Methodology Spotlight

Unexpected First Names

A frequently heard from people who start with genealogy in the Netherlands is, what were popular naming conventions? In general we can say that the first son was often named after his paternal grandfather, the second son after his maternal grandfather. Likewise, the first daughter was named after her maternal grandmother, the second daughter after her paternal grandmother. This leads to long lists of Jan, Hendrik, Peter, Marie and Anna. But every now and then you will stumble upon a very unexpected first name. Where did that name come from?

Dutch Law

Current law says that parents are free to chose their children first names, as long as the name is not ‘inappropriate’. The civil registrar is allowed to refuse a specific first name, if he or she thinks that name is not appropriate. [source] Not allowed are:

  • ridiculous names;
  • swear words;
  • too many names;
  • an existing surname, unless it is also an existing first name.

Noah and Emma were the most popular names in the Netherlands in 2019 and 2020. [source]


Usually parents asked family members to be the godparents of their children. As the main task for godparents was to ensure a decent (Christian) upbringing, parents only entrusted this task to their own parents, siblings, cousins or other relatives.

Baptism of Carolus Henricus de la Hault, Loon op Zand, 1698 (photo credits: Regionaal Archief Tilburg)

Only in special situations a couple would ask a person from outside the family. This happened for example, when in 1698 Dieudonné de la Hault and Gijsberta Beunen had twins. Their parents asked two family members of the noble family D’Immerselle. Not only became these noblemen the godparents of the children, the parents also named their sons after them. The oldest son Carolus Henricus, and the younger one Eugenius Josephus. This way these ‘unexpected’ first names made an entrance in this family.

Patron saints / holidays

A child might be born on a specific day, be it the name day of a saint or a holiday. When in 1910 Ulrich Emil Burkhard and Margaretha Elwina Martha Hammer became the parents of a son, they named him Noël René. He was born on Christmas Day, 25 December.

Birth of Noël René Burkhard, Helmond, 25 December 1910 (photo credits: Regionaal Historisch Centrum Eindhoven)

Was Melchior Antonius Reinier van Brakel named after a family member, or did he get his unusual first name because he was born on 6 January 1843? Epihany or Three Kings’ Day: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.

Children born on the last day of the year could get the name Silvester, after Saint Silvester. Because their son was born on 31 December 1831, Johannes Carolus van Houdt and Maria Suzanna Verbruggen named him: Silvester Carolus. [source]

Seventh son

The number seven has a mystical and biblical significance: seven virtues and seven deadly sins, the seven days of creation. According to older legends the seventh son was gifted, espcially if he was the seventh son of a seventh son. [source]

In the Middle Ages, the French King Louis IX (1214-1270) became a model of the ideal Christian monarch. His popularity led to tradition to name the seventh son after this saint: Ludovicus, Lodewijk, Ludwig, Louis. Originally the seventh son had to come from an unbroken line with no female siblings born between. Later, rules became less strict and every seventh child could get the name Louis or Louise.

Children were not only named after Saint Louis of France, but also after the King (or Queen) of the country, where the family lived. In Belgium it was (and still is) custom to ask the King or Queen as a godparent to a seventh son or daughter.

Baptism of Adrianus Brendt, seventh son of Joannes Brendt and Joanna Verhoeve, Loon op Zand, 1764 (photo credits: Regionaal Archief Tilburg)

Not every Dutch family chose the name Ludovicus or Lodewijk. Joannes Brendt and Joanna Verhoeve had two girls, followed by a series of seven boys. They named their seventh son, born in 1764, Adrianus. His entry in the baptismal register says he was a “filius septimus”.

Other reasons

In the 20th and 21st century parents often chose names, simply because they liked the name. Or because they were fans of a famous singer or actress.

These are just a few reasons why a family chose for a special name. Perhaps you have found an unusual or unexpected first name in your family? Could you figure out why he or she got that name? Let us know, especially if you have Dutch examples.