Compound Surnames – Prefixes
Compound surnames differ with regard to prefixes, varying by person, family and era. Compare Ludwig van Beethoven and Vincent Van Gogh. Beethoven is Beethoven and Van Gogh is Van Gogh and yet they could have been known as Van Beethoven and Gogh or vice versa. Problems arise not always from how surnames are supposed to be, but how other people perceive them, including neighbors, indexers, enumerators, typists, data entry personnel, clerks, and recorders. In addition to greatness, they both began life as Van Beethoven and Van Gogh, but were remembered as Beethoven and Van Gogh, as their surnames evolved differently.
Beethoven’s creative power in the First Movement of the 5th Symphony is immense. Go listen to it in person.
One of my favorites is by Christoph von Dohnanyi with the Cleveland Orchestra.
“My family has always spelled it this way” may very well be true, but not germane. For researchers, it’s how others perceive, index, pronounce and interpret the surname, that makes it hard or easily recognizable. Webster’s first dictionary, published in 1828, began to standardize spelling in the United States but not really for surnames. Training clerks, enumerators, editors, teachers, lawyers, and journalists, in the 1700s and 1800s was certainly not stable over a particular population, geography or time. There could have been someone in the office who knew the name because it was a family name, and so adjusted accordingly. Surnames in different branches of the same family may evolve with slight discrepancies in spelling. A knowledgeable clerk may have made things worse.
Martin Van Buren, the eighth president of the United States from 1837 to 1841, helped standardize some Dutch surname spellings, but that was only one prefix, VAN.
Consider some of the variant spellings of McAlpin which would be indexed four different ways, A, C, M, and Mac/Mc:
- Mac Alpin, Mac Alpine, Mc Alpin, Mc Alpine,
- MacAlpin, MacAlpine, McAlpin, McAlpine,
- MacCalpin, MacCalpine, McCalpin, McCalpine,
- Mac Calpin, Mac Calpine, Mc Calpin, Mc Calpine
- M’Alpin. M’Alpine, Alpin, Alpine, Calpin, Calpine
In the surnames, some have a space, some don’t, some are Mac, some are Mc, some replace the c with an an apostrophe, some have a capital C, some have a silent e on the end. For many more examples, please refer to the article Compound Surname Research Issues. Indexing compound surnames is so convoluted Joy Misa and John Steenwinkel published a paper in February 2012 with an appendix on the subject by country in Appendix 3 Non English Author Names. The Dutch part alone is so involved it sounds contradictory, Dutch names with ver are indexed under V, Dutch surnames with other prefixes (van and ten), are indexed without taking the prefix into account, while in Afrikaans all the prefixes are considered the beginning of the surnames.
Given the complexities, it is not unusual that many surnames are indexed incorrectly, but amazing how many are done correctly. In order to find all the documents that pertain to a family, a researcher has to keep in mind all the ways a surname might have been indexed, correctly or incorrectly and check them all. More detailed information about compound word surnames is available in the article by that name.
To answer the leading question, in addition to greatness, power and creativity (and important to this article), they both were born with compound surnames beginning with the article van, Van Beethoven and Van Gogh.
Van Gogh’s tremendous power in the Starry Night
Go see it in person, it’s one of my favorite stops at the Museum of Modern Art.