If you have Scandinavian ancestors, you are no doubt interested in the surnames from the area. Scandinavia has a long and illustrious history going back thousands of years. While it is highly associated with Viking culture, these ancient warriors weren’t the only game in town. Like any area of the world, Scandinavia had farmers, merchants, bakers, tailors, coopers, smiths, money lenders, builders, artisans, and more. The area of Scandinavia traditionally encompasses three distinct countries — Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. While these three countries do share some similarities in their surnames, there are also important differences. Here is what you need to know about the origin and meaning of your Scandinavian surname or surnames.
Surnames that were passed down in the family, rather than changed with each generation, were a late addition to Scandinavian culture, with those countries being far behind the rest of Europe on adopting the practice. When it began to be done, the nobility were the first ones to adopt non-changeable family surnames. Clergy members, merchants, and artisans in large cities adopted the practice next. All other social classes used traditional patronymic surnames that changed with each generation for some time. In fact, most families in Scandinavia did not adopt permanent surnames until modern times, around the early 20th century.
The traditional and highly recognizable Scandinavian patronymic surname was simply an addition to the first name of someone’s father that was given to an individual as their surname. The addition would mean either “son” or “daughter.” So, Rasmus, son of Anders, would be Rasmus Andersen, and Helga, daughter of Rasmus, would be Helga Rasmusdotter. Different forms of the patronymic addition in the Scandinavian countries include son, sen, fen, ler, zen, zon, soon, and zoon.
In Denmark, patronymic surnames are still the most common ones, but they have been adopted as permanent family names now, instead of changing with each generation. In Denmark itself, “sen” indicates “son of,” and immigrants to England, Scotland, Ireland, and America usually changed the “sen” to “son.” More than two-thirds of the population of Denmark has a patronymic surname ending in “sen” today, so common was the patronymic practice in the past and preference for it in choosing permanent surnames.
Those who do not have patronymic surnames usually have an occupational one, like Moller (for a miller), Schmidt (for a smith), and Fisker (for a fisherman). Other Danish surnames come from villages of an ancestor’s birth or features of the land inhabited by a person’s ancestors… always the ancestors who originally adopted a permanent surname.
Higher classes like the clergy Latinized their surnames, and artisans typically Germanized theirs. A naming act applying to all citizens and requiring them to adopt a permanent surname was passed in the Duchy of Schleswig in 1771, and for the rest of Denmark in 1828, though the rural people did not give up the practice of patronymic surnames changing with each generation so easily. Several more naming acts had to be passed in order for permanent surnames to be adopted country-wide, the most recent one being in 2005. The later naming acts were passed to encourage people to adopt a wider variety of surnames, as the early acts resulted in most of the population choosing just a few common patronymic surnames.
In 1923, the government of Norway passed a law requiring all families in the country to select a surname that would be the permanent one of the family to be passed down the generations. Before that, the tradition of using a patronymic surname that changed with every generation was still the common practice in this country. If you have ancestors in Norway before this law was enacted, you will find them with surnames ending in “son” or “sen” (meaning “son of”) or “datter” (meaning “daughter of”), and that change every generation. You can deduce the first name of someone’s father from this practice, but that’s about it.
When the law changed, requiring permanent surnames, many families stuck with the patronymic one the male head of household was already using. Others chose occupation-based surnames or geographical surnames based on where they lived at the time.
Common non-patronymic surnames in Norway today include Berg/Berge (meaning “mountain” or “hill”), Bakke/Bakken (meaning “hill” or “rise”), Moen (meaning “meadow), and Rud (meaning “clearing”). Since 2010, the trend in Norway has been moving toward people abandoning patronymic surnames for geographical ones, often bestowing a new geographical surname on a newborn for that child to pass down to subsequent generations.
Like Denmark and Norway, the most common surnames in the country today are patronymic ones, going back to the old patronymic surname tradition of all the Scandinavian nations. Surnames ending in “sson” (meaning “son of) are the most common type of surname. However, the Names Adoption Act, passed in 1901, officially abolished the patronymic tradition pertaining to it changing a surname with each generation. After this act was passed, all families were required to choose a permanent surname to pass down the generations.
The minority of families who did not choose and keep a permanent patronymic surname chose names depicting things in nature, such as Lind/Lindberg (meaning “mountain”), Dahl/Dahlin (meaning “valley”), Berg/Bergkvist (meaning “mountain” and “mountain plus twig”), and Alstrom/Ahlstrom (meaning “alder plus stream”).
Names that include two items in nature usually have the first word as a descriptive of their place of origin, while using the second word as an ornamental one.
Another common surname practice in Sweden since the Names Adoption Act is to have military-style surnames. Skarpsvard, for example, means “sharp sword.” Other military surnames used today in Sweden include Skold (“shield”) and Stolt (“proud”). These surnames originated in the 1500s with names that were assigned to soldiers in the country’s military allotment process, and some modern families decided they liked them and adopted them for themselves.
Also, like in Denmark, the clergy chose Latinized surnames in Sweden. However, the artisans of Sweden did not Germanize their surnames like their Danish counterparts, instead of keeping them occupational in the native language of Sweden.
Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)