16 October 2021

The most famous Flemish name on earth: van Beethoven

It is well known that Beethoven (above at age thirteen) was of Flemish descent, and that his name was in fact van Beethoven, which means: originating from Beethoven. The preposition van is very common in Flemish names, like in van Eyck and van Dyck, to quote two famous painters. Unlike its German counterpart von it does not indicate any form of nobility. Today, you don't easily run into a Van Beethoven, but they have not altogether disappeared. When phone books were still used, you could use it to connect to your favourite Van Beethoven somewhere in Flanders.

So there is no doubt that the composer's ancestors came from a place called Beethoven, or something similar distorted by history. Common lore has it that Beet-hoven means field of beets. The simple explanation 'jardin de betteraves' has even made it to the respectable Larousse de la musique, ed. 1982

and, in 2021, to the equally respectable channel France Musique, with a photo added for those who could not image such a field.

Like most simple explanations, this one too is wrong. By the time of the famous composer, his name had already been somewhat distorted, but digging into his ancestry you run into relatives called van Bettenhoven. This is the name as it originally was.

Today, the village of Bettenhoven is still peacefully centered around its church.

The place is better known under its French name Bettincourt. This dual naming results from being located on the linguistic barrier, a horizontal line which divides (separates is a better word) Belgium into Flanders (Dutch speaking, North) and Wallonia (French speaking, South):

The border place Bettenhoven/Bettincourt is now in Wallonia, that's why its official name is French these days.

So far for the location, but what about the meaning? The standard reference for the toponymy of this part of Western Europe is Gysseling, Toponymisch Woordenboek (online here). There we find Bettincourt/Bettenhoven among many relatives, all deriving from the germanic proper name Betto/Berhto/Berhta. 

  • Béthancourt/Bettencourt Rom. Betton curtis ’ferme de Betto’ (< Berhto, germ.)
  • Bethecove Germ. Bettingo hofa- m. ‘hof van de lieden van Betto’ (<Berhto)
  • Béthencourt Rom. Betton curtis ’ferme de Betto’ (< Berhto, germ.)
  • Béthonsart Rom. Betton exsartum ‘essart de Betto’ (germ.)
  • Bethonval Rom. Betton vallis ‘vallée de Betto’
  • Bettemburg Germ. Berhton berga- m. ‘Berg des Berhto’
  • Bettendorf Germ. Betton dorpa- ‘Dorf des Betto’
  • Bettenfeld Germ. Betton ‘des Betto’ + feldu- n. ‘öde Ebene’
  • Bettenhoven Germ. Betton hofum ‘zu den Höfen des Betto’
  • Bettenkamp Germ. Bettinga haim ‘Wohnung der Leute des Betto’
  • Bettenrode Germ. Bettan roda- n. ‘gerooid bos van Betto’ (<Berhto)
  • Bettignies Germ.-rom. Berhtiniacas ‘appartenant à Berhto’ (germ.)
  • Bettincourt = nl. Bettenhoven Rom. Berhtan curtis resp. germ. Berhtan hofum ‘ferme de Berhta’
  • Bettingen Germ. Berhtinga ‘die Leute des Berhto’, Berhtingum ‘bei den Leuten des Berhto’
  • Bettonforst Germ. Betton ‘des Betto” + furosta- ‘Forst”
  • Bettonville Rom. Betton villa ‘ferme de Betto’
  • Bettrath Germ. Betton roda- n. ‘Rodung des Betto’

This list should cure everybody still under the spell of the field of beets! There is no doubt whatsoever: Bettenhoven is Berhta's farm, and Betto/Berhto/Berhta is a germanic name meaning the bright one. (In fact, the word bright is the same.) Here is how we find it in this elaborate list of germanic names:


P.S. The ancient spelling of the name actually met among Beethoven's known ancestors is van Bettehoven and van Bethoven, without the "n" of Bettenhove. In the toponymy list above, Bethecove, deduced from Bettingo hofa, has undergone a comparable truncation.