When I arrived in Iceland, I really had no idea how the naming structure worked. Sure, I’d noticed the plethora of names that ended in “sson,” but I assumed it was just a trend without thinking about the true meaning.
It wasn’t until an Icelandic woman gave me a little lesson on naming that I really began to understand the unique methods and pride in names that exists on this island of Vikings.
Family names and second names
In Western society, we tend to believe in the second name as a family name. Traditionally, you take your second name from your father, and–if you are a woman–when you marry, you take your husband’s family name. Of course, this tactic is incredibly presumptuous and rooted in patriarchal traditions. We’re more and more likely to abandon this method of naming, but we understand it as the tradition it is.
In Iceland, your second name is not your family name, but instead it directly indicates your parentage.
So, if you are male, your second name indicates that you are the son of your father.
Examples: Jón Jónsson, means Jón, the son of Jón.
Perhaps Jon’s sister is named Jóhanna. So her full name would be Jóhanna Jónsdóttir, as she is the daughter of Jón.
When you marry, you keep your own name. You’re always the daughter or son of your father. Of course, there are exceptions to this. One can choose to be named for their mother. Also, outsiders moving to Iceland have introduced their own family names into the mix over the years.
A first-name basis
As interesting as the second-name structure is in Iceland, Icelanders tend to be on a first-name basis from the start. You don’t use titles like “Miss,” or “Mister.” If you meet the prime minister, you call him by his first name (his full name, at the moment, is Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson).
You may be thinking that this sounds rather confusing, as it seems that a lot of people will end up with similar names. Luckily, directories tend to go a step further and list occupations in addition to being alphabetized by first name and including an address. Even more luckily is that you can list your occupation as whatever you like. “International businessman,” sounds nicer than “unemployed,” and there are much more creative occupations to be found in the phonebook.
Another thing to note is that Iceland’s population is pretty small (the whole country has around 330,000 people), so it can’t be that had to find who you’re looking for.
Every name has meaning
If you have a child in Iceland, you can’t just name it whatever you like. You have to stick to the approved names which appear on the Personal Names Register. Sure, you can apply to have another name added, but the point is to preserve true Icelandic names.
This is one of the ways that Iceland preserves its culture, heritage, language. In fact, once upon a time, if you moved to Iceland, you had to change your name to an Icelandic name. That is, up until a protestor changed his name to the equivalent of “Rest in Peace,” as a sign of mourning for his old name. (Just a note, I was told this story, but can’t find reportings of it anywhere. So, don’t quote me on it. If you find a reference to it, please share with me!)
Do you have any stories to share about names in different countries?