We hope this winning study inspires other onomastic researchers to dig into the rich historical textual and onomastic information that is rapidly becoming available digitally
The enormous growth in digitized historical information opens new opportunities for onomastic research that goes beyond the possibilities of small samples. Our study on the occurrence of multiple first names in the Netherlands 1760-2014 is an example of this development. We were able to use data from the current vital registration (extending back to around 1880) in combination with information on names from 19th century marriage certificates. Together, this provided an unprecedented detail and accuracy of information on the use of multiple first names. The fashion to give more than one name arose in southern Europe and reached the Netherlands in the 18th century. The Catholic population was the first to adopt double names whereas the Protestants followed only at the end of the 19th century. Three or four names came into fashion in the early 20th century, partially due to the increasing usage of the name Maria for both boys and girls. The radical change in naming in the second half of the 20th century, in which naming after grandparents was abandoned in the initial first name, had significant influence on the number of names as well.
Noteworthy was the effect of a 1916 law proposal to raise a tax on first names beyond the initial one. This immediately increased the number of single names. Although the law never came into effect and was withdrawn in 1918, its influence on the number of first names lasted for 20 years. This could be explained by a tendency of parents to treat all their children equally, including with respect to the number of names.
The simple variable of the number of first names thus shows several sociological phenomena over a period of 2.5 centuries. We hope this winning study inspires other onomastic researchers to dig into the rich historical textual and onomastic information that is rapidly becoming available digitally, to widen the scope of their investigations, to explore new analysis methods and to pose new research questions which earlier were beyond imagination.
Gerrit Bloothooft is a researcher at the Utrecht Institute of Linguistics. His interests are in onomastics, language technology, and historical record linkage. He is the convenor of the online Dutch first names corpus, including popularity of names since 1880 and their geographic spread at birth.
David Onland is a research assistant at Utrecht University. He studied computer science and cultural history, and specializes in digital humanities with an emphasis on the use of statistical analysis of historical big data.
Read more about the annual prize and the 2016 winning article.