Scandinavia: Names

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Patronymic Naming System

The patronymic naming system was used in all of Scandinavia. That means a Scandinavian's family name was formed by taking the first name of the natural father and adding sen, son, sson, søn, datter, dotter, or dottir to it. A person named Johannes Augustsen was literally "Johannes, the son of August." Maria Pedersdatter was literally, "Maria, the daughter of Peder." Because of this system, there could be many people living in the same place at the same time with the same surnames who were completely unrelated.

For most of us, the patromymic naming system is different from what we're used to. However, it was the best system for the time and the culture, since just a few names, among them Jens, Lars, Peder, Ole, Anders, and their derivations, were used 90 percent of the time. With the patronymic system, at least the first name of the previous generation was known.

Scandinavian females did not assume the surname (family name) of their husbands when they married. They carried their maiden surname throughout their life in the records. If you find an Ole Pedersen and a Synnova Pedersdatter having a child, she is not "Mrs. Ole Pedersen" in the traditional American sense. The record simply means that Ole was the son of a "Peder" somebody, and Synnova was the daughter of a "Peder" somebody.

Record keepers recorded what their ears heard, and spelled what they heard the way they thought it should be spelled. You have to think phonetically when doing any kind of search in any country's records.

The patronymic naming system lasted to the following time periods:


If a Dane moved from the country into the city, he could have taken a farm or village name as his surname to be known by in the city records. Otherwise, as early as the 1850's in most major Danish cities (1828 in Copenhagen), the use of the patronymics began to be discontinued. In the countryside, the change from patronymics to using the same surname began around 1867. The key to finding out when the change is in that area, is to watch for the pattern in the records. Note if the child is always being given the surname of the father or if it is still being mixed.


The change from patronymics to set surname came about in the late 1880s to 1890s.


When Norwegians moved into a city from about the 1850s on they could have used their farm names as a surname. In the countryside, a law was passed in 1875 to change to a set surname. At that point, Norwegian children could have been given the patronymic of their father, which they would not change in the next generation. They could have been given the surname their father had at that point, or they could have opted to go back and use their farm name as a surname when they became older.

It has been noted in both Danish and Norwegian records that sometimes a name has been crossed through, and another surname written in with reference made to the law dated 1875. To show you how individualistic Norwegians are, another law to choose a set surname had to be passed in 1905, basically saying, "Okay, now we really mean it."


A person moving into a big city as early as the 1860s could have chosen a name out of the air, their father's soldier name, or perhaps a trade mentor's name to be known by. Rarely was it a place name. In the countryside, the use of patronymics began to phase out in the 1860s to 1870s.