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Where do Flemish surnames come from?

Today Belgium boasts over 300,000 surnames. Expert Chris De Wulf explains that people took or more frequently were given surnames as early as the Middle Ages.

“The story of Flemish surnames starts during the Middle Ages” explains Chris, who is an expert in surnames but also in Flemish dialects at the Flemish Free University of Brussels, the VUB. “It was a time when more and more people went to live closely together.  There were many people with the same first name.  To distinguish them they were given a surname”.

Often Flemings were identified with reference to their father and sometimes to their mother.  “Jan Peeters had a father called Peter, while Julia Mariën had a mum called Maria. Professions also provided inspiration.  Jan De Bakker was a baker, while Jan Smit was a blacksmith”.

“Where you lived could also land you with a particular surname.  Jan De Leeuw probably lived next to an inn called ‘De Leeuw’ or ‘the Lion’”.

External traits also played a role.  “People called De Witte had a blond ancestor, while De Lange points to a tall one”.

“It was Napoleon who got everybody to register their name and the spelling of their name properly.  This explains the various spellings with or without spaces.  Since then few spellings have changed” says Chris.

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