Understanding Norwegian Naming Patterns

As you go back through the generations, you will see many different names used to describe the same family. There a few different forces of history influencing this phenomenon. Let’s clear it up a bit.

The Early Days of -Sen & -Datter

In Norway prior to the 1860s families did not use fixed surnames. They used a patronymic pattern in which children were named after their father. Hence, John Andersen = John, the son of Anders. And Mari Andersdatter = Mari, the daughter of Anders. Anders himself would be named Anders Olafsen = Anders, the son of Olaf. The full family unit could include Anders Olafsen (father), Mette Evensdatter (mother), John Andersen (son) and Mari Andersdatter (daughter). Mette Evensdatter will not have a name corresponding to her husband. But don’t be confused if a female has the male “-sen” name ending, however: it means the same thing, and is more common in recent translations or reference works.

This system definitely gets confusing when you encounter names as common as Ole Olsen or Nils Hansen, so they often used their farm names to clarify their identity when conducting official business or traveling. In church records, for example, they would typically append the farm name to the patronymic name to be more precise, for example “Anders Olafsen Sandness” (or “Anders Olafsen på (from) Sandness” if Anders merely worked at Sandness). It’s very important to keep in mind that when a farm name is used, it is the farm at which they currently reside, rather than the farm at which they were born. The use of farm names is very helpful to keep in mind when looking at old records, since Norway only gradually adopted fixed surnames from the mid-1800s until they were required in 1923.

With Respect To Your Parents

In ancient times, when people were known only by a single name, these names were assigned by combining prefixes and suffixes from common usage (a few of these prefixes are Bjorn, Dag, Odd; a few suffixes are -alf, -stein, and -vard). You likely won’t encounter this system in use, but it’s interesting to know where some of these difficult-to-pronounce names came from.

Many names you encounter will follow a later system common to Scandinavian and Northern European countries, which assigned a baby’s name based on its birth order. Drawing first names from both sides of a family, each child is named to pay respect to an ancestor and to integrate a new family structure:

First son: named after paternal grandfather
First daughter: named after paternal grandmother
Second son: named after maternal grandfather
Second daughter: named after maternal grandmother

That’s pretty simple, but there are lots of exceptions that would arise. Later children would be named after great-grandparents, though not following the pattern above. If a parent died before the baby’s baptism, that parent’s name would override the pattern; if the child was of a different sex, the next eligible child would receive that parent’s name. If a child in the family died, the next child of that sex would be named in its honor. Also, if a couple took over the bride’s farm, the first son would be named after its maternal grandfather

There is another tradition regarding first names, which is encapsulated in the Norwegian proverb: “The name and the farm must go together.” In short, if a child was in line to inherit a farm, he would be named for a prior owner (even, apparently, if that prior owner was not a family member).

Old Names, New Names

When Norwegian families immigrated to America in the 19th century, they were inconsistent in their use of surnames. If you find a relative named John Andersen in a Nowegian census, look at the farm (gård) name as hint to a possible “temporary” surname after emigration. In earlier censuses (before 1880), it seems that patronymic names are usually used, sometimes converted to the English equivalents.

Our example father, Anders Olafsen Sandness, could be listed in the 1860 US census as Andrew Olsen, Andrew Olson, Anders Olufsen, Anders Olafsen, etc. Remember that it is the census taker or other government official who wrote the names down, and the respondents were usually not literate and may not have spelled their own names. So the census taker, who in these earlier years would likely not be Scandinavian, would spell a name as they were accustomed or how they thought it sounded.

Census taker: “What’s your name?”
—Anders Olafsen
“Okay” (as he writes Andrew Olson on the census form) “And your wife?”
—Mette Evensdatter
“Right” (and he writes Martha Evanston on the census form)

This is the reason it is so common to believe you have found the right family in census records, except that the names don’t quite exactly match. You are probably correct. Also, be aware that surnames ending in -sen or -son were written according to the preference of the census taker rather than the traditional spelling (usually -sen). The letter “C” was not common in Norway, but as names were Americanized it was often substituted for “K.” It was more important for a census taker to accurately account for all inhabitants and the details of their crops rather than to spell the names correctly (see this note from an uneducated census taker). Other examples of Americanized names are:

Øystein > Austin
Goro/Guri/Gunhild > Julia
Mari > Marie
Kari > Carrie
Knud > Canute
Jens > James
Oline > Lena
Sunneiv > Synnova
Johannes > John

Choosing a Family Name

In the early decades, names were inconsistently used, which depended on whether the other party was Norwegian. By the 1880s and later, families began to settle on a hereditary surname. They were to some degree emulating the upper classes in Norway, who often already had hereditary family names that derived from titles of nobility or were of foreign origin. In choosing a name, they would choose among four categories for their permanent surname: patronymic (as discussed above), place names, occupations, or characteristic names.

