weak.[5]

In Belgium, any surnames beginning with "Van" or "van" are filed under "V". So for example Eric Van Rompuy is listed under the "V" section, not under the "R".[6] The lowercase spelling in a name from the Netherlands is respected but not necessarily differentiated in alphabetical ordering and its Dutch style capitalisation for certain usages is generally unknown and thus not followed. The painter's full name, however, having become commonplace, is usually spelled Vincent Van Gogh in Belgium. In Flemish surnames the "V" is always capitalised though a following interjected "de", "den" ('the') or "der" ('of the', 'from the') usually stays lowercase.

In South Africa the Afrikaans surname Van der Merwe would be listed under the "v" section as is done in Belgium and not under "m" as in "Merwe, J. van der"; however, South Africa follows the same capitalisation convention as the Netherlands (thus, one would refer in English or in Afrikaans to a "Jan van der Merwe" when the first name is included, but simply to "Van der Merwe" when the first name is omitted). In anglicised versions of Dutch names (as in Dick Van Dyke, George Vancouver, Martin Van Buren), the "van" is almost always capitalised in the United States, but in the British Isles some families of Dutch origin continue to use the Dutch form (e.g. Caroline van den Brul).

Where the "Van" is not of Dutch origin, such as in the Vietnamese middle name Wen or Van (as in Dương Văn Minh, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu), there is no reason to use a lower case "v."


In some names, usually those of the Flemish/Belgian ones, and also some of the names of people from outside the Low Countries (with Dutch-speaking immigrant ancestors), the prefixes are concatenated to each other or to the name proper and form a single-worded or two-worded surnames,[2] as in Vandervelde or Vande Velde. Prominent examples include "Vandenberg" and "Vanderbilt".


The German "von" is a linguistic cognate of the Dutch "van", however, unlike the German "von", the Dutch "van" is not indicative of the person's nobility or royalty. Van has a history of being used by commoners and nobility alike to simply signify ancestral relation to a particular place, (e.g. Willem van Oranje "William of [the] Orange [family]"; Jan van Ghent "John [who hails] from Ghent").

Prominent people with "van" in their surname[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ While Rembrandt was actually born close to the Rhine, he merely inherited the name from his father, who already carried it. Van Beethoven neither lived nor was born in Bettenhoven, but a patrilinear ancestor perhaps was. Such names often go back centuries and may once have been mere self-imposed titles that their children then adopted.


  1. ^ "Did you know that Ludwig van Beethoven's roots lie in Mechelen?". 2017-07-14.
  2. ^ a b Brians, Paul (25 May 2016). "multipart names". Washington State University. Retrieved 11 June 2018.
  3. ^
  4. ^, line 16.B
  5. ^, line 16.D
  6. ^ "Vlaamse Volksvertegenwoordigers Per Fractie". Archived from the original on 2007-02-27. Retrieved 2007-02-27.