Each year, a special committee of the American Name Society Executive Council selects one article that stands out as being a truly outstanding piece of scholarship.
This year’s committee was made up of Dr. Dorothy Dodge Robbins, Dr. Kemp Williams, and Dr. Michael McGoff (the Committee Chair). After careful deliberation, this team selected the article
“Multiple First Names in the Netherlands (1760-2014)”
Gerrit Bloothooft (University of Utrecht) and David Onland.
The article can be found in issue 64.1 of NAMES.
In a special online interview conducted with the current ANS President, the authors shared what went into the writing of this winning piece of research and described what future research projects they have on their horizons.
How do you come up with the idea to write this article?
David & Gerrit: The topic of multiple first names’ use in historical contexts was brought to our attention while we were preparing a presentation on given names in the Catholic province of Limburg where multiple names are common. We were curious how multiple names had developed over time and subsequently explored the issue for the whole country.
What strategies did you use to produce the article together?
David & Gerrit: We have been cooperating on big data analysis in onomastics for many years, as we believe that patterns in the usage of names in space and time show up more clearly at the population level rather than in small samples. We are privileged to have access not only to the onomastic data of the entire population of the Netherlands but also to an enormous set of historical data from the nation’s vital statistics registry. Over the past few decades, this registry was digitized by volunteers. The combined data sets extended our view into the past and showed us unexpected phenomena which inspired further analyses.
How did you become interested in this area of research?
Gerrit: My interest in onomastics in general goes back to my youth when I began to research the origin of my surname Bloothooft ‘bald head’. I visited the archives as a teenager and found out that the family name originated in the 17th century. Later, I was curious whether it would be possible to automatically reconstruct family trees from original vital and parish records. Such a reconstruction, I discovered, requires a thorough understanding of variation of names, in both social and historical contexts. The large-scale digitization of historical and modern records that started in the nineties in the Netherlands stimulated my attempts to use approaches from big data science in onomastics.
David: An earlier project, involving given names and social-economic background, got me interested in onomastics for the first time. The combination of big data techniques with names research allowed me to structurally combine two of my interests: computer science and cultural history. This kind of interdisciplinary approach gives both Gerrit and me a solid foundation in relatively hard-to-use data. It also allows us to take a very detailed look at how and/or why certain onomastic changes happen over time and space.
What research projects are you working on for the near future?
Gerrit: I am planning to reconstruct the Dutch population at least since 1811 when the official registration of vital statics began in the Netherlands. A major obstacle in tackling such a project previously was a limited knowledge and understanding of variation in personal names, which I prefer to define as variation that can be shown to denote a single individual or the same family. Such evidence can be taken from historical record linkage. I see a great future in this area of onomastic research. Another interest of mine is changing fashions in given names. My question is whether popular names are the result of a random process or is there an interplay with cultural, social-economic, and linguistic factors.
David: My current area of research involves the naming of children after family members. I want to investigate not only how frequently this custom occurs over time but also how this custom may have evolved with regard to modern naming practices, i.e. the usage of shortened versions of traditional names.
NAMES, the journal of the American Name Society, is one of the world's leading journals in the study of onomastics. Since the first issue in 1952, this quarterly journal has published hundreds of articles, reviews, and notes, seeking to find out what really is in a name, and to investigate cultural insights, settlement history, and linguistic characteristics revealed in names.
Published on 22 December 2016.