What to call it? Dutch terms used on this web

You will get only so far with Leeuwenhoek before you will have to learn Dutch. The secondary literature about his science is mostly in English. However, the secondary literature about his life and times and almost all of the primary sources are in Dutch. In order to ease the access for non-Dutch speakers, I have developed that following guidelines for Lens on Leeuwenhoek.

The Dutch Lion

The Dutch Republic, declared in 1581, was the first such creature in the history of civilization. The Greek city-states never grew or united; their scope remained local. It wasn't until 1648's Peace of Westphalia that the European powers, all top-down kingdoms, empires and sultanates, recognized the independence of the Dutch Republic. For the next century, they kept it engaged in almost constant war that depleted the Republic's resources but did not disturb its core institutions.

Not until the American and French revolutions of the late 1700's did the rest of Europe and the Americas begin to throw off or relegate their kings and emperors and follow the Dutch democratic model. It was during that period that the institutions we know today emerged along with the terms to describe them.


Spelling is the most obvious area where our modern needs for regularity put pressure on historical accuracy. In addition, there are your needs for searching the contents of a database. It is very tedious to have to search for half a dozen variants for every person's name in each of the half a dozen likely database sources. And what about the ones you don't imagine, such as Leeuwenhoek's father-in-law Elias de Meij, who sometimes spelled his first name Gillis?

Our idea of one and only one correct way to spell a word was driven by many historical forces, including the printing press, formation of national identities, and the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution. Among the first books printed were dictionaries, though it wasn't until around 1600 that Dutch-language dictionaries began appearing. The first Dutch-English lexicon, Henry Hexham's, dates from 1648. Arnold Moonen (1644 - 1711) a Dutch linguist, published in 1706 a book full of “fixed and undeniable rules” linguistic rules that were ignored. Not until the early 1800's, driven by the Industrial and French revolutions, did the Dutch begin the slow process of making spelling and gammar more or less uniform.

Until then, spelling was not standardized. For example, on February 11, 1712, Leeuwenhoek and his daughter Maria made a will. At the end, they signed it (below right), Maria's signature below her father's -- and they spelled their family name differently. Maria added a c before the k at the end. It wasn't just the signatures. Notary documents, such as this one, as well as baptism, marriage, and burial records, were recorded by clerks who wrote what they heard and seemingly never asked, "How do you spell that?" For a database, such variant and unsystematic spelling is a problem.

The Huygens Institute's project on Circulation of Knowledge and Learned Practices in the 17th-century Dutch Republic is finding solutions to this problem in standards for spelling normalization.

Capitalization. The 17th century primary documents used for Lens on Leeuwenhoek capitalize some common nouns, seemingly for emphasis. The transcriptions usually spell them with a lower-case initial letter.

Names of people

If a name is used only once, I leave the spelling as I found it in the document.

If a name is used multiple times, I use what seems to be the most common spelling.

For the six major family names -- Leeuwenhoek, de Meij, Swalmius, de Molijn, van den Berch, and Hogenhouck -- I chose the most common spelling and used it for everyone every time, even if in real life they used only a patronymic. This was the method used by Bleyswijck in the Beschryving der stad Delft and in Boitet's update in 1729, although they put most of the unused names in brackets.

For the first names, I spelled them consistently, but I often chose a name to differentiate it from others with similar names.

  • The most obvious is Antony. Many people in his family and in Delft had that name. But on Lens on Leeuwenhoek, his is the only one spelled that way. The others have an -ij instead of the y or a th instead of the t. Antony used all of them himself, but not here.
  • Maarten Leeuwenhoek (cousin Lambrecht's son) and Maerten Leeuwenhoek (uncle Huijch's son) both spelled their first names sometimes with an aa and other times with an ae. Only by the date can you tell who is who. However, on Lens on Leeuwenhoek, they are consistently spelled differently.
  • The many people named Margaret or some variant thereof, to say nothing of all the nicknames from Grietje to Gryetgen. Cousin Maerten's daughter used Helena all the time, but her real name was Magdaleentje.

The patronymics are another source of spelling variants. Given the tendency to continue using names in successive generations, the patronymic is the best way to distinguish two relatives.

On the actual documents, the notaries often used a squiggly flourish at the end of a man's patronymic and a slightly different squiggly flourish at the end of a woman's. People who have had to convert these to print over the years have made a variety of decisions, sometimes spelling out zoon and dochter. The most common abbreviations are zn. and dr.

I find it too easy to confuse that period with the full stop at the end of a sentence. Also, the first name makes the gender clear. On Lens on Leeuwenhoek, there's an s at the end of everyone's patronymic, male or female, whether or not they used it in documents.

Names of places

In general, if it's a proper place name, always capitalized, I leave it that way and provide an English translation in parentheses if it seems helpful or will avoid confusion. Buildings (Stadhuis, Nieuwe Kerk), waterways (Oude Delft), streets (Choorstraat), and cities (Den Haag), bridges (Warmoesbrug) and squares (Marktplein), for example, all stay in Dutch.

For other proper names, such as the city's archives, I often use a translation of the name, for example, Old Notary Archive instead of Oud Notarieel Archief.

