A nobiliary particle is used in a surname or family name 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 a different spelling, although in other countries these conventions did not arise, occasionally resulting in ambiguity. The nobiliary particle can often be omitted in everyday speech or certain contexts.
Nobiliary particles like af, von, and de (English: of) are integrated parts of family names. The use of particles was not a particular privilege for the nobility. On the other hand, particles were almost exclusively used by and associated with them. Especially in the late 17th and 18th centuries, a person would often receive a particle along with his or her old or new family name when ennobled. Examples are families like de Gyldenpalm (lit. 'of Goldenpalm') and von Munthe af Morgenstierne (lit. 'of Munthe of Morningstar'). Otherwise, particles would arrive together with immigrants. Examples are families like von Ahnen. Prominent non-noble families having used particles are von Cappelen, von der Lippe, and de Créqui dit la Roche.
The preposition til (English: to, but translates as of; 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 England, largely as a result of the Norman Conquest) the particle de precedes a nom de terre ('name of land') in many families of the French nobility (for example, Maximilien de Béthune). 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').
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". 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. 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.
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.
In some cases--if even not very frequent, for instance as a distinction of more split-ups of family lines--these more common particles could even have been supplemented with auf (i.e., residing at yet another place different from the one zu refers to and meaning [up]on in English): Von A-dynasty/place, zu B-town, auf C-ville/location/residence.
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 either particle von or zu, such as Grote, Knigge or Vincke. Conversely, the prefix von occurs, in the names of 200 to 300 non-noble families, 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. 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 Werden -> Vonwerden.
Although Hungary was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Hungarian nobility used a different particle, de, which had no meaning in Hungarian and was apparently borrowed from French and/or Latin.
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 belonging 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 preposition 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 particles, 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, Diana Álvares Pereira de Melo, 11th Duchess of Cadaval who goes by Diana de Cadaval after her title. This social rule does not apply to members of the Portuguese royal house.
In Spain, the nobiliary particle de is also used in two different styles. The first is a "patronymic-de-toponymic" formula, 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 conquistadors. 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, 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. 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 persons of noble condition.
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.
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 geographical origin in the names of people of all classes, so that in England and Wales neither word 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 they connoted nobility. For example, on 8 October 1841, a month after Thomas Trafford was created the 1st 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." 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.
As in Spain, English and Welsh surnames composed of two names linked by a hyphen ("-") do not necessarily indicate nobility, e.g. Rees-Jones and not all double barrelled names require a hyphen, e.g. Henry Beech Mole. However, historically in the United Kingdom a multi-barrelled name was indicative of good pedigree and social standing, such that there was and remains a link between hyphenated names and nobility and gentry. The reason for this was to preserve the names of aristocratic families which had died out in the mainline. When this was to occur, it was generally possible for the last male member of the his family to convey his "name and arms" (coat of arms) with the rest of his estate via his will, usually to a male descendant of one of his female relatives, who would then apply for a royal licence to take the name. Royal licences could similarly be obtained where the applicant's mother was a heraldic heiress, although this was less common. For instance, Sir Winston Spencer-Churchill's surname evidences his descendancy from both the aristocratic Spencer family, amongst whom the Earls Spencer are prominent, and the illustrious background of the Churchills, who hark back to their founder-hero, the prominent military leader John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough and whose descendants had died out in the male line (typically the male line descent would be placed last, so that it would have been 'Churchill-Spencer' had the royal licence not specified that it would be 'Spencer-Churchill'). Some of the grandest members of the British aristocracy have triple-barrelled names, for instance the Vane-Tempest-Stewart family, who hold the marquessate of Londonderry; for a while, the Dukes of Buckingham and Chandos bore five surnames: Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville.
However, in contemporary Britain this correlation has weakened, as more middle and lower-class families have started hyphenating their names on marriage, and/or passing it to their issue, with 11% of newly-weds in the 18-34 demographic hyphenating their surnames as of 2017.
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". If the place name is identical to the surname, it is sometimes rendered as "that Ilk", e.g. "Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk". 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". The territorial designation in this case is considered to be an indivisible part of the name, not in itself necessarily 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 or recognises 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, but this right is not made good until receiving official recognition; Learney comments: "mere assumption is not sufficient to warrant these territorial and chiefly names". 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. 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. 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".
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:
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