The Grammarphobia Blog

What’s “de” story?

Q: I recently read a book review in the New York Times that refers to Simone de Beauvoir as “Beauvoir.” However, the Times invariably refers to Charles de Gaulle as “de Gaulle.” Similarly, Ludwig van Beethoven is called “Beethoven,” but the von Trapp singers keep the “von.” Is there any consistency in this? And how are these names alphabetized? The author of the book review is Francine du Plessix Gray. Is she alphabetized under D, P, or G?

A: The “de” in Simone de Beauvoir’s name, like the “van” in Ludwig van Beethoven’s and the “von” in Werner von Braun’s, is called a particle or, more specifically, a nobiliary particle (it originated as a mark of noble rank).

In English, particles are sometimes used with a last name standing alone (as in “de Beauvoir”) and sometimes not (“Beauvoir”); in her case, you’ll find it both ways, but the usual American practice is to refer to her as “Beauvoir.”

Some famous last names never appear with their particles, but others regularly do.

For example, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is simply referred to as “Goethe,” Honoré de Balzac as “Balzac,” Miguel de Cervantes as “Cervantes.” And of course Beethoven as “Beethoven.” On the other hand, there are “Von Braun,” “Van Gogh,” “De Quincey,” “de Klerk,” and “de Gaulle.”

We won’t get into the complexities of particles in their countries of origin, where usage is governed by a host of byzantine rules and traditions. 

Even in English-speaking countries, the use or non-use of the particle as well as its capitalization and alphabetization aren’t always easy to figure out. 

The painter Willem de Kooning, for instance, is generally known as “de Kooning” when his last name appears alone, but he’s indexed with the K’s.

Charles de Gaulle, always known as “de Gaulle,” and Daphne du Maurier, whose last name is written as “Du Maurier” when it appears alone, are indexed with the D’s.

See what we mean?

Here’s the advice given in The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.): “In alphabetizing family names containing particles, the indexer must consider the individual’s personal preference (if known) as well as traditional and national usages.”

If that’s not much help to you, the manual adds that you can look up the name in Merriam-Webster’s Biographical Dictionary or in the biographical section of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary

Unfortunately, the Biographical Dictionary is no longer in print, but Mark Stevens, the director of general reference at Merriam-Webster’s, was kind enough to send along the following helpful advice:

“In the names of Frenchmen and -women, de and d’ are almost always lowercased; treatment of du varies. La and Le are almost always capitalized. In alphabetized lists, names are alphabetized under their first capitalized element. When someone is referred to by his or her surname alone, the particle is usually included only if it’s capitalized; thus, we would normally say ‘Sartre and Beauvoir’ but ‘Molière and La Rochefoucauld.’

“Elsewhere in Europe, particles such as von, vandadi, and the Spanish/Portuguese de are just about always lowercased when they show up in surnames, and usually omitted when the surname is used by itself. Dutch particles such as van and ter are usually lowercased, but when the surname is used by itself, the particle is capitalized and included (‘in Van Gogh’s paintings’).

“Surnames of people born in Britain or the U.S., regardless of the names’ original sources, just about always begin with a capital letter even if they look foreign (Mark Van Doren, Bernard De Voto). When you come across the surname of a native-born American or Briton that starts with a lowercase letter, such as Agnes de Mille, Walter de la Mare, or John le Carré, you’ll often be right in thinking that these aren’t quite the names they were born with. But American writers and editors naturally try to observe the style preferred by the individuals themselves.”

Thank you, Mark. We might add that The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage follows roughly these same guidelines, which is why the newspaper uses “Beauvoir” for the French intellectual.

“But follow individual preferences,” the Times style guide adds.

As for Francine du Plessix Gray, the daughter of a French vicomte, she emigrated as a child to the US and later married the painter Cleve Gray. Her surname is given as “Gray” and she’s alphabetized under G.

What difference does a tiny particle make? At one time, it meant a great deal.

We came across this quotation in Philip Gilbert Hamerton’s book French and English: A Comparison (1889):

“After careful observation I have arrived at the conclusion that the French de  before a name, whether rightly or fraudulently borne (for that makes little perceptible difference), is equivalent to about ten thousand pounds in the [London] marriage market and will often count for more. It is wonderful that it should be so, considering that all French people know how frequently the de is assumed; but it seems to be valued as a mark that the bearer belongs to the gentry, which, in fact, he generally does. The genuine nobility who have become too poor to keep a place in genteel society, and have to work for their living, seldom retain the particule, or retain it only for a short time. If they did not drop it themselves the world would drop it for them.”

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