Name Game

What does your Scandinavian name mean?

Before the advent of cell phones made telephone books virtually obsolete, the phone books in areas settled by Scandinavians in the United States listed page after page of Johnsons, Andersons, Nelsons, Hansens and even a few Ingebretsens. Their meaning was simple: someone named Ole Andersen, for example, (Andersen in Norwegian and Danish and Andersson in Swedish (the double s is also Icelandic) was the son of Anders. The next generation repeated the process and Ole Andersen’s son Peter became known as Peter Olsen and HIS son John would be John Petersen.

It was a simple—so-called patronymic –system, which lasted for many generations. Eventually, Scandinavian countries (Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Faroe Islands) abandoned this system and stuck with the latest surname. Thus, an Andersen stayed an Andersen forevermore. Iceland is the last holdout. There, men take their father’s names as their surname and women tack ‘dottir’ onto their dad’s first name. So, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, former president of Iceland, is the daughter of Finnbogi Thorvaldsson and Sigurdur Eiriksdottir.

But what of the names that don’t end in son, sen or sson? Many take the names of their farms, which in turn may be descriptions of a geographical or local feature, such as Bakke (hill or rise), Berg or Berge (mountain or hill), Borg (castle); Grahn (spruce); Eng (meadow); Eld (fire); Blom (bloom); Hagen (enclosed pasture);  Moen (meadow); Falk (Falcon); Rud (clearing);  and Lie (side of a mountain). Those who served in the military often were given short names that described desirable qualities, such as ‘Rapp’ (quick) and ‘Stolt, (proud). The clergy, academics and nobility often tucked Latin or Greek endings onto their names, perhaps to add a bit more gravitas. Carl Linnaeus, the botanist, is one example.

Some surnames mean the same in Norwegian, Danish or Swedish: Lund (grove of trees); Dahl (valley) Strand (seashore), Hall (one who works in a noble’s house). Sometimes two words are linked to form a name: Bergquist (mountain twig); Solbakken (sunny hill); Bergman (mountain man); Björkman (birch man); Almstedt (elm place or house); Ahlgren (alder branch); Holmström (islet stream); and so on. For information on your name, check a dictionary in one of the Scandinavian languages or (Norway), (Sweden) or

Below are the ten most common names in Norwegian, Danish, Swedish and Finnish.

Most common surnames in Norway in 2005:

1.     Hansen

2.     Johansen

3.     Olsen

4.     Larsen

5.     Andersen

6.     Pedersen

7.     Nilsen

8.     Kristiansen

9.     Jensen

10.   Karlsen


In Sweden in 2013 

1.     Johansson

2.     Andersson

3.     Karlsson

4.     Nilsson

5.     Eriksson

6.     Larsson

7.     Olsson

8.     Persson

9.     Svensson

10.   Gustafsson



In Denmark in 2014 

1.     Jensen

2.     Nielsen

3.     Hansen

4.     Pedersen

5.     Andersen

6.     Christensen

7.     Larsen

8.     Sørensen

9.     Rasmussen

10.   Jørgensen


In Finland in 2001 


2. Korhonen

3. Mäkinen

4. Nieminen

5. Mäkela

6. Hämäläinen

7. Laine

8. Heikkinen

9. Koskinen

10. Jarvinen

booksigning (2)
Photo credit: Ewa Rydåker

The author, Anne Gillespie Lewis is the daughter of John Gillespie and Eleanor Anderson. Eleanor’s mother was Melissa Petersen and HER mother was Christine Andersson—and so it goes! And don’t even ask about all the Peter Petersons in another branch of the family.



3 thoughts on “Name Game

  1. Thank you, Cathy. I wonder if you have any of these names in your family’s history?
    Anne Gillespie Lewis

  2. Thanks so much, Cathy. Did you have any of these names in your family history?

Comments are closed.