Names of things

Titles of works that haven't been translated, for example, Boitet's Beschryving der Stadt Delft, or the volumes in the Delft archives, stay in Dutch. Printed works that have been translated are referred to by their English titles.

That is, common nouns, nouns that aren't proper nouns. In general, if it's a Dutch word, I translate it into English. To assist Dutch-language searches and to clarify my often arbitrary choice of an English equivalent, I usually put the Dutch word, italicized and in parentheses, after the first use of a translated word on a page. For consistency, I use only what seems to be the most common spelling from Leeuwenhoek's time. For examples, c and s are now often k and z. Camerbewaarder has become kamerbewaarder and 's Gravesande has become 's Gravezande, but I retain the older spellings. For direct quotations from the original documents, I retain the original spelling, and note the few words I change for the sake of clarity.

Leeuwenhoek's letters

Leeuwenhoek's letters present their own problems of database-friendly standardization. They span half a century, during which time not only did common usage of spelling and grammar change but Leeuwenhoek's writing skills and professionalism grew. All de Brieven / Collected Letters preserves the original Dutch spelling but stardardizes and normalizes the translations. Thus, searching in English is more reliable than searching in Dutch.



Some terms, due to cultural changes, don't have clear translations. Money at the time was sometimes expressed in florins and sometimes in guilders. I make no attempt to make equivalencies or adjust for relative value. I simply record the number on the document and designate them all as gl = Dutch gulden, English guilder. (See What was a guilder worth? under Learn more below.)

Many such hard-to-translate words are legal terms relating to the governance of the City and Leeuwenhoek's place in it. If there is any possibility of an alternate translation, the original Dutch word is italicized in parenthesis after the English.

The institutions of the Dutch Republic, as well as the terms to describe them, can present some confusion to the modern reader. Because Leeuwenhoek and his ancestors were so involved in the governance of Delft, it is worth describing the institutions of the Dutch Republic as he experienced them. To emphasize the distinctions, this web retains some of the Dutch terminology, especially those terms without a clear English equivalent. On Lens on Leeuwenhoek, these words stay in Dutch, without italics.

  • Stadhouder

refers to the head of state of the Dutch Republic. Being a republic, it couldn't have a king. Being the first nation-state, it did not have a precedent to follow. The literal translation is place holder (not city holder), someone who kept the estate running when the feudal lord was away. In English, the word stholder mixes the Dutch word and its literal translation.

To soften the break with tradition, the Dutch developed the feudal stadhouder into each of the provinces' chief political officer. Because of the dominant economic position of Holland and Zeeland, their combined stadhouder became the most powerful. Politically, that office ended up being hereditary, with the descendents of Willem of Orange serving off and on until 1702, when the line died out.

The more progressive forces managed two periods during Leeuwenhoek's life that were stadhouder-less, 1650-1672 and 1702-1747. Thus, for most of Leeuwenhoek's adult life, the country was governed by the grand pensionary (raadpensionaris) of Holland, who functioned similarly to a prime minister in today's parliamentary systems. From 1688 to 1720, Leeuwenhoek's friend Anthonie Heinsius was the grand pensionary.

  • Regent

does not refer to the same person as the English word regent refers to. The regents in a Dutch city were the wealthy people who paid most of the taxes and after the middle of the 13th century managed the city's government. Taken together, the regents of the 18 cities of the Dutch Republic ruled the country for over two hundred years beginning in the late 1500's. Leeuwenhoek's mother's family on both sides, the van den Berchs (her father) and the Hogenhoucks (her mother), were regents. Leeuwenhoek himself was not.

  • Veertigraad

refers to the council (raad) of forty (veertig) regents, all men, who oversaw the government and administration of Delft. Members were appointed for life or until they retired at age 70; their seats were often inherited by a son or younger brother. From these forty came the mayors, magistrates, and other top officials. Their wives and daughters were often appointed to positions in the social welfare system, caring for orphans and elderly. The Veertigraad was self-appointing, though several stadhouders tried a "Changing of the Legislative" (Wetsverzetting), most notably, during Leeuwenhoek's tenure at the Stadhuis, in 1672 after the French invasion.

  • Camerbewaarder (often camerbewaerder or kamerbewaarder)

refers to an official of the magistrate's court. Often translated as chamberlain, with the implication of janitor.

The waterways are a special case. The Dutch make an important distinction between:

  • Gracht

for loading and unloading within a city, lined with bricks, with streets on one or both sides, as in the photo above of the Oude Delft looking upstream toward the Oude Kerk where Leeuwenhoek is buried.

  • Singel

surrounding a city's walls for defensive purposes: a moat

  • Sloot

draining the fields, not navigable when narrow and shallow: a ditch. In Leeuwenhoek's time, the windmills raised the drained water into wider and deeper sloten, which were navigable.

  • Kanaal or vaart

providing major transport between cities for shipping goods and moving people: a channel

In English, they're all canals. On Lens on Leeuwenhoek, I use the Dutch words, especially gracht and sloot, without italics, and their Dutch plurals, grachten and sloten. The word canal refers to the three channels that Leeuwenhoek used all the time: the Vliet between Delft and Leiden, the Schie between Deflt and Delftshaven, and the Trekvliet betweeen Voorburg and Den Haag.