On the Origin of the Name Van Gorkom

The prefix van simply means "from", just like the German von. There is a difference in social meaning though. The German infix is strongly associated with nobility, while the Dutch van is far more neutral in this respect. In Dutch it simply indicates the place where somebody came from, whether one is from noble descent or not. There are two quite distinct categories of van-names. The first referring to local landmarks, like the name Van den Burg (from the stronghold) or Van den Berg (from the mountain) and the second category referring to names of villages and cities, like Van Gorkom (from Gorinchem) and Van Keulen (from Cologne). Most likely these van-names came in use as a reference to the place of birth, as even nowadays we wish to know where someone was born, always mentioning the place of birth in passports for instance.

How do you tell the difference between the two categories as mentioned, in case you don't speak Dutch? A good indication is the presence of de, der, den. het or 't after van. It all means "the" and usually refers to something in the first category, like from the hill or from the lake. When there is no "the", you can be rather sure that the name is a reference to a village or city. Prince Willem van Oranje for instance is named after the city of Orange in the south of France. The ancestor of Vincent van Gogh probably came from the German village Goch, as the absence of de or something similar indicates that "Gogh" must be a community. There are exceptions of course. Another famous painter is Rembrandt van Rijn. Rijn is Dutch for Rhine (ij is closely related to i and y in Dutch, being pronounced as one sound, a bit like "y" in "why"), so it seems to mean that his ancestor was born near, at or even on the river Rhine, which is a rather curious reference. The American habit to skip all blanks in the name can be confusing too. Vandeventer for instance is not a contraction of Van de Venter, but comes from Van Deventer, therefore meaning "from Deventer", a city in the east of the Netherlands. Another way of course to find out the meaning of a van-name is to look it up in a dictionary or atlas, ignoring the van-part. An important, but totally different exception to the van-rules is the Vietnamese family name Van, which is not an infix.

Maybe it looks like the capital V in van is used at random here. This is not the case however. In Dutch spelling it is a rule to use a capital V when you skip the first name or initials. Therefore it is Vincent van Gogh and V. van Gogh with a little v and Mr Van Gogh with a capital V. Since we are discussing Dutch names here, it seems appropriate to apply Dutch spelling to the names wherever possible.

The meaning of van makes it clear that Gorkom must be the name of a village or city. For Dutch people it will be very obvious. At the river Merwede, a continuation of the Rhine to be pronounced as "mayor-wade", lies a little Dutch town called Gorinchem, which is pronounced as "Gorkum" and sometimes even written this way. Taking the family tree on this website, you see the name Gorkom spelled as Gorinchem on a sales document that was drafted in the 17th century. The records from those days make it very clear that people didn't bother too much about spelling then. You will see the same person appear in official documents as "Van Gorinchem", "Van Gorichom" and "Van Gorchom". Within approximately a century however the spelling turned into Van Gorkom, Van Gorkum, Van Gorcum and Van Gorcom, which could all be used for one and the same person, depending on the likes and dislikes of notaries, priests and ministers.

Dutch administration was completely reformed during Napoleon's occupation of the Netherlands, which lasted from approximately 1795 till 1813. By imperial decree of 18 August 1811 everybody was summoned to choose a family name. After the French occupation the scheme was adopted by the new Dutch king Willem I. As a consequence of this ruling the spelling of family names became completely static. So from then on it happened that even the names of two brothers could suddenly be spelled differently, as most people hadn't realised how rigid the new administration would turn out to be. The four variants Gorkom, Gorkum, Gorcum and Gorcom still exist in Holland.

The name of the town of Gorinchem is believed to be derived from Gori(n)c and hem. Gorinc comes from the same root as the names Joris and George. Hem means the same as the German word Heim and the English home. So Gorinc-hem would mean "Home of George". So, in case your name is George van Gorkom, you are actually saying "George from the home of George". Even better if you live in Gorinchem. Or maybe Georgetown ... ?

The word gorkom also appears in Russian as горком. This is how the former Party Committees were called that governed cities in the days that the Soviet Union still existed.

More than one family
It will also be clear now that the origin of a van-name is only determined by the fact that someone came from a specific location. This means that in the same city two people could have started using the addition Van Gorkom, having nothing in common, except for the fact that both of them came from Gorinchem originally. In Utrecht there seem to have been two distinct families from Gorkum indeed.

Outside Utrecht many more distinct families exist or have existed with the name Van Gorkom or Van Gorkum. In the past years a huge database of genealogical information was compiled by Berry van Gorkum from Waalwijk in the south of the Netherlands. Nowadays these data are also taken care of by Frans van Gorkum (f.gorkum @ chello.nl), who informed us that the oldest record mentioning the name Van Gorkum dates back to the fourteenth century. Several branches and families are known, coming from all walks of life. Certainly a number of them are not related to eachother at all.

The city of Gorinchem
Gorinchem is still there. It lies 30 kilometres east of Rotterdam at the river Merwede, which is one of several streams that form the last stretch of the river Rhine. The distance to Utrecht is approximately 30 kilometres to the north. Amsterdam is 70 kilometres to the north. Gorinchem has a population of some 35.000 people. Officially it is a city as it received stadsrechten, i.e. city rights, in 1382. In Holland city rights have always been the official discrimination between cities at the one hand and villages at the other hand. Amsterdam, Utrecht, Delft and Leiden are other examples of communities that received city rights. On the contrary, The Hague, nowadays residence of the Dutch government and Queen, never received the rights, making it unclear what word to use instead of city.

Gorinchem is believed to be approximately 1000 years old now. At the end of the 16th century it became protestant, after the huge clashes with the Catholics, known as the Reformation. It is very likely that the name of this branch of the family has everything to do with the Reformation. The theory explaining why is elaborated on the page about generation I. If you like to see and learn more about Gorinchem, you may visit the city's offical website www.gorinchem.nl, unfortunately only in Dutch, or have a look at pages in English at http://www.xs4all.nl/~pho/gorkey.htm.

The picture shows an engraving of Goricum, published in 1572 by Braun and Hogenberg in their Civitates Orbis Terrarum. Detailed information on http://historic-cities.huji.ac.il/mapmakers/ braun_hogenberg.html. Please Click here for an enlargement. You may download a very high quality city map (606 Kb) from Blaeu's famous atlas "Toonneel der Steden", published in 1652, by clicking here.

Home  |  Search