Nobiliary particle

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A nobiliary particle is used in a family name or surname in many Western cultures to signal the nobility of a family. The particle used varies depending on the country, language and period of time. However, in some languages the nobiliary particle is the same as a regular prepositional particle that was used in the creation of many surnames. In some countries it became customary to distinguish the nobiliary particle from the regular one by different spelling, although in other countries these conventions did not arise, occasionally resulting in ambiguity.

Denmark and Norway

In Denmark and Norway one distinguishes between (1) nobiliary particles and (2) a preposition denoting a place of residence.

Nobiliary particles like af, von, and de (English: of) are an integrated part of family names. The use of predicates was no particular privilege for the nobility, but on the other hand almost exclusively used by and associated with them. Especially in the late 17th century and the 18th century one would often receive a predicate together with one’s old or new name when ennobled. Examples are families like de Gyldenpalm (lit. ‘of Goldenpalm’) and, with two predicates, von Munthe af Morgenstierne (lit. ‘of Munthe of Morningstar’). Prominent non-noble families having used predicates are von Cappelen, von der Lippe, and de Créqui dit la Roche.

The preposition til (English: to; somewhat comparable with German zu) is placed behind a person's full name in order to denote his or her place of residence, for example Sigurd Jonsson til Sudreim.


In France (and, largely as a result of the Norman Conquest, England as well) the particle de precedes a nom de terre ("name of land") in many families of the French nobility (for example, Maximilien de Béthune).[1] A few do not have this particle (for example, Pierre Séguier, Lord Chancellor of France). The particle can also be du ("of the" in the masculine form), d' (employed, in accordance with the rules of orthography, when the nom de terre begins with a vowel; for example, Ferdinand d'Orléans), or des ("of the" in the plural). In French, de indicates a link between the land and a person—either landlord or peasant.

Never in French history was this particle proof of nobility. The nobleman was always designated an escuyer (dapifer in Latin, for "squire") or, better, a chevalier (miles in Latin, for "knight"). Only knights could be designated by the spoken style monseigneur or messire (dominus in Latin, for "sir"), as, for example, "monseigneur Bertrand du Guesclin, chevalier" (in English form, "Sir Bertrand du Guesclin, knight").

So, in fact and by convention, surnames with the nonnoble use of the particle de are spelled as a single word (e.g. "Pierre Dupont"),[2] though many such conserved the de as a separate word.

From the sixteenth century, surnames among the French nobility have often been composed of a combination of patronymic names, titles, or noms de terres ("names of lands" or estates) joined by the preposition de, as in "Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord".[3] The use of this particle began to be an essential appearance of nobility. But, after the end of the kingdom of France, the use of de has not invariably evidenced nobility, as shown in Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's grandfather's change of name in the early twentieth century.[4] Even earlier in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many middle-class families simply adopted the particle without being ennobled; Maximilien Robespierre's family, for example, used the particle for some generations.[5][6]


In Spain, the nobiliary particle de is also used in two different styles. The first is a "patronymic-de-toponymic" formula,[7] as used by, among others, the fifteenth-century general Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, the fourteenth-century chronicler and poet Pero López de Ayala, the European discoverer of the eastern Pacific, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, and many other conquistadores.[8] The second style is use of the particle de before the entire surname. This style resembles but is more ambiguous than the French one, since there is no convention for a different spelling when the de is simply a prepositional particle in non-noble toponymic names such as De la Rúa (literally, "of the street") or De la Torre ("of the tower"). Examples of nobility particle de without patronymic include the sixteenth-century first Marquis of Santa Cruz, Álvaro de Bazán, the conquistador Hernando de Soto, and the styling of the king of Spain as Juan Carlos de Borbón, a common tradition in Spanish culture. Unlike French, Spanish lacks elision, and so no contraction is used when the surname starts with a vowel (though exceptionally we find Pedro Arias Dávila), but contraction is used when the surname includes the article "el" as in Baltasar del Alcázar.

A Spanish law on names, from 1958 and still in force, does not allow a person to add a de to their surname if it does not already have it. The law does allow for one exception. A de may be added in front of a surname that could be otherwise misunderstood as a forename.[9] Conclusive proof of the nobility of a surname can be determined by establishing whether that surname is associated with a blazon, since for centuries coats of arms have been borne legally only by a persons of noble condition.[10]

Surnames composed of two names linked by a hyphen ("-"), implying that equal importance is given to both families, do not indicate nobility. For example, the hyphenated surname Suárez-Llanos does not indicate nobility.

Germany and Austria

In Germany and Austria, von (descending from) or zu (resident at) generally precedes the surname of a noble family (in, for example, the names of Alexander von Humboldt and Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim). If it is justified, they can be used together ("von und zu"): the present ruler of Liechtenstein, for example, is Johannes Adam Ferdinand Alois Josef Maria Marko d'Aviano Pius von und zu Liechtenstein.

