Norwegian naming practices
by John Føllesdal
pat•ro•ny•mic [noun, late Latin patronymicum from patr- (father) + onyma (name)]: a name
derived from that of the father or a paternal ancestor usually by the addition of an affix.
(Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary © 1994 Merriam Webster, Inc.)
My great grandfather, Daniel Rasmus Jonson, was born on the Føllesdal farm in Nordfjord,
Norway, on March 31, 1869. According to the patronymic naming system which was being used
in Norway at the time, he was called Jonson because his father's name was Jon. Under the
patronymic naming system, sons of Jon were called "Jonson" -- Jon's son, while daughters of Jon
were called "Jonsdatter" -- Jon's daughter. These patronymic names, however, were not part of
the child's baptized name, indeed the baptized name consisted only of a first name, such as Daniel,
and sometimes a middle name, such as Rasmus. Thus, in the church records for my great
grandfather it says in the column called Barnet's fulle navn (The child's full name): "Daniel Rasmus".
The patronymic name was added in day-to-day interactions because several persons
could be named Daniel Rasmus in a community. Referring to someone as Daniel Rasmus Jonson
helped to clarify that it was Daniel Rasmus, the son of Jon, that you were talking about, and not
Daniel Rasmus, the son of Ole.
Unfortunately, the first name followed by the patronymic name was not always sufficient to
identify a person: there could be several persons in a community with the name Daniel Rasmus Jonson.
To avoid any confusion, rural Norwegians would therefore add the name of the farm
where the person was living -- not as a name, in the modern sense of the word, but as an address
or identifier. My great grandfather was therefore known as Daniel Rasmus Jonson Føllesdal.
In a small, rural community, this naming practice worked well. My great grandfather was known
by everybody in his community -- "There goes Daniel Rasmus, the son of Jon, who lives on the Føllesdal farm."
However, this patronymic naming system poses certain problems. One is that while a farm name
may be added to a name, the farm name was not used as a surname, but rather as an address. For
example, we can look at Daniel Rasmus Jonson's father, Jon Jonson, my great great grandfather.
He was born and raised on the Hanebrekke farm in Nordfjord, and he was therefore called Jon
Jonson Hanebrekke. As an adult, however, he moved to the Føllesdal farm and was thereafter
known as Jon Jonson Føllesdal.
Neither were patronyms, such as Jonson, Danielsdatter, Evensen, etc., used as surnames. The
patronym only said that the person was the son of Jon. It was not a hereditary surname.
In Norway, the change to a fixed family surname began in the early 1800's. The change started
among members of the educated upper class (the clergy, the military, and high ranking civil
In addition, people who lived in cities, such as Bergen or Trondheim, used hereditary
surnames. These surnames were often very old, and were, in many instances, of foreign origin--
British, Dutch, or German.
But it was not until 1900 or so that the patronyms "froze" and became widely used as surnames,
i.e., a name that would be passed down from generation to generation. The use of a fixed family
name was not made compulsory by law in Norway until 1923.
Another problem is that the spelling of a person's first name, patronymic name, and farm name can
often vary from one source to the next. You may, for example, find your great great
grandmother's name spelled as "Anne" in her baptism record, spelled as "Anna" when she was
married and as "Ane" in another source, such as a letter or a family bible. Likewise, "Ola" might
be spelled as "Ole", and "Paul" might be spelled "Povel". Such spelling variations also occur in
the patronymic names: "Danielson" might be spelled "Danielsøn" or "Danielsen" depending on the
source. Yet another problem involves the letter "Å". This letter started to replace the double
letters "AA" in the late 1800's. You may therefore find your ancestor named "Haakon" also
referred to as "Håkon".
As Ivar Staale Ertesvaag pointed out in another post in the thread on the patronymic system:
....There is a rule that historical names shall be spelled with the modern spelling. In public use
(i.e., governmental use) this rule is followed....... Accordingly, the kings shall be referred to as
Håkon (not Haakon, Hàkon, or Haakonn), Kristian (not Christiern, Christian, etc.), Fredrik (not
Frederick, Friedrich, etc). Most of the bygdebooks (local history books) -- in fact all of the ones
that I have seen -- follow this rule. It is rare, however, that we find the name of a person spelled
the same way [in the various original sources]. We find, for example, Povel/ Poul/ Paul, or Nils/
Nils, or Anna/ Ane/ Anna, or Lisbet/ Lisbeth/ Elisabeth/ Elsebeth/........... [As to the letter "å",] in
one probate record that I have examined and copied (from 1884), the writer changed between "å"
and "à" in the same document ("à" is Old Norse and Icelandic).
Farm names were also spelled differently from one source to the next. I have seen the farm name
"Myrold" spelled "Myrvold", and "Roset" spelled "Rosæt." Given the fact that names are spelled
inconsistently in both original as well as secondary sources, what are we to do? I believe that the
most historically accurate approach is to write down each variation and note the source and date
of the document. If our ancestors were not consistent with the spelling, then it would not be
historically accurate for us to ignore that reality and arbitrarily choose one version of the name as
the correct name.
It should also be made clear how children's names were selected. The first name was not chosen
at random, but followed a strict rule: the oldest son was named after his paternal grandfather, and
the second son after his maternal grandfather. Likewise, the oldest daughter was named after her
paternal grandmother, and the second daughter after her maternal grandmother. When the names
of the paternal and maternal grandparents had been used up, the great grandparents names were
used, but in no particular order.
There were, however, a few exceptions to these rules: 1) the name of a deceased spouse was
used first, i.e., when a widow or widower remarried and had a child, that child would be named
after the deceased spouse; 2) if the parent of a child died prior to the child being baptized, that
parent's name would be used (if necessary the name would be feminized - from Wilhelm to
Wilhelmina, for example); and 3) if a child died, the next child would be named after the deceased
Excerpted and edited by DLS from: http://homepages.rootsweb.com/~norway/na12.html
by Marjorie M. Kimmerle
Norwegian-American Historial Association, Online Volume XII
In America the patronymic and the farm name of the immigrant from rural Norway vied with each
other to become the family name. Almost all Norwegian-American names today belong to either
one of these two types of surnames. The problem of the rural Norwegian immigrant, as has
already been indicated, was not simply that of adjusting one name to the speech habits of a new
country, but first and foremost that of changing his custom of naming -- to habituate himself to
the use either of a farm name or of a patronymic. The surnames now used by descendants of the
Norwegian pioneers did not become established as family names as soon as the immigrant arrived
in America. There was a gradual adjustment to American ways. The immigrant does not give up
his native customs entirely as soon as he comes to a foreign land; he tries to transfer the customs
of the old country to the new.
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