WHAT’S IN A NAME

When it came time to choose a name for our anticipated new family member, we purchased one of those popular baby naming books without a thought to any family names. Starting at the beginning of the alphabet, we jotted down several names that appealed to us, either because it was unique, sounded good with our surname, or seemed to lend itself to character. For a boy, a passing thought was given to naming him after my husband, but was quickly dismissed in favor of other choices.

Unlike our parents who chose to honor a special relative as our middle given names, we had no intention of following suit. Our generation’s goal seemed intent on making sure our children were unique.

But for my father and his siblings, as his parents before him, a name was not just name as much as a tradition. The Dutch have long named their offspring after other family members – grandparents, aunts and uncles. Therefore, given names were passed down for generations. This chain was broken as our emigrant families assimilated more into their new culture in Detroit, and particularly after their offspring married non-Dutch descendants.  A few names have survived the times even here in America (although now Americanized with English spellings), but most have been overlooked for names more popular during the decade of the time of birth.  Maybe if we had known more about our own family’s history, the names Neil (Cornelis), Helen (Helena), Nellie (Neeltje), Lena (Lijntje), Adriana (Adrianntje), Mamie (Maaike) and Arie may have still existed in our family trees today, not just the Johns (Johannes & Jan), Peters (Pieter), and Henrys (Hendrik). 

It is believed that the habit of the Dutch of naming newborns after another family member originated out of superstition that the name in some way contributed to some form of reincarnation of the person the child was named after, who was usually much older.  Over time the superstition disappeared, but by the early Modern Age (1500s to 1800s), the practice had become so standard that the names of the children were practically known at the marriage of their parents.  The pattern of naming children usually was:

  1. The first son was named after the paternal grandfather.  The first daughter was named after the maternal grandmother.
  2. The second child’s name depended on whether the first-born child was a boy or girl.  If the first-born child had been a boy, then the second child would be named after its mother’s family, and after its father’s family if the first-born had been a girl.
  3. The third and fourth-born children would usually be named after the grandparents who did not yet have a grandchild named after them.
  4. If the grandparents already had grandchildren named after them, the children would be named after their uncles and aunts, starting with the father’s family.
  5. If a child died, the next born child would receive the same name.

While researching my father’s family tree, I noticed these naming patterns were still closely followed in the 1800s, especially the last one.  My great-grandfather Smouter was not the first son named Arie, a sibling with the same name had died in infancy 3 years prior, and Arie Smouter’s own second born daughter, Lijntje, would die as an infant, only to have the third born child then given the same name. To confuse matters even more, siblings would each choose to name their offspring after the same relatives.  I discovered that my great-grandfather, John Reyst, and his brothers each had offsprings named Cornelius and Henry, and my grandfather, Cornelius Reyst, and great-uncle, Peter Reyst, would both name their daughters, Helen, just 2 years apart.

Unlike our modern naming practice that consists usually of a first and middle name, a Dutch child may have only one given name (as my grandfather who has no middle name) or up to five given names. I have not seen five in my family tree on both the paternal and maternal sides, but there are several with 3 given names. But the pattern is inconsistent within a family.  One child may have no middle name, another 2 given names, and still another with 3.

Also, Dutch names are gender specific.  So if the grandparent (as in our lineage) was Cornelis, a son would have been named Cornelis and a daughter Cornelia.  Other examples of this naming method in our lineage were the names Jacob (Jacobus and Jacoba) and Peter (Pieter and Pieternella).

As to my father’s unusual given name, Arie, I discovered it has been a family name for generations.  I was able to trace it back to 1731.  It was a family name rooted in both sides of his maternal grandfather, Arie Smouter (from Arie’s father, Bastiaan Smouter, and his mother, Neeltje Klootwijk). His middle name Russell, however, has no history within his Dutch lineage on either his father’s or mother’s side, and demonstrates the transition of my ancestors to life in America. 

With the onset of World War I, many Dutch emigrants moved more and more away from their homeland traditions when naming their offspring to distance themselves from their Germanic roots. An example is my father’s younger sister who was named Geraldine, the first in our immediate family to not be named after an older relative.

So maybe with this new-found information on our family roots, some generation old names may one day reappear in honor of those long past.

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