As in France and Spain, not all noble families use a nobiliary particle. The names of the most ancient nobility, the Uradel, but also names of some old untitled nobility, often do not contain the particle von or zu, such as Grote, Knigge or Vincke.[11] Conversely, the prefix von occurs, in the names of 200 to 300 non-noble families,[12] much like van in the Netherlands. Especially in northwestern Germany (Bremen, Hamburg, Holstein, Lower Saxony, Schleswig, Westphalia) and in German-speaking Switzerland, von is a frequent element in non-noble surnames.[12] In Austria and Bavaria, non-noble surnames containing von were widely altered by compounding it to the main surname element in the 19th century, such as von WerdenVonwerden.[12]

England and Wales

In the Middle Ages, the words de, borrowed from Latin and French, and the English of, were often used in names in England and Wales, as in "Simon de Montfort" and "Richard of Shrewsbury". However, the usage of "de" is often misunderstood, as in most cases it was used only in documents written in Latin or French. At the time, in translating into English "de" was sometimes converted into "of" and sometimes omitted, only rarely was it used in the English form of a name. It is also significant that both "de" and "of" were used simply to show topological origin in the names of people of all classes, so that in England and Wales neither "de" nor "of" should be looked on as in themselves nobiliary.

Despite the lack of official significance of the words "de" or "of" in names, there was sometimes a perception that these words connoted nobility. For example, on 8 October 1841, a month after Thomas Trafford was created the First Baronet de Trafford, Queen Victoria issued a royal licence to "Sir Thomas Joseph Trafford ... that he may henceforth resume the ancient patronymic of his family, by assuming and using the surname of De Trafford, instead of that of 'Trafford' and that such surname may be henceforth taken and used by his issue."[13] The anglicisation to Trafford had probably occurred in the 15th century, when the Norman article "de", signifying that a family originated from a particular place, was generally dropped in England. The resumption of such older versions of family names was a romantic trend in 19th-century England, encouraged by a mistaken belief that the article "de" indicated nobility.[14]

In modern times, a nobiliary particle (as the term is widely understood on the Continent) is rarely used. More usual is the territorial designation, which in practice is almost identical.


In Scotland, there is strictly no nobiliary particle, but the use of the word of as a territorial designation has a long history. In this usage, "of" and a place name follow on from a family surname, as in the name "Aeneas MacDonell of Glengarry". Recognition of a territorial designation is granted in Scotland by the Lord Lyon to Scottish armigers (those entitled to bear a coat of arms) who own or were born in or are associated with named land, generally in a rural area not forming part of a town. The Lord Lyon advises that for a territorial designation to be recognised there must be "ownership of a substantial area of land to which a well-attested name attaches, that is to say, ownership of an “estate”, or farm or, at the very least, a house with policies extending to five acres or thereby".[15] The territorial designation in this case is considered to be an indivisible part of the name, not in itself indicating historical feudal nobility, but recognition in a territorial designation is usually accorded alongside the grant or matriculation of a Scottish coat of arms, which effectively confers minor nobility status, even if not ancient. Despite this, the right to bear a territorial designation can also exist for landowners who are not armigerous.[16] A person bearing a Scottish territorial designation is either a Feudal Baron, Chief or Chieftain or a Laird, the latter denoting 'landowner', or is a descendant of one of the same.[17][18] The Lord Lyon is the ultimate arbiter as to determining entitlement to a territorial designation, and his right of discretion in recognising these, and their status as a name, dignity or title, have been confirmed in the Scottish courts.[19] In speech or correspondence, a Laird is correctly addressed by the name of his estate (particularly in lowland Scotland) or his surname with designation, e.g. William Maitland of Lethington would be addressed as "Lethington" or "Maitland of Lethington".[17]


In Switzerland, de or von precedes a noble name, depending on the canton of origin.


In Portugal there are not, and never were, any special naming conventions to show nobility. Personal titles like Dom (and its female variant Dona) may be used by the clergy, for instance, before their Christian name, not implying nobility, except if one previously knows the name as belong to a commoner.

Furthermore, Portuguese nobility is traditionally recognised just to people being born to four noble quarters: both grandfathers and both grandmothers must have been noble for their grandson or granddaughter to be considered a noble at birth, independently of any noble name, with or without particle.

Portuguese surnames do not indicate nobility, as usually the same surnames exist in noble and non-noble families. The restriction to nobility and the clergy of bearing arms at the beginning of the 16th century, when king Manuel I extinguished the previous bourgeoisie armorial, usually shows someone to be noble if he or she bears personal or family arms. But nobility in Portugal was never restricted to the bearers of arms, and many Portuguese nobles did not or do not have arms at all.