Place names would often be taken from the farm from which they emigrated. Because many Norwegian farms were divided from larger farms over the centuries, they would often share a place name and append a more specific identifier. For example, in Grue, Hedmark, the Skyrud farm has been divided into Skyrudsbraaten (slope), Skyrudshaugen (hill), Skyrudsmoen (moor), and Skyrudsteppen (plains). Physical characteristics such as Øver-skyrud (upper) or Nordre-skyrud (northern) were also used. So while one family might choose Skyrud for a surname, another might choose Haug or Haugen, or Mo or Moen. Sometimes the name of the village would be selected. Place names were useful because they indicated the origin of the family, especially to those who hailed from the same region of Norway.

In the period before emigration, land became more scarce and a newly married couple might rent a nearby farm, especially if their own farm was over-occupied. They might end up choosing a name that does not have historical association for the family. In my own family, my immigrant ancestors sold the family farm (which had been their home for generations) and moved to a temporary farm for a few years before emigrating. In America, they adopted the name of the temporary farm rather than the ancestral farm. On the other hand, don’t be alarmed if a bride and groom share the same last name – they are probably from different parts of a large farm.

Occupations are also chosen as surnames, especially if it was an occupation in Norway. If someone was locally known as carpenter, it would be part of their identity already. Elling Hansen Snekkeren (Elling Hansen the carpenter) would have an easier choice than a farmer. Other examples are Smed (smith), Møller (miller), and Kusken (driver). Note that these are more commonly found as place names such as Smedstad (smith’s place) or Snekkerplads (carpenter’s shop). Overall, occupations are less common as a basis for family names than than patronymic or place names, but it’s nice to find them as they reveal something about the family back in Norway.

Characteristic names are also less common. They could describe just about anything related to the family, but often are attributed to the patriarch at the time the name was chosen. It can be hard to determine if the characteristic is really about a person, or rather a place. Some examples of characteristic names include Svarte (black) and Rask (fast). These characteristic names are particularly common among royalty and those with titles and military victories. I have also seen a few examples of foreign names adapted to Norwegian in this category, such as Brun (Brown).

It’s Not Misspelled If There Is No Correct Spelling

Here are a few big points to keep in mind when trying to identify a family name or farm name:

  1. Most earlier immigrants were illiterate and may not have known how to write or even spell their names (Norway did not establish public education until 1860). This means that there was not a standard way to spell a person’s name, aside from local tradition
  2. Olafsen, Ulafsen, Olufsen, Olavsen, Olavesen, Olsen, Olesen, and Olasen are all the same root name, with locally-preferred variations. Most names have some variants, which also exist for many farm names. Norwegian records are more likely to contain a consistent local spelling
  3. A person – especially an emigrant – would likely go by several names during their lifetime, having different names for each of the places they had lived
  4. When choosing one’s name in America, simplicity was a key attribute. Immigrants would often choose an American-sounding name, especially for their children, for whom they wanted an easier assimilation
  5. American records until the early 1900s contain approximations in spelling, or would shoe-horn what the respondent said into what the government official could understand
  6. Later American records are often more consistent, as literacy increased and people chose how to spell their own names
  7. It is pretty common for the first American generation from Norwegian immigrants to select a permanent family name different from that chosen by their parents. And these siblings might choose different names or different spellings (such as Berge and Bergh)

Many earlier records contain approximations of names based on the experience of the writer. A census taker for the Norwegian census of 1865 will do a better job

Other resources to help understand these practices are available. The most complete information can be found in Einar Haugen’s excellent piece “Names in a New World” or NAHA’s “Norwegian-American Surnames.” Also take a look at John Føllesdal’s “Norwegian Naming Practices” and Oluf Rygh’s database of Norwegian farm names (be sure to click on the “search form” link at bottom to try your search).

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One Response to Understanding Norwegian Naming Patterns

  1. A great post – thank you. Unfortunatley the naming patterns in our family branches have proven to be consistantly inconsistant. :-)
    Regards,
    Theresa (Tangled Trees)

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