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Norwegian naming practices


Historically naming in Norway followed the patronymic pattern, a patronymic being a name derived from your fathers first name. A persons name would consist of a first name and a patronymic, the later being the persons fathers first name with a -sen or -son added for males, and a -datter or -dotter for females

If John had a son Ole and a daughter Anne, Ole's name would be Ole Johnsen (or Johnson), whereas Anne would be Anne Johnsdatter (or Johnsdotter). Sometimes small adjustments were made to make the patronymic more palatable to the Norwegian tongue. To continue the example above the patronymics of the children of Ole Johnsen (or Johnson) would be Olsen (or Olson) for sons and Olsdatter (or Olsdotter) for daughters. In this case an e was dropped in the patronymics.

Because of a limited amount of first names and fairly strict renaming practices (see below) the patronymic pattern produced lot of people with the same names. To keep the various Ole Johnson and Anne Johnsdatter apart the name of the farm or place they lived on was used as a kind of surname. However this last name was normally changed whenever a person moved. If Ole Johnsen was born on the Vedum farm, and later moved to the Lunke farm, he would be known as Ole Johnsen Vedum before moving, and as Ole Johnsen Lunke afterwards.

A patronymic is for life and never changes. So Anne Johnsdatter would still be Anne Johnsdatter after marriage.

Although inherited surnames or family names were used by nobility and gradually became more common through immigration and the upper classes adopting the practices of the nobility, the surname system did not replace the patronymic system legally until 1920. In reality farm names seems to have evolved into proper surnames a lot earlier than that, from about 1880 more and more people seems to keep their farm names when moving and in the 1900-census there are a lots of examples of people having ferrotype surnames different from the name of the farm they live on. There are also examples of patronymics evolving into surnames from around the same time, typically a whole family would use the patronymic of the husband.

The transition from a patronymic naming pattern to inherited surnames was gradual and generally started earlier and developed faster in the cities than in the rural areas. However there a number of exceptions to this, there are numerous examples of early use of inherited surnames all over the country.


Until the 1850's the custom of naming children after relatives was followed quite strictly. The oldest son was named after his paternal grandfather, the second oldest son after his maternal grandfather. The oldest daughter was named after her paternal grandmother, the second oldest after her maternal grandmother. Successive children were named after the parents grandparents or siblings, but the pattern here could vary somewhat.

There were exceptions from these rules. If the farm the family lived on came from the mothers side, the naming could be reversed, so that the oldest son and daughter were named after her parents, and the second oldest after the fathers. There are also instances were the order was reversed without any explainable reason.

Another custom was to name children after a dead spouse. If the mother died while giving birth, the child would often (if it was a girl) be given the mothers name. The same rule applied if a son was born after his fathers death. The first child with the right sex in a new marriage would be named after the dead spouse, if this was not already "taken care of". The custom of naming children after dead spouses seems to have taken preference over naming after parents.

In some cases the naming practices led to two siblings getting the same name. If both parents fathers (or mothers) had the same name, it happened that two brothers (or sisters) ended up with similar names. Normally the reuse of a name is an indication that the older sibling has died, but if both grandparents have the same name, this might not be the case. Two siblings with the same name, especially if they are close in age, is a real challenge to genealogists, so be aware.

Even though renaming was practiced less strictly in the late half of the 1800-hundreds it was still quite common. A variation was to give the children names that started with the same letter as the name they would have gotten had the old custom been followed.

It is possible to find exceptions to the renaming rules and there are families were renaming don't seem to have been practiced. Generally however one should be quite suspicious if in a family with several children not one of them is named after their grandparents, as there is a chance that the grandparents have not been correctly identified. If this is the case you could have overlooked the birth of older children (like in a previous marriage) or simply have the wrong grandparents.

One notable exception to the renaming practices mentioned above was if a couple took over a farm after a childless relative. Then it was quite common to name the oldest child (or children in case of a childless couple) after the previous owner.


A common source of confusion when researching Norwegian ancestors are the many ways a name can be spelled in the parish registry (church book) and other sources on different occasions. It is not uncommon to find a persons name spelled differently at birth, confirmation, marriage and if and when that person served as a sponsor or a witness to a marriage. These variations can be minor, or so prominent it is difficult to decide whether it is the same person, even for someone familiar with Norwegian names.