The articles de, and its different orthographic forms (do, dos, da and das), like in France, do not indicate nobility in the bearer. Portuguese modern law recognises to any citizen the right not to sign those articles, even if they are present in their identification documents, and the opposite right is legally allowed to those Portuguese citizens who, not having in their documentation any such prepositions, are able to sign it if they wish. In fact, articles and prepositions are considered in Portuguese nomenclature just as an embellishment to any name.

Good taste made usually Portuguese nobility reduce prepositions linking their many surnames, signing just one at the beginning of the name, and then the last surname being preceded by e (and), not to repeat the preposition. For instance, the name João Duarte da Silva dos Santos da Costa de Sousa may also legally be signed João Duarte Silva Santos Costa Sousa. Tradition and good taste should make him sign just João Duarte da Silva Santos Costa e Sousa. The last "and" (e) substitutes all previous surnames' prepositions except the first one, and cannot ever be used without a previous preposition to justify it. An exception to this rule is only shown with duplicate surnames linked by and (e), for instance when the maternal surnames come before the paternal ones: Diogo Afonso da Conceição e Silva (name and mother's duplicate surname)Tavares da Costa (paternal duplicate surname).

From the 19th century on, it became customary for Portuguese titled nobility to socially indicate their title as a subsidiary surname: for instance, Joaquim Diniz Tavares dos Santos e Silva (Paço do Lumiar). This social rule does not apply to members of the Portuguese royal house.

Other countries

Although many languages have nobiliary particles, their use may sometimes be misleading, as it often does not give any evidence of nobility. Some examples are:

  1. Brazil continued to recognize the distinction of nobility longer than its republican neighbors (Brazilian nobility), since it remained a monarchy until 1889, but it has also been a republic ever since. Nobility in Brazil took the special Portuguese ways, with the only distinction that in the Brazilian Empire titles and simple nobility were conferred only on a personal basis, and were not legally able to be transmitted to their offspring, unlike Portugal. In fact, differently from colonial nobility, the Brazilian Empire nobility was awarded as a private and personal condecoration for one lifetime, even if some of the Brazilian titles, in some very rare cases, were again conferred to one or two more generations.
  2. Spanish-speaking countries other than Spain use the particle de without legally meaning nobility. With only a few short-lived exceptions, all Spanish American countries adopted a republican form of government and abolished noble distinctions (but see the article on the Mexican nobility). Laws on names vary in Latin America but occasionally people are able to fashion new surnames that may sound noble: an example is Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, whose father, Ricardo Pérez de Cuéllar, decided to permanently combine his last names as a more distinguishable paternal last name for his offspring.
  • Italy: The nobiliary particles (or predicati) de or di are used after the surname or the name of the title. Di is sometimes contracted when the surname begins with a vowel, in accordance with Italian orthography. An example of nobility is the name of the noted writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, where Tomasi is the surname and Lampedusa was the family's feudal property. An ordinary use is found in the name of the American actor Leonardo DiCaprio, of Italian descent (his surname is spelt as a single word, in accordance with standard English practice). However, the surnames of certain Italian noble families are by their nature toponymic, reflecting the names of medieval feudal properties, e.g. di Savoia, d'Aquino. Further, the use of the particle "de" or de’ is often an abbreviation for "dei," suggesting the family is of a noble family. For instance, Lorenzo de’ Medici means Lorenzo of the Medici [family].
  • Netherlands: The particle van is not an indicator of nobility: the percentage of van-preceded surnames that are noble is not significantly higher than that of any other surname; they are evenly spread over the social strata. However, the particles tot and thoe, historically meaning "at" and related to German zu, are a strong indicator of nobility if combined with van in a surname, such as van Voorst tot Voorst (the prepositions tot and thoe were once used to denote the place of residence of a lord, whereas van referred to the domain whence he derived his title). Note that many noble families in the Netherlands have non-noble branches that are closely related and share the same surname. Double surnames are, therefore, a weak but significant indicator of nobility; many patrician and other families have double names as well.
  • Somalia: The nobiliary particle is Aw meaning "honorable", "venerable", or simply "Sir". Reserved for learned Islamic clerics, and used throughout the Somali territories. During his research in the ancient town of Amud, the historian G.W.B. Huntingford noticed that whenever an old site had the prefix Aw in its name (such as the current Regional Governor of Gedo Aw libaax), it denoted the final resting place of a local Saint..
  • Belgium: The words de, der, and van may be nobiliary particles, but as in the Netherlands they are more often not of nobiliary origin so are not in themselves evidence of nobility.
  • Sweden: Some noble families use 'af' as a nobiliary particle. This is the pre-1906 spelling of themodern Swedish 'av' ("of"), and corresponds to the German von. However, von has also been used in some noble families, some of German and some of Swedish origin. Thus Carl Linnaeus, upon his ennoblement, took the name Carl von Linné. The particles af and von do not have to be used with a toponym; they can simply be attached to the pre-noble surname. The word de has also been used in some families descended from 17th century immigrants of craftsmen and others from Wallonia in present-day Belgium. A well-known example is the De Geer family; other examples include Du Rietz and De Besche.
  • Finland: the old Swedish form 'af' and the German 'von', denoting descent or location, are used in some noble families.


