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There seems to be two ways of spelling for ‘van Gogh’: with small v or big V. It may have some reason I do not know having small van in the middle of Vincent van Gogh, but why do they still spell small van in the first part of his shortened name Van Gogh? I hope the answer to be added why they use small van in the middle of three words?

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up vote 20 down vote accepted

There's a long discussion of this point in the Talk section of Wikipedia. The upshot seems to be that the official Dutch convention (the painter was a native of the Netherlands) requires a separate prefix ("tussenvoegsel") on a surname, such as van or de, to be lowercased when it is preceded by the forename or initial but capitalized when it is not.

These prefixes are mostly prepositions or articles and are regarded as secondary; in alphabetical lists the name is entered under the first letter of the 'primary' name, not the prefix.

Such rules vary from country to country, and in 'ungoverned' languages like English are left to individual writers and institutions to work out on their own. Here, for instance, are the house rules for alphabetizing at the Yale University Music Library, and here are the rules for capitlization.

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Just wanted to add what it means: he (or rather, the ancestor that first held the name) came from a place called 'Gogh'. I don't know if there even is a placed called 'Gogh', but that's what the name means. (People got to choose their surnames at some point in history and not everyone was equally creative.) – 11684 Jun 17 '14 at 19:11

Perhaps input from a Dutch Native is useful here. I will not vouch that this is the way it should be according to American formal guidelines, although my sense is that it should follow the rules from the native language.

In Dutch the 'van' used within the full name is a 'tussenvoegsel', as StoneyB mentioned. It is written in lower case when writing 'Vincent van Gogh'. However, it is written in upper case when it is the start of the name, such as the sentence:

"Ik houd van de schilderijen van Van Gogh" -> 'I love Van Gogh's paintings'

As you can see, when mentioning the name exclusively by last name the 'Van' is capitalized. It is never interpreted as a first name, as there is a limited set of such 'tussenvoegsels'. The first 'van' you see in this sentence translates to 'of/from', making the sentence literally 'I love the paintings from Van Gogh'.

The origin for the spelling in lowercase is readability, but it has become a formal rule. With people called 'Erik van der Beek' the lower case form is more legible than 'Erik Van Der Beek'. The last name is often represented as 'Beek, van de' in contact messaging systems, since so many last names start with these typical 'tussenvoegsels'.

Here are more examples of complicated last names, and how they should be written in dutch:

Anke de Graaf
B.G. van Vooren
dhr. dr. mr. G.H.V. van den Herik
Henny Dijkstra-van der Haar
dhr. Den Braber-ten Haaf
professor Ten Cate
dominee Van den Berg
bakker De Vries
het verzameld werk van Van het Reve

Source: https://onzetaal.nl/taaladvies/advies/hoofdletters-in-namen-nynke-van-der-sluis-nynke-van-der-sluis

Note: In Belgium the convention of turning the prefix into lowercase when adding the first name is not followed.

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"van" is a preposition in the Dutch and Afrikaans languages, meaning "of" or "from". It is also a common prefix in Dutch language surnames. Ludwig van Beethoven is another famous 'van', though he is usually known as 'Beethoven'. 'da' in Italian (eg Leonardo da Vinci) works in the same way.

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Beethoven’s grandfather was Dutch Belgian, but Beethoven himself was German and so the usual Dutch and Belgian conventions for names don’t necessarily apply to him. – Bradd Szonye Jun 17 '14 at 0:29
Likewise, French surnames beginning "de/du/de la" (of which the only examples I can think right now are actually English people: Daphne du Maurier and General Sir Peter de la Billière). – David Richerby Jun 17 '14 at 9:24
Surprised there's been no mention of Leonardo da Vinci, following the same rules. 'Leonard of Vinci' – Tristan Warner-Smith Jun 17 '14 at 10:36
@TristanWarner-Smith It's right there: " 'da' in Italian (eg Leonardo da Vinci) works in the same way." – David Richerby Jun 17 '14 at 17:43
@DavidRicherby: You might have heard of Charles de Gaulle, or more recently Dominique de Villepin (Valéry Giscard d'Estaing is a somewhat different case). – Marc van Leeuwen Jun 17 '14 at 18:35

van, van de or van der means from and is not the name itself. Peter from New York no reason to capitalize from as it is not a name.

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This is plainly false. – Spork Jun 18 '14 at 9:32

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