One reason for the many differences in spelling was that at least before the 1800-hundreds most people could neither read nor write. The entries in the church books and other sources were based on the record keepers interpretation of the names given to them orally by the people involved. The record keepers (most often the pastor) often had little knowledge of the local dialect and maybe even less interest in local naming traditions. In general the spelling of both first names and farm names tend to reflect that Danish was the official language of Norway (before 1814) and in many instances also the mother tongue of the record keeper.

The spelling variations found for entries apart in time can in many cases be explained by different record keepers. However there are many examples of persons serving as sponsors at christenings on two successive Sundays having their names spelled differently in each record. The amount of variations in spelling vary from record keeper to record keeper and the records seems to get more consistent in the 1800-hundreds (when the ability to read and write became more widespread).

The challenge facing those researching ancestors is of course to determine whether one is dealing with spelling variations or an entirely different person. Unfortunately there are no rules of the thumb that covers which variations are acceptable and which are not in this respect. The clue here is that a name does not necessarily have to be spelled in the exactly same way for it to be the same person, and that you probably should allow for more variations than you would for a name today.

Another question I have had several times is what spelling to use when entering the person in a genealogy program. My approach to this is purely practical, use the spelling in the the christening record unless you know this to be wrong, if so use the spelling you believe it to right and add a note to the christening record. Your ancestors probably didn't spend a whole lot of time worrying how their name was spelled, you shouldn't either!

Emigration and names

Those who left Norway for the US and especially the early emigrants faced several problems regarding names, one being that many Norwegian names don't easily lend themselves to the English tongue and the second that their native patronymic naming system had to be adapted to that of inherited surnames.

Even though most emigrants took (or were given) American names that were quite logical (like Marit and Marie becoming Mary, or Johannes becoming John) some showed a great deal of imagination. There are several lists available on thew internet with "logical" translations of Norwegian names into English, but the clue is really to be aware of the fact that your ancestor could have spelled their name in another way back in Norway and work from there. Often it is possible to find the Norwegian version of a name in old church records, as most emigrants belonged to congregations that used Norwegian (or at least another Scandinavian language) for their record keeping until well into the last century.

The adaptation to inherited surnames upon arriving in the US is a common source of confusion which however can be overcome quite easily. In the constructed example of Ole Johnsen and his wife Anne Iversdatter arriving in the US in 1866 with their two sons John and Iver and a daughter Marit, the common inherited surname for all the family members would be Johnsen (or maybe Johnson). Trying to find a match for this family under the Johnsen surname in the Norwegian 1865-census (where they should be) would obviously not yield any result.

It is however possible to "reconstruct" the patronymics of most of the family members and thus increasing the chance of finding the family in the Norwegian census. Since Ole Johnsen is the father, John and Iver's patronymic would have been Olsen, and Marit's Olsdatter. It is of course impossible to construct Anne's patronymic with any certainty, although in this case the fact that the oldest son (John) was named according to tradition could indicate that Iver was as well, and that Anne's father was named Iver.

Single persons emigrating normally kept their patronymics, except that females usually got the male version (Johnsdatter became Johnsen). One exception to this is if the single person either joined his or her family or was joined by the family within a relatively short period of time, in which case one common family name could be used (which one is my no means sure however).

Not all emigrants choose patronymics as their surnames in the US, also farm names were frequently used. However a surprisingly large amount of descendants of Norwegian emigrants have told me that their ancestors did not take a farm name until well into the 1880's and then of the same reason that the farm names were used in Norway, there were simply to many persons with the same names around. Although it is difficult to find any general rule it seems as though emigrants were more prone to choose a farm name over a patronymic if the farm name was fairly easy to use or adapt to use in an English-speaking community, if the the ties to farm was strong (like previous ownership) and if the family settled in an area partly populated by other emigrants from their Norwegian home.

A number of the emigrants that took farm names, both upon arrival and at a later stage, choose name they would not have used back in Norway. Most usually this would involve the use of the name of the main farm by people from tenant farms. Some genealogist have explained this as a statement by people who found freedom and wealth in their new country. This could well be so, but there is also a more practical explanation of this phenomena. A lot of tenant farms had names that included the name of the main farm and an ending that served to identify the specific tenant farm in Norwegian, but would make it more or less impossible to pronounce in the US.

sen or -son

On several occasions I have been told that names ending with -sen indicates a Norwegian ancestry whereas names ending in -son usually comes from Sweden. This might well be right in some communities, but it is important to note that the -son ending was used in Norway as well, especially along the western coast of Norway.

© Nanna Egidius

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