By Daniel Hubbard | September 7, 2010
We think of names as normally fixed and, wandering spellings aside, unchanging. Our names are what they are. They are in our passports, driver’s licenses, company IDs and credit cards. All those items must have the same name upon them if we are to be able to navigate our everyday world. Not only that but most of us will be born into the same last name as our father and his father before him. But those things are simply how we do things in our culture. We think of surname, family name and last name as different terms for the same thing. Clearly that is not always correct. In East Asia, for example, the family name often goes first and so isn’t a “last name.” A reordering like that might confuse the unwary but it isn’t hard to understand once you are told which name is which.
Let’s ignore alternative ordering and stick to the order “given name(s) then last name.” That implies that the “last name” was not “given,” it was not a matter of choice. Fair enough, but if it is only defined as a name that isn’t a matter of choice, does it therefore need to be a matter of heredity? Does a last name have to be passed from generation to generation? What if your last name was not your father’s or even your mother’s? What if last names were fluid, changing as convenience dictates? What if your first and last names were so common that you needed to augment them with some other way of identifying yourself? I hope that sounds odd but I hope also that you suspect that those questions are not simply made up.
What is in a Name?
In Scandinavia, patronymic names were the rule, in Iceland they still are. These are not patronymic names as we might think of Johnson, for example. In the English speaking world, Johnson and names like it are passed on generation after generation from some distant forebear identified as John’s son. In Scandinavia the son of Per would use Persson, literally Per’s son. If his own given name was Anders, his sons would be called Andersson. Any girls in the family would not be Anderssons because they were of course, not sons and so would be known by the name Andersdotter.
In Sweden, children were not even recorded with last names. At birth, a child would simply be listed as Anna or Jonas, nothing more. Of course, Anna’s parents would be given but she herself would have no other name until she left home. Then and only then would she become Anna Andersdotter in the records, not before. This might seem particularly odd in the case of a young woman. If she left home when she married, then she would only receive her maiden name just at the moment that she would lose it—except for one thing. The concept of a maiden name, a name that a woman loses upon marriage, didn’t exist. She would be known as her father’s daughter and her husband would be known as his father’s son until their dying days. No “family name” existed for them. A father and mother would have different last names and the children would take names upon leaving home that neither of their parents used. Brothers and sisters would not share a common last name, unless and until -sdotter fell out of use in favor of -sson for all siblings.
This system is different from ours but it did work. Yet, there was a problem. When virtually everyone’s last name depended on the names given to boys of the previous generation, it could and did lead to confusion. Parents are always prone to giving their children popular names. If every family in one generation contained boys named Per, Anders, Sven and Jonas then literally every child of the next generation would be a Svensdotter or an Andersson or one of the other few last names that are derived from those given names. If only four boys names where in common use for two generations then for all practical purposes, there were only sixteen full names (first and last) that were called upon to differentiate between individuals in a whole population. How easy was it to keep track of Lars Larsson, Per Persson, Per Larsson and Lars Persson when there were several of each? It was never quite that bad but it was bad enough that, in Sweden at least, the army had problems. Imagine an officer giving a command to Sven Andresson and having half a company react to it. Soldiers were given soldier names. One Sven Andersson might become Sven Granqvist the next might become Sven Södermark and so on. When they left the army, some soldiers reverted back to being their father’s sons, others chose to retain their soldier names and some even passed those soldier names on to their children.
A similar problem occurred when people moved into the cities. Perhaps in your little village, you were the only Lars Persson. In Stockholm, you were not likely to be particularly unique. Some people decided to simply start using a more unusual last name so that their name actually had some ability to identify them and only them.
Even in the countryside, it might be difficult to specify which person of any particular name was meant. Because individual farmsteads normally had fairly unique names, your farmstead’s name might become attached to yours in order to make your own name more unique. A boy born as simply Lars might leave home and become known as Lars Persson. Then in the army he might be Lars Ek. After leaving the army he might be Lars Persson again, until that became confusing and he became known as Has Lars Persson or Lars Has Persson because he lived on a farmstead called “Has.” Of course people could and did move and so Has Lars Persson might eventually settle on a farmstead of a different name and perhaps the “Has” would disappear or be replaced, but maybe not, or maybe eventually but not right away. There were no rules.
I’m sure this is not the only example of a system of last names/family names/surnames that is different from the hereditary surname pattern common in much of the world today. As with most things, there is more to those names than meets the eye.Twitter It!