Not every Dane is named Hans or Sven, although sometimes it might seem like they are. As you search for your ancestors, Danish or other, understanding why and how family members were named can help you decipher everything from an ancestor’s birth order to his or her father’s name, the family’s nationality, or even the family business.
In Denmark, surnames were primarily based on patronymics (although occasionally other sources, like profession, were used for surnames as well). Surnames for sons were derived by taking the father’s first name and adding the suffix “sen”—the son of Hans would be Hansen; daughters followed their father’s first name with “datter” as in Hansdatter, although around 1800, the “datter” suffix was dropped in favor of the “sen” suffix.
Additionally, Danish women, who were able to inherit property, maintained their “maiden” names throughout their lives. If, for example Karen Jensdatter married Anders Svensen, she would be known as Karen Jensdatter, Anders Svensen’s wife.
The traditional formula for determining first names, used through the 1800s in some families, was as follows:
• First son=father’s father
• Second son=mother’s father
• First daughter=mother’s mother
• Second daughter=father’s mother
An exception occurred when there was a second wife: the first daughter of that union was usually named after the deceased wife. Similarly, when a woman had a child by a subsequent husband, the first son of that union was usually named for the deceased husband. Also, if a child named for a grandparent died young, the next child born of the same gender would be given that grandparent’s name.
Naming rules were changed by the king of Denmark around 1820 when a new law was enacted that deemed all babies be given their father’s surname. Danes refused the rule and stuck to patronymics. In the 1830s, the king enacted a law that jailed any clerk who recorded patronymics rather than the new naming rules. As Danes were forced to use the new surname rule, they often rebelled by giving each child a handful of different, arbitrary, and sometimes bizarre first names.
Danes who immigrated to the United States often went through an additional name change, sometimes to sound more American, other times due to an immigrant’s inability to spell his or her name for the immigration worker who then wrote down the name as it sounded. Thus a number of “sens” became “sons.”
You can often pinpoint the country of origin of a Scandinavian ancestor by his or her patronymic name as suffixes differed somewhat from country to country. Norwiegans, like Danes, also used the “sen” suffix, although on occasion “son” was used instead. Icelandic people, who still rely on a patronymic naming system, use “son” or “dotir.” Swedish patronymics added “son” or “dotter,” and patronymic names were traditionally written with a double “s”—the first “s” forming the possessive of the father’s name.