Surnames in Denmark only started being used recently, but their origins can be traced back to before the Viking Age. In this article, we’ll take a look at the deep history of some common Danish last names and their meanings.
The history of naming conventions in Denmark spans many centuries and was heavily influenced by its ancient cultures and relationships with neighboring nations. Let’s take a look at how Danish surnames have evolved over time:
In ancient Nordic times, large cities with big populations were not yet commonplace. Communities were mostly small settlements where everybody referred to each other by their first name. The only people who used an additional name were people of note.
The first records of people using an additional name appeared on runestones dating from the Viking Age. These runestones recorded around 500 individuals with unique identifiers. For example, among the names found on these runestones is Harald Konge. Harald would be the first name, while Konge (meaning “king”) would be the identifier. So, while there would be various people with the first name Harald, this particular Harald was likely a ruler of sorts.
There’s no record of this type of naming convention being used by commoners. However, as time passed and settlements grew, the need arose for a secondary name to supplement first names.
Thus, common people started using patronymic names that denoted an individual’s patrilineal relation. For example, let’s say Harald had a son called Erik. In these bigger settlements, there was likely to be more than one Erik. To distinguish between them, Erik would have been called Erik Haraldsøn, meaning “Erik, Harald’s son”. These names were not legally mandatory and were mostly just used within these communities.
It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that we see something closer to modern surnames. In these times, Denmark’s international standing led to German noble families immigrating to the area. The Germans already had an existing naming convention that included surnames. And, so, King Frederik I decided in 1526 that the Danish nobility would also have surnames to follow the popular conventions used in Germany and other European countries.
The majority of the Danish nobility already had well-known family names. Under the king’s new law, these families converted their family names into official surnames. However, some noble families didn’t have established family names. So, to follow the king’s law, they adopted their shield name as a surname. For example, Harald Gyldenstjerne would be Harald from the clan Gyldenstjerne.
Other noble families used completely new names as surnames, typically using words that alluded to Nordic culture or religion. An example of this would be the name Tordenskjold, with torden meaning “thunder” and skjold meaning “shield”.
The naming convention popularized by the nobility in the Middle Ages became more widespread by the 19th century, and using two names was popular among the common folk. People living in larger towns used words derived from the family’s origin or occupation. However, using patronyms was still the norm for the large majority of Danes.
The tradition of passing the father’s name down to the son didn’t make it easy to identify individuals. This was because the family name changed each generation. For example, if Erik Haraldson had a son, that son would have used the family name Erikson.
The government needed an official way to identify people, so a law was passed in 1828 making surnames legally mandatory for all citizens. The law stated that the chosen surname had to be hereditary and the same for both sons and daughters. Besides that, people could choose any name they wanted. Some people chose the name of the family farm, while others chose an occupational surname.
However, as the Danes were a very traditional people, most continued in the steps of their Viking forefathers and chose patronymic surnames.
While the law of 1828 attempted to standardize naming conventions, it also came with unexpected problems. Namely, the names most citizens chose for themselves were already common in the first place, so many unrelated families ended up with the same last names.
In 1904, a new law was passed that offered citizens a købenavn, literally a “buy name”. It was another attempt to get the Danish population to choose more unique names so they could be easily identified by official registers. The surname had to be chosen from a list of pre-approved names.
However, it never became popular. Danes didn’t want to adopt a surname with no history, so many chose to keep their centuries-old last names.
Surnames were not official for most of Denmark’s history. Danes mostly used first names combined with an additional identifier that was unique to each person. Though there were many origins of these identifiers, the most common ones were patronymic. Other common additional identifiers were derived from the environment or the family profession. The name law of 1828 solidified these identifiers into surnames and made them hereditary.
Patronymic names simply passed the first name of the father down to the son and daughter with the added suffix -søn or -datter. Søn means “son” while datter means “daughter”.
Let’s say a man named Jens had a daughter and a son. The daughter would have been called Jensdatter, meaning “daughter of Jens”, while the son would have been called Jensøn for “son of Jens”.
Later, surnames became mandatory through law and had to be the same for all children regardless of their gender. Thus, the suffix -datter was dropped and both son and daughter used the same surname. In modern Denmark, about one-third of the population bear surnames that are patronymic.
Though not as common as patronyms, it also became popular to choose an additional identifier derived from the family occupation. As German influence is historically strong in Denmark, many occupational surnames we see today were translated into German.
Here are the most common Danish last names derived from professions:
Besides patronymic and occupational, surnames derived from a family’s original birthplace were also common. These types of last names typically used either the name of the village the family came from or a nearby geographic marker.
Here are some examples of toponymic last names:
These types of last names were originally used to tell two people with the same first names apart. For example, it was very likely that a village had two people named Hans. So, people would have given them each a unique nickname as a second or last name.
These names could have come from physical appearances, like Hvid which means “white” or Lille, meaning “little”. Using animal names was also common. For example, Bjørn means “bear”. Other nicknames were derived from seasons, like Vinter which means “winter” or Høst, meaning “harvest”.
Even today, most of Denmark is farmland. Danish surnames derived from farm names were a way to show ownership of the farmland. These names were normally combined with a prefix to more precisely identify the specific farm, as there were many.
Here are some examples of farm names used as last names:
Skovgård: Meaning “farm by the forest”
Danish naming conventions in the past preferred the use of patronyms for secondary names. Today, around one-third of the population of Denmark have patronymic surnames.
Here are the 10 most common last names in Denmark.
Son of Jens
Son of Niels
Son of Hans
Son of Peder
Son of Anders
Son of Christen
Son of Lars
Son of Søren
Son of Rasmus
Son of Jørgen
Though Danes typically used the father’s first name in the child’s second or last name, there were other ways to identify people that weren’t based on patronyms. Here are some common, as well as some unique, surnames that came from other sources than the father’s first name.
Meaning “grove”. Also the name of a city in Sweden.
Danish word for a small island
Meaning “thorn bush”.
Combined from ås, which is a type of elongated hill, and hjelm, which means “helmet”
Old Norse word for “ax”
From the Danish word dal, meaning “valley”
Various meanings, but could be from the Old Norse word gramr, meaning “wrath”
Common Danish surname meaning “happiness”
From the Danish word ulv, meaning “wolf”
Nickname for a loud person. Derived from the Old Norse word banga, meaning something like “to pound
Meaning “rose valley”
From the Swedish word qvist, meaning “twig”
From the Danish word pynt, meaning “decoration”
Surname derived from a location, meaning “corner” or “bend”
Denmark has a long history spanning thousands of years, and the last names we see in Denmark today have a history just as long. Most names were passed down from father to child for hundreds of generations. Some have very simple origins, like last names that use the father’s first name. Others have origins that can trace their roots back beyond the Viking Age.
Regardless of the origin, Danish last names are relics of history. They serve as a reflection of how Danes have viewed the world and interacted with their community. Their desire to maintain their connection to the past is apparent and shows how much they valued their traditions and legacies.