What's A Nobiliary Particle?

Art! Who comprehends her? With whom can one consult concerning this great goddess?
— Ludwig van Beethoven

Imagine how it would feel to use a Nobiliary Particle in your name. What would it sound like to not just be John Smith, but John de Smith? You might feel more confident and therefore act more confidently if your name was Jane van Doe instead of the more commonly known Jane Doe. Why don't you try it the next time you make reservations at your favorite restaurant? It's mostly psychological at this point in history, but doesn't it make you feel more important when you add those bits of formality to your name?

Let me try it:  Trevor von Stasik. 
Yup, it makes me sound like a United Nations Ambassador, or maybe a Super-Villain.

What’s A Nobiliary Particle?

Figuring out the Nobiliary Particle is something of an art, one which can be vague in some cultures, like painting in wide strokes with a broad brush. Other times, the Nobiliary Particle is a fine tipped brush, with a very particular meaning to some other cultures. Words that you might see as Nobiliary Particles include von, van, zu, of, de, dom, di, la, le, and af among others. I have to be honest with you. When one of my friends recently made a request that I discuss the Nobiliary Particle, I was stumped. I had never heard that term used before. He wanted to know about when Europe started using them and why. These were great questions that I needed to research further. So go grab yourself a big mug of Swiss Miss Hot Cocca and settle down by the fire as we discuss this signifier of nobility.

Before we try to see where this Nobiliary Particle-thing came from, perhaps it would be best to try and define it first. According to the Oxford Dictionary, it is “A preposition forming part of a title of the nobility”, and a preposition for those that do not recall is a word that shows the relationship between other words. In the case of Ludwig van Beethoven, his name means Ludwig of the family Beethoven. In some countries, the Particle rose as a sign of nobility or is spelled different for those of higher class. The fact that Beethoven has a van instead von, belies his more humble origins. In some locations, especially during earlier times, the Nobiliary Particle might signify a location instead of a family.

History and Heritage

The use of Nobiliary Particles predates the term itself. The first recorded use of the phrase Nobiliary Particle was in Paris 1871 when a law was made forbidding those not of nobility from using the particle. The actual use dates back to an uncertain time in the Middle Ages in England and France. The earliest use that I found was of Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, born around 1208 in France.

The World Heritage Encyclopedia is a great resource for the differences in the use of the Nobiliary Particle between countries; they are far better with the granular details than I could hope to replicate. I’ll make a couple of summary points based on their information. The words de, von, or zu would tend to precede the surnames of noble families in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, and Spain (but not all the time). Variations of the spelling in these countries would be used to denote families of lower status. One interesting quote from Philip Gilbert Hamerton’s book French and English: A Comparison (1889) states, “After careful observation I have arrived at the conclusion that the French de before a name, whether rightly or fraudulently borne, is equivalent to about ten thousand pounds in the marriage market and will often count for more.”

In Denmark and Norway, Nobiliary Particles of af, von, and de are used, but do not designate nobility; however it was more likely to be added to a name by those in nobility. In England, Scotland, and Wales, the nobiliary particle of de or the word of was used to designate territory rather than noble status. In Portugal, the Nobiliary Particle used was of dom, de, and a variety of spellings; with the exception of the 16th century, they were historically considered artistic embellishments allowed by all. Again, the World Heritage Encyclopedia lays this out better, and in astounding detail. I recommend checking out the link to their page at the bottom of this post.

There you have it, a little bit of background into the Nobiliary Particle. Do any of your families have a name that uses this terminology? If you happen to have any additional information that you would like everyone to know about this, please add your comments to this post or on social media.

World Heritage’s link regarding the Nobiliary Particle can be found here:

Other Interesting Links:

Also Check Out:
The New York Genealogical and Biographical Recod, Volumes 21-22.  New York, New York: The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, 1890. Pages 107, 108 and 159. Print via Google Books Scan.

Learn More About Nobility / Consider Purchasing:

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