We're used to seeing von and van in names famous and not. Now it's time to explain their meaning and what you might learn about someone's ancestors from those three little letters.
We all know of various von’s:
Baron von Richthofen, the Red Baron;
Count or Graf von Zeppelin with the zeppelins he invented;
Wernher von Braun with the rockets he devised;
the von Trapp family of the Sound of Music.
By the way, Germans pronounce "v" as an "f", so "von" sounds like "fonn." (unless the word is foreign, then it’s pronounced “v”, like "vampir.")
But that von in all those names- what does it mean? It means nobility. It means ‘from.’ Nobility was defined by birth, but originally from holding land, and your family name was the land you held. Not just in German, but French, Italian, Spanish etc.
The German von means ‘from’. French has de, Italian has di and its variants, English has of, which indicated where a person was from- in none of these languages was it used exclusively for nobles, but most noble families used it to indicate their land holding, a central basis for noble status.
English and French Names Show "from" as well
England used “of”, or “de” to show where a noble (or commoner) was from:
Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, that murdered prince
Anne of Cleves (Anna von Kleve in German, Henry VIII’s fifth wife)
William of Occam, a monk rather than a lord
The English prince John of Gaunt was so called simply because he was the John who had been born in Ghent (Gaunt, in those days).
In English, commoners would more often use ‘at’ if they were known by their location: Atwood, Atwater, etc., and even the at or on might fall away (the Kelly on the hill becomes Kelly Hill). French names with variants of de were never a reliable indicator of nobility; the WWII leader Charles de Gaulle’s name appears to have been Flemish/Dutch in origin, van der Waulle/van der Wal ‘the guy with the house up against the (city) wall’. Several French presidents helped themselves to a noble-sounding de without such heritage. those faux nobles.
Wait- Ludwig vAn Beethoven?
The "a" should clue you in that Beethoven's family was at some point Dutch. In Dutch, van has always been in robust usage among the general population, with the same 'from' meaning of von: van der Graft - from the canal van der Bergh - from the mountain van Leeuwenhoek - from the town of Leeuwenhoek van Dyck (actually van Dijk, pronounced ‘vahnn dike’, the Dutch really do pronounce it ‘v’ all the time, unlike the Germans).
We know lots of Dutch van names- van Gogh, Van Helsing, Vanderbilt, Martin Van Buren (the only U.S. president not to speak English as his home language- his family still spoke Dutch at home, in New Holland/New York state). William of Orange (Willem van Oranje in Dutch) is an example of a van who was actually of nobility.
Ludwig van Beethoven was not a noble, since van is the Dutch version, but he did try to pull a fast one in Vienna, filing for the custody hearing for his nephew in the court reserved for nobles, counting on them not to question his social status. And got chewed out when he got caught.
Noble vs. Non-Noble "von"
In the German-speaking countries, von is usually assumed to mark nobility, but there are some non-noble families who have always used it, primarily in northwest Germany (near the Netherlands) and in Switzerland (where the aristocracy played less of a role than in Germany). For example von Doemming, von Eynern, v.Felbert, v.Duisburg.
Bavaria on the other hand gradually reserved von for nobles, although non-nobles sometimes held on to their von by combining it into the family name: von Sicht became Vonsicht, von Hof became Vonhof, etc. When commoners were ennobled, they would typically add von to their name (von Goethe, von Schiller), but sometimes would pick an additional name to put the von on- something grand, or the site of the battle they won their spurs at.
In 1919, the aristocracy was stripped of all special privilege; von was henceforth just part of their name. Austria actually made the use of von illegal in 1919. Speaking of Austrians, the Imperial dynasty the von Hapsburg line were ‘from the Habichtsburg/Hawk Castle’, their ancestral home.
More rarely you’ll see von und zu (“fawn oont tzoo”, 'from and at’). Von to tell you where they originally held land, and zu indicated where they currently held land, so von und zu meant they were still holding the same ancestral land after all these centuries, like Fürst von und zu Liechtenstein, the prince of the postage stamp country of Liechtenstein. If the von and zu named different places, say, von Weißstein zu Schwarzfels, the von indicates where their noble house originated, but the zu indicated where they currently ruled, typically when the land was split up among heirs. Danish officers from 1770 to 1860 could add von to their name- officers were traditionally from the nobility, but less and less as time went on, so a Danish von is no guarantee of nobility. And, of course, a Scandinavian with a von may just be descended from a German noble immigrant- many Germans moved north as professionals, or craftsmen, or as farmers.
A von in your family tree might not be noble, but it more than likely is.
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