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Naming Customs

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Prior to about 1850 all of the Scandinavian countries used a form of patronymics. The given name of a father was used as a surname for each of the children. The sons used the father's given name and a suffix that meant "son" and the daughters used the father's given name and a suffix meaning "daughter". Following are examples from the four largest of the Scandinavian countries:

Denmark- Norway                              Sweden-Finland

Lars Andersen (father)                       Olof Svensen (father)
Hans Larsen (son)                            Mons Olofsson (son)
Anna Larsdatter (daughter)                   Stina Olofsdotter (daughter)
Anders Hansen (grandson)                     Sven Monsson (grandson)
Maren Hansdatter (grandaughter)              Katharine Monsdotter (granddaughter)

From about 1860-1904 the naming customs in each of these countries was changing from this system of patronymics that was used for hundreds of years to the type of system used in the rest of Europe and America where the surname was passed from father to son. This shift in naming patterns first took place in the cities and took place last in the rural countryside villages. During this period of change you will find several possibilities for surnames:

  • A person could use the patronymic name they were born with for a family surname and pass it on to all their children.
  • A person could take their father's patronymic name and use it for a surname.
  • A person could take an entirely different name such as a place name or a name they liked and begin using it from then on as their surname.

Because this is the same time period many Scandinavians emigrated to America, the first generation on either side of the ocean can be particularly difficult to research. Many Scandinavian records will therefore have a first name index rather than a surname index. In a single family three or four brothers often took entirely different surnames when they got to America.

Scandinavians also had some general naming customs they followed to greater or lesser extent for given names. They would often name the first son after the father's father, the second son after the mother's father, the third son after the father, and other sons after uncles. Likewise the daughters were named for the grandmothers, mother, and aunts. If a spouse died and the husband or wife remarried, the next child of the same sex as the deceased spouse would be given their name. If an infant died young, the next child with that sex was given the same name. This helped lead to the use of the same given names over and over again in each new generation. In many Norwegian and Danish examples you will find two or three children in a family with the same given name who all lived. For example a father's probate record in Norway might list among the children three sons: Torvald the elder, Torvald the middle, and Torvald the youngest.

Besides these customs each of the Scandinavian countries had their own unique naming customs. Someone who understands that soldiers in Sweden are given surnames often assumes this is how names in Denmark came about. These types of generalizations just do not work and cause a lot of confusion.

[June Pelo]


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