Von and Van – what’s in a name?

I’ve recently read two accounts of World War 1 in Africa – one a novel, Dust Clouds of War by John Wilcox and the other a memoir to be published in 2018. In both of these texts, the British Allied commander, South African Jaap (Jacob) van Deventer, has been referred to as Deventer. Both books are by British English authors who do not fully understand naming constructions.

I’m being a little harsh here – my dad had to correct me on the pronunciation of van Deventer’s name years ago. I used to call him “van de Venter” splitting his name in keeping with many other South African names: van der Merwe, van der Westhuizen etc. Put the “de” onto the “venter” and you have “Deventer” pronounced “dear-venter”. And I’ve been known to mis-pronounce other significant names too: Tighe (“Tie” for those wondering I used to call “Tigga”), Caligula (a little before my time, was pronounced “Ka-li-goo-la”) and of course Beit (should be “bite” rather than “bate”). These are easy mistakes for readers who haven’t hear the names pronounced.So, I suppose it is not surprising that authors apply what they know of one culture to another related one.

With German names, “von” is a title added to a name in much the same way “sir” is added to British names. It’s recognition and status. For the Afrikaans South African name, the “van” or “von” is part of the name translating to “of” or “from” and specifically being lower case “v” – van Deventer originates from the Dutch for someone from Deventer in Overijssel (Ancestry).

This means that when writing German names like von Lettow-Vorbeck the “von” can be safely dropped and we can talk about Lettow-Vorbeck, but we cannot do the same with van Deventer – it’s the equivalent of calling Smith, “ith”.

Another name Wilcox gets wrong in his account is Phillip Pretorius, Smuts’ lead scout. As many have done before, he incorrectly refers to Phillip as Piet. This is in the acknowledgements noting that Simon Fonthill’s escapades were based partly on Pretorius’ search for the Konigsberg. I’m also a little puzzled as to how men could have been involved in both the Boer War (11 Oct 1899 – 31 May 1902) and the Boxer Rebellion in China (2 Nov 1899 – 7 Sep 1901). There is a window between Sep 1901 and May 1902 but I’ve not come across anyone of note having moved between the theatres. (Please let me know if you know of anyone). Lettow-Vorbeck is often mistakenly said to have fought in both, but before he was posted to China, he was in the German War Office studying the actions of the Boer War to assist the German military.
Wilcox further makes the fundamental error of referring to the Smuts raiding into the Union of South Africa during the Boer War when he should be referring to Smuts’ raid into the Cape Colony. The Union of South Africa only came into being in 1910

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Turn-around time?

I am absolutely fuming having just had a budget review at staff meeting at work (a primary school) where we have NO MONEY for exercise books

You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a statement by a teacher in Africa – it’s a standard complaint that there are not enough books, chalk or red pens for teachers to do their work. However, this statement appeared on Twitter by a teacher in Britain.

If this had been a statement by a school in Africa, there would no doubt be a huge rush in Britain to collect money, books and pens and rush them over to the school in question without a clear understanding of what was really required. At least this has been my experience to date. So, it was natural that when reading this tweet about a school in Britain, I immediately wondered why a school in Africa hadn’t thought to do some fundraising and send assistance accordingly.

Simply, we are products of our experiences and breaking out of the mould can be quite a challenge. African countries and institutions have become so dependent on handouts that the idea of helping themselves is an alien one even though some in those countries are far more well-off than those in the countries trying to help. It often astounds me that we turn to help others without looking after our own first. There is some logic in the flight travel advice: once you have put your own mask on, then help others.

Handouts don’t work. There’s more wisdom in ‘teach a man to fish and you feed him for life, than give him a fish and feed him for a day’. Similarly, teach a child to read and think and they can work things out for themselves rather than tell them what to think. This can be quite scary for parents but how refreshing when a youngster comes up with an innovative idea.

It’s being bold to break the mould that leads to development and improvements. This was recently reinforced when I was researching about Jaap van Deventer who commanded the forces in East Africa in 1917/18. During the Anglo-Boer War he was with a commander, General Koos de la Rey who changed the style of Boer fighting by simply moving the trenches/hideouts from the top of a hill to the open ground at the base. He used it a few times including at the battle of Magersfontein. Yet, the South Africans fell foul of the Germans doing the same at Salaita Hill in February 1916. Similarly, I’m regularly stunned by reading accounts of basic training in the SA army where men are broken down to all think and behave the same, yet within a few years are expected to be independent thinkers and rise to officer rank where some initiative is required. Some manage it, many don’t – why?

How people get to break the mould they’ve been trained in is one of my fascinations but I don’t think I’ll ever really find out how/why this happens. For now, I’ll just revel in the moments when others do break the mould and do something suprising. Perhaps a school in Africa will start fundraising for schools in Britain … I’ve learnt to never say never.