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Holland, Flanders, Luxemburg, and other surnames.

We’ve all known people whose family names were the names of places. But what does it mean that your surname is a place name instead of, say, an occupation or a personal attribute?

It might mean you come from nobility: noble families often took the name of an estate, duchy, or other chunk of geography, and did so as early as the 11th or 12th centuries. But most surnames are not noble, and got assigned much later (in Europe, typically between 1400 and 1800).

For years I cheerfully assumed that a geographical surname meant that a forebear had lived in that place. It wasn’t until later that I realized how illogical that was. If everyone in a place were named after that place, it wouldn’t distinguish any Jan or Pierre or Helga from any other.

What these names meant was that a person had come from there but gone elsewhere. Being from someplace else is distinguishing.

You can even tell, approximately, the extent of the transplantation involved. Town or city names betoken a relatively local move (these names not being familiar or meaningful beyond their own regions).

Country names, in contrast, suggest longer migrations. To be Flemish in Flanders was no distinction, but in England it was. We can see this reflected in the many country-based surnames that exist in languages of other countries: Langlais and Engels for long-ago English expats, Tedesco and Lallemand for ex-Germans, and of course, Hollande and Flanders.

All of these surnames communicate something else as well: the highly circumstantial way in which many surnames came to be. In any particular locale, had the moment for assigning surnames occurred a year or two earlier or later, many of them would have been different, as the characteristic that stood out at the moment would have been different.

As for my own surname? It’s Norwegian for “fish”, but it’s an English name. What that communicates I couldn’t begin to tell you.