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In German, von is a preposition which approximately means of or from.

When it is used as a part of a German family name, it is usually a nobiliary particle, like the French, Spanish and Portuguese "de". At certain times and places, it has been illegal for anyone who was not a member of the nobility to use von before their family name. However, in the Middle Ages the "von" particle was still a common part of names and was widely used also by commoners, e.g. "Hans von Duisburg" meant Hans from [the city of] Duisburgmarker. (The Dutch "Van", which is a cognate of "Von" but does not indicate nobility, can be said to have preserved this earlier meaning).

Usage

Germany and Austria

The abolition of the monarchies in Germanymarker and Austriamarker in 1919 meant that neither state had a privileged nobility, and both had exclusively republican governments.

In Germany, this meant that in principle von simply became an ordinary part of the names of the people who used it. There were no longer any legal privileges or constraints associated with this naming convention, although in practice, many people with von in their names are still listed in telephone books and other files under the rest of their name. (e.g. Ludwig von Mises would be under M in the phone book rather than V).

In Austria, in contrast, not only were the privileges of the nobility abolished, their titles and prepositions were abolished as well. Thus, for example, Friedrich von Hayek became Friedrich Hayek in 1919 when Austria abolished all indicators of nobility in family names. On this issue, also see Austrian nobility.

Nordic countries

In the Nordic countries, von is common but not universal in the names of noble families of German origin such as former Finnish President Urho Kekkonen who had distant German ancestry through the Von Riesenberg family, and has occasionally been used as a part of names of ennobled families of native or foreign, but non-German, extraction, as with the family of the philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright, which is of Scottish originmarker.

Non-noble use

Not all members of families whose names begin with "von" are holders of a title of some kind, regardless of whether their parents are living or dead—while it can be said that almost all German nobles use von not all users of von are noble. Many individuals of no titled descent, particularly in America, nonetheless choose to add the particle to their name.

Ancient nobility

Some very old noble families, usually members of the Uradel, do not use von but are nevertheless still noble.

Also, a very few German families were elevated to the nobility without the use of the preposition von. This was the case of the Riedesel Freiherren zu Eisenbach who received their baronial dignity in 1680. Ancient families distinguish themselves from newly ennobled ones by abbreviating von to v. This is also the traditional practice of nobles in North Germany.

Capitalisation

The prefix "von" is not capitalized in German speaking countries, unless it begins a sentence – for instance, "A book by von Humboldt", but "Von Humboldt wrote this book."

This is in contrast to Dutch Van, which in the north (Netherlands) is capitalized when standing alone (unless part of a clause), and in the south (Belgium) is always capitalized – for instance, "A paper by Van der Waals", though "The van der Waals radius", and "The politician Eric Van Rompuy."

Examples

In Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice, the protagonist is a famous novelist formerly named Gustav Aschenbach who has recently been ennobled and so acquired the name von Aschenbach.

Outside of fiction, Lars von Trier, Diane von Fürstenberg, Erich von Stroheim, Josef von Sternberg, Dita Von Teese and Denise van Outen added the von/van to their name by their own choice.

References

  1. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/nobiliary+particle



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