Thai language na (of Pali origin) may be granted by a Thai monarch to form a Thai family name signifying of a former kingdom or tributary state of Siam.[20] Examples:

See also


  1. "Nobility particle". Retrieved 12 May 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "The French 'De.'". The New York Times: 22. October 24, 1897.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  4. Despite the addition of "d'Estaing" to the family name by his grandfather, Giscard d'Estaing is not descended from the extinct noble family of the Comtes d'Estaing. Giscard d'Estaing's grandfather adopted the "D'Estaing" name in 1922 because it had become extinct in his family (the grandfather was descended from another branch of the count's family through one of his great-great-grandmother – Lucie-Madeleine d'Estaing, dame de Réquistat – with two breaks in the male line): the lady Réquistat was the last to carry that surname in the grandfather's branch of the family, and so he successfully petitioned the government for the right to add it to his family name.
  5. Velde, François (June 18, 2008). Nobility and Titles in France. Retrieved 16 May 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  7. Cardenas y Allende, Francisco de; Escuela de genealogía; Heráldica y Nobiliaria (1984). Apuntes de nobiliaria y nociones de genealogía y heráldica: Primer curso (2nd ed.). Madrid: Editorial Hidalguía. pp. 205–213. ISBN 978-84-00-05669-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Cadenas y Vicent, Vicente de (1976). Heraldica patronimica española y sus patronimicos compuestos: Ensayo heraldico de apellidos originados en los nombres. Madrid: Hidalguía. ISBN 84-00-04279-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[page needed]
  9. Article 195, Reglamento del Registro Civil: "On petition of the interested party, before the person in charge of the registry, the particle de shall be placed before the paternal surname that is usually a first name or begins with one" (for example, a birth may be registered for a "Pedro de Miguel Jiménez", to avoid having "Miguel" taken for a middle name). Article 206 does allow persons to remove de and an article from their surname, should they so desire.
  10. Castilian sovereigns restricted arms to members of the nobility by virtue of Law 64 of the 1583 Cortes de Tudela and Law 13 of the 1642 Cortes. This can be checked online at the website of the Real Chancilleria de Valladolid, which historically has handled cases involving hidalguía (nobility)."Simple search page". Portal de Archivos Españoles (in Spanish). Ministro de Cultura-Spain. Retrieved 14 May 2009. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "Nichtadeliges «von»" (Non-noble "von"),, retrieved on 8 January 2013.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 "Adelszeichen und Adel: Kennzeichnet das 'von' in jedem Fall eine Adelsfamilie?" (Nobiliary particle and nobility: Does the "von" indicate a noble family in every case?), Institut Deutsche Adelsforschung (Institute of German nobility research), retrieved on 8 January 2013.
  13. The London Gazette: no. 20025. p. 2471. 8 October 1841. Retrieved 10 November 2009.
  14. "Gentleman", 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, p. 605.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Source at [1]
  15. "Guidance regarding Baronial Additaments and Territorial Designations". Court of the Lord Lyon. Retrieved 2011-05-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Adam, F. & Innes of Learney, T. (1952). The Clans, Septs, and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands (4th ed.). Edinburgh & London: W. & A.K. Johnston Limited. p. 401. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. 17.0 17.1 "How to address a Chief, Chieftain or Laird". Debrett's. Retrieved 2011-05-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Adam, F. & Innes of Learney, T. (1952). The Clans, Septs, and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands (4th ed.). Edinburgh & London: W. & A.K. Johnston Limited. p. 401 ("Scottish law and nobiliary practice, like those of many other European realms, recognise a number of special titles, some of which relate to chiefship and chieftaincy of families and groups as such, others being in respect of territorial lairdship. These form part of the Law of Name which falls under the jurisdiction of the Lord Lyon King of Arms, and are recognised by the Crown. [...] As regards these chiefly, clan, and territorial titles, by Scots law each proprietor of an estate is entitled to add the name of his property to his surname, and if he does this consistently, to treat the whole as a title or name, and under Statute 1672 cap. 47, to subscribe himself so"). <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. "OPINION OF THE COURT delivered by LORD MARNOCH". Court of Session. Retrieved 2011-07-29.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "Royal Institute Dictionary" (in Thai). Royal Institute of Thailand. 1999. Retrieved January 15, 2012. ณ ๒ [นะ] บ. ... ถ้าใช้ นําหน้าสกุล หมายความว่า แห่ง เช่น ณ อยุธยา ณ ระนอง. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

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