Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Etymological snobbery....

There is a certain type of book, often emblazoned with 'Mills and Boon' on the cover, which is richly populated by dashing heroes and swooning high class but impoverished heroines. These colourful characters (particularly in the historic sub genre) are frequently graced with double barrelled surnames in an attempt to insinuate class or position in society.

I'm currently stumbling my way though the mispronunciation (and frequent misspelling) of many such double barrelled names here in Holland, and this set me wondering why the english author has this view that double barrelled = status ; and whether or not it is true here.

I started by asking my housemate where his surname - van Buren - originated from, and promptly dived into a complex world of tussenvoegsels, the importance of capitalisation, and the risks of poking fun at bureaucrats. Historically, the Dutch operated a system of patronymics.... Pieter, son of Jan was Pieter Janssen , Jan, his father, was Jan Hansen etc. Perfectly viable in small close knit societies, but a nightmare if you were an invading general and wanted an easy way to keep tabs on your new subject : enter Napoleon, and his 1811 ruling that all Dutch must have a registered surname.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of people opted for similar patterns to those of medieval England...the smith became Jan Smit, the fisherman became Pieter Visser. Many opted to be known by their home location - 'van' meaning 'of' or 'from; 'van de' - 'from the' : these intermediary words being the tussenvoegels. 'Buren' is a little village in the Netherlands, and there are many other surnames that can be similarly linked. There are also a fair smattering of surnames given mockingly to the census taker, and their descendants bear that cross today - 'Poepjes' being the inevitable 'Poo' or 'Zeldenthuis' describing the individual's wandering ways- 'hardly home'.

So, case disproved, huh? Double barrelled doesn't mean posh in the Netherlands. However ...it turns out it can mean posh, and there is a way of telling. If a name is written in full, or with an initial, the tussenvoegsel is not capitalised : Pieter van Dijk or P. van Dijk. If the name is written with an title such as Dr or Mr but no initial, then the tussenvoegsel is capitalised - Mr Van Dijk. BUT if the individual is classed as nobility, the tussenvoegsel is *never* capitalised - thus indicating status.

I foresee novels filled with lovelorn heroines subtly leafing through their would-be beloved's post, in an attempt to discern if all is 'capital' abroad......

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