January 20, 2016
Shakespeare’s Juliet once pondered this same question, arguing in her famous soliloquy, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Although she did not concern herself with the origin of a person’s name, or the need for that matter, I, on the other hand, am extremely intrigued.
In my quest to discover more about my heritage I’ve become captivated by the many designations I’ve uncovered in my family lineage. Being of Danish descent that is a lot of information to pour through. With every new detail of my family tree revealed, there are more stories to unearth and more clues about the past for me to delve into – it’s fascinating!
I recently read that Nielsen is the most common Danish surname, surpassing Jensen. Hansen, Pedersen and Andersen round out the top five most common, however, surnames ending in ‘sen’ have actually decreased from 66 to 48 percent in Denmark over the past 30 years.
The etymology of a navn (name) is intriguing. Scandinavian surnames, like many others, can be patronymic, meaning they are derived from the name of the father. These surnames ending in ‘sen’ are quite common, and not just in Denmark. For example, Johnson (son of John) is a popular last name in America, Johansson (son of Johan) is popular in Sweden, and Hansen (son of Hans) ranks number one in Norway.
Additionally, surnames can give us clues into our past. They may indicate ancestral occupations (e.g., Møller – miller and Fisker – fisher). They may symbolize where a family came from or settled, as in Berg (means mountain) and Hagen (meaning enclosed field), and if you think these are uncommon names you would be mistaken, both of these names are ranked in the top 20. Surnames can also signify a family’s place of origin (e.g., Holdensen comes from the geographical area known as historical duchy of Schleswig-Holstein). However, many of these names are protected by Danish slægtnavn (family name) laws.
First enacted in the 16th century slægtnavn established rules for personal names (mostly for nobility) and set the rules for how surnames are used. Originally, the slægtnavn ideology was founded to increase diversity among surnames, so it was easier to distinguish between people. (Read more and see if your name is approved here.)
As is true throughout history, when naming a child most people choose to honor family or choose a special moniker for their little one. However, recent trends seem to reflect a more unique, (if not downright wacky) approach. Future, Cricket, Moxie CrimeFighter, Speck and Banjo are a few of the more interesting names given to children of well-known actors and musicians within the past several years; a far cry from the days of Peter and Anne.
A name can have great meaning, and research shows your name has lasting effects (no pressure). I have already learned so much about those in my family tree, and I’m only inspired to learn more!
If you have reservations about your given name, there is reason to celebrate because February 13th is ‘Get A Different Name Day’! Try out a new one and see how it fits!