I've been paying attention to surnames lately, & I have noticed something that, to me, doesn't really make sense.

There are some surnames that start with "De" (a French word) & end with an English word (ex: DeWitt, DeWolfe.)

I was just wondering why that was, how it was, or if it's just a coincidence.


April 17, 2013 3:46 PM

De is also Dutch.  It means 'the': de Witt, the White; de Wolfe, the Wolf.  In Dutch, for example, Charlemagne is Karel de Groot.  (In German he is Karl der Grosse.)

April 17, 2013 3:52 PM

My best guess is that a large portion of "English" words have other roots. As a language, English has borrow, pilfered, and stolen things from other languages, most notably in its early days, old German and Norman French, with a lot of Latin thrown in for good measure. Furthermore, the preposition "de" isn't just found in French, but rather in most (if not all - I don't know them all) romance languages, including Latin, and possibly other groups, too. So, what seems like French+English, can just as easily be French+French, for example. Or Dutch+Dutch. Or Latin+Latin.

This is highly simplified and really just what I suspect (I'm sure that Miriam will correct me and/or fill in details), but when it comes to English, it's often a safe bet that the word came from somewhere else.

EDIT: Okay, she beat me to it.

April 17, 2013 4:09 PM

The specific names NQ cited are indeed Dutch, but where I grew up in Pennsylvania names like DeLong and DeTurck are common. They are French Huguenot names in their Pennsylvania context. In this case the 'de' is 'from' or 'of,' a preposition, unlike the Dutch 'de' which is a determiner.

April 17, 2013 4:13 PM

So... In general, I wasn't wrong?

April 17, 2013 4:27 PM

Karyn, what you said was correct in general circumstances, but in the instances NQ cited, the 'de' is not a preposition; it's an article.  That's the only part where you were a bit off on these two specific names.

April 17, 2013 4:29 PM

I'll take it! (That's why I wasn't specific about what the "de" meant, because I figured that it didn't necessarily mean the same things in all languages that might be in play here.)

April 17, 2013 4:14 PM

As Laura wrote in a recent blog post, surnames are often fossils. Delaware, for example, is a combination of Old French de la "of the" and Old English wer "weir"; in the period when this surname developed, the two languages were both in use concurrently.

Your two examples are not in the English surname "bible" (A Dictionary of English Surnames by P.H. Reaney and R.M. Wilson); they're probably simply not English names: both "wolf" and "white" have close cognates in other European languages.

April 17, 2013 4:44 PM

To complicate matters, there is a difference between Old French and (Anglo-)Norman French.  The "French" component of English names is in most cases derived from Anglo-Norman, rather than Old French.  Most standard French surnames come to England with refugees from the French Revolution. 

To illustrate the difference between Norman French and Old French, here are some doublets:  William (Norman)/Guillaume (Old/Central French), warranty (Norman)/guarantee (Old French), catch (Norman)/chase (Old French), wardrobe (Norman)/garderobe (Old French), warden (Norman)/guardian (Old French), cauldron (Norman)/chowder (Old French), and so on.  For an interesting insight into medieval life look up wardrobe and garderobe.

Another example of the differences between the various forms of medieval French:  the love poets of Occitan (Provence) were the troubadors (female (troubairitz), but in northern France they were trouveres.  Another word for Occitan or Provence was Languedoc, referring to 'oc', the southern form of 'yes.'  This is in oppisition to Languedoil, northern Frrance, which refers to the northern form of 'yes' (which morphs into the modern 'oui).

April 18, 2013 2:41 PM

Thank you, everyone!

I assumed they were English/French surnames because there are a lot of people with French surnames where I live.

What you're all saying makes a lot of sense.

As for the examples, I just put the first 2 to pop into my head at the time.