Denmark Names, Personal
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Understanding given names and surnames can help you find and identify your ancestors in the records.
Before record keeping began in Denmark, most people had only one name, such as Jens. As the population increased, it became necessary to distinguish between individuals with the same name. The problem was usually solved by adding descriptive information. Jens became Jens the smith, Jens the son of Matthis, Jens the short, or Jens from Fredericia. At first, "surnames" applied only to one person and not to the whole family. After a few generations, these names were passed from father to son. Surnames developed from four major sources:
- Patronymic, based on a parent's name, such as Lars Nielsen (son of Niels)
- Occupational, based on the person's trade, such as Jens Smed (the smith)
- Nicknames, based on a person's characteristics, such as Anders Blåtann (bluetooth)
- Geographical, based on a person's residence, such as Peder Tolstrup
Surnames were first used by the nobility and wealthy land owners.
- A royal decree in 1526 requested that nobility should wear a firm family name. Later the custom was followed by clergy (often latinized such as Pontoppidan and Faber), merchants and townspeople, and eventually but rarely by the rural population. Traditionally the rural population had used patronymics.
- In 1771 a decree for most of Schleswig requested that people should adopt a firm family name.
- In 1828 a decree for all Denmark said that all people should have a firm family name, but especially in the rural parishes it took many years for the population and the priests to adopt these new rules. In most cases the new family name became a patronymic.
Patronymic surnames are the predominant type in Denmark. Such names are based on the father's given name. This name changed with each generation. For example, Lars Pedersen was the son of a man named Peder. If Lars had a son Hans, the son would be known as Hans Larsen (son of Lars). His brothers would be called Larsen, while a sister would be known as Larsdatter (daughter of Lars). Where the population used patronymics, a woman did not change her name at marriage.
From about 1850 on, it became common for Danes living in cities to take permanent surnames, which were not patronymics. Soon many rural parts of Denmark followed suit. In 1904 a new law allowed people to change their patronymic family name to a more individual name, often reflecting their birthplace. Such changes are usually written in the church record where the person was born and under the same date. It was originally the tradition in all Nordic countries, that married women kept their family name also after the marriage. The tradition changed gradually during the last half of the 19th century. When searching for a female in census, death and probate records in this period it is therefore important to take this into account.
During the 20th century the main rule has been, that women changed their family name when they got married to that of their husband. Lately this has changed gradually, and as from the beginning of 21st century it has been most common that women keep their own family name after marriage. The general tradition and rule at least from mid-19th century has been that children got their father’s family name, but in many cases by adding the mother’s family name as a “middle name”. New laws in 1981 and 2005 mean that children can have either father’s or mother’s surname or even a patronymicon or matronymicon following the ancient traditions from before 1828.
In Denmark, a particular naming pattern was very common until about 1850. The following pattern may be helpful in researching family groups:
The first male child was usually named for the father's father.
- The second boy was usually named for the mother's father.
- The first female child was usually named for the mother's mother.
- The second girl was named for the father's mother.
- Additional children were often named for the parents and the parents' brothers and sisters.
- If one spouse died, the other remarried, and children were born to the new pair, the couple usually named the first child of the same sex after the deceased spouse. If a child died, the next child of the same sex often got the first child’s name.
- Danish genealogical records may be in Danish, Latin (rarely, however), or German. Church records in German were the common rule in the Schleswig counties Aabenraa, Haderslev, Sønderborg and Tønder) until 1920. Names are often very different when translated into different languages. For example—
For information on name changes, see the article Name Change in Denmark.