Patronymic Naming Practices

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Note: The following was written by Mr. Hans Högman. I have extracted portions from his website. His site contains a detailed descriptions of Swedish naming conventions that may be the best we have ever witnessed. We have included his site into our Helpful Website's list. I urge everyone to visit Mr. Högman's website. Just click: Patronymic Naming Practices

In the most ancient times every individual had only one name, their given name. Later, in order to differentiate between people with the same given name, a short description of the person or his origin was added to the given name. For example Olof the Red beard, John the Wild, Carl the Red Nose, Anders from Lida or Lida-Anders. There are many examples of names like this in the Bible, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist etc.

Most cultures also started to use the father's name to separate two individuals to avoid confusion about who a person with a certain given name really was. A second name was added that derived from that of the person's father or paternal ancestor, usually by the addition of a suffix or prefix meaning "son". This name is what we now call a patronymic name.

In the patronymic naming system the "son" affix is usually attached to the father's given name, however it is also possible to attach it to the father's occupation (e.g., Clerkson). Sometimes a patronymic name is simply the father's given name (Thomas, Edward) or its genitive form (Edwards).

In some cultures the patronymic naming practice varies according to the sex of the child: In the Scandinavian countries, sons receive a patronymic ending of -son (e.g., Andersson) and daughters a form ending in -dotter (e.g., Andersdotter). A similar situation holds true in Russia.

In Europe family names came into use in the later Middle Ages (beginning roughly in the 11th century); the process was completed by the end of the 16th century. The use of family names seems to have originated in aristocratic families and in big cities.

Patronymic Names:

From early times Sweden has used patronymic surnames. As mentioned above, the fathers' first name was used as a part of his children's surname.

From early times Sweden has used patronymic surnames. As mentioned above, the fathers' first name was used as a part of his children's surname.

For an example, if a man called Anders Johansson had a son named Karl and a daughter named Karin the children's' full names would be: Karl Andersson and Karin Andersdotter.


     Son = a son
     Dotter = a daughter

Karl was a son of Anders - Anders's son and Karin was a daughter of Anders - Anders's dotter. That's why there is a double "ss" in Swedish "-son" names, Anders's son, or in Swedish; Anders son = Andersson. And, to take the patronymic naming to the next generation, if Karl Andersson had a son called Peter, then his full name would be Peter Karlsson.

The most important identity of a person (in a system with a patronymic naming practice) was his first name; I am Karl (son of Anders). The surname does not indicate a relationship other than among brothers or sisters.

Patronymic surnames were in constant use in rural Sweden and among day laborers in urban centers until the 1860's. At that time it became popular among these groups to adopt a family surname carried from one generation to the next. A lot of families then adopted a name connected to their home village or a name connected to nature. However, the majority just "froze" their patronymic surname as their family name. Since Anders was a popular first name we have a lot of Andersson families in Sweden.

Marriage and Patronymic Surnames:

When a man and a woman got married the woman never adopted her husband’s patronymic name - a name ending with "son". A woman could never be someone's son. If they both had a family name, the woman still kept her family name. If the husband had a family name and the woman a patronymic name she might change her last name to her husbands family name. But it was not very likely to occur before the 1800's. It did not become a custom for a woman to adopt her husband's surname until the end of the 1800’s, when most families had adopted family names.

Today quite a few Swedish wives do not adopt their husband's surname, but now for professional or other reason's. Alternatively she would adopt her husband's surname but still keep her own surname, that is a "double" surname. However the majority of the wives adopt their husband's surname.

The Scandinavian countries were not the only nations using the patronymic naming practice. In Ireland for example, the prefix O' signifies the "son of" (e.g. O'Brian) as Mac or Mc in Scottish names (e.g. MacDonald).

The Latin word for son is filius. In the French language this is fils, fitz in Norman French (e.g. Fitzgerald). In northern Europe -son or -dotter were added the father's given name (-son and -datter in Denmark and Norway). Iceland is still today using the patronymic naming practice.

The use of patronymic names in the USA, when the country was still under British rule, was abolished by a proclamation in 1687. However, it is difficult to order a change in a naming practice and it took several generations before it was actually abolished among the people.

The 19 most common Swedish surnames today are "-son" names. The most common is Johansson, followed by Andersson and Karlsson. The most common non "-son" names are Lindberg, followed by Lindkvist and Lindgren.

Some other typical Swedish patronymic names are:



Early in the Catholic era the clergyman used only his given name preceded by Herr (Sir), like Herr Lars, Herr Olof, Herr Hans etc. In order to differentiate clerics with the same first name, they later started to use Latinized versions of their patronymic names.

For example:

Abraham Eriksson   = Abrahamus Erici
Erik Steffansson = Ericus Stephani
Lars Johansson = Laurentius Johannis
Anders Henriksson = Andreas Henrici
Olof  Karlsson= Olaus Caroli

During the 17th century a Latinized form of their birthplace became a common naming practice for the clergy. A clergy student did not adopt his "clergy name" until he became a clergy. This means that they normally had a patronymic name before their ordination. Beware of this when tracing the roots of ancestors who were clergy.

Examples of names with places of origin:

Andreas Pauli HelsingusFrom the province of Hälsingland
Abrahamus AngermannusFrom the province of Ångermanland
Laurentius Andreæ GevaliensisFrom the city of Gävle

Another popular method was to have the name ending with "ander", the Greek word for man. For example:

Alander, Björkander, Carlander Dalander, Elander, Gullander, Hållander, Insulander, Jullander, Kilander, Lysander, Mellander, Nylander, Svenander, Ulander, Vikander and Wallander

The Latinizing of first names as well as surnames was not only used by the clergy, but also most of the learned men such as university professors, scientists, mathematicians etc.


Originally, the patronymic names were also used by nobility. The nobility was a privileged class who declared loyalty to the ruler and served him by equipping a number of soldiers and cavalry. In return the nobility were exempted from taxes.

In Sweden they also were known as "frälse" or "stormän". The nobility were large landowners.

The nobility in Sweden was not formed as an independent class until the 13th century. At that time they started to support the rulers and in return got special privileges.

In the Alsnö decree of 1279 the nobility and their privileges were determined. The parliamentary meeting of 1435 in the city of Arboga is considered to be the first parliament meeting in Sweden. At that meeting the nobility was represented as their own estate (one of four estates).

The term "adel" (nobility) was not used until the middle of the 16th century. At that time the nobility were given special titles by the King, titles like "Greve" - Count (Earl in the UK) and "Friherre" - Baron.

In 1625, The House of the Nobility ("Riddarhuset") was established and from that year forward all the noble family names had to be registered by the House. It was called to "introduce the name to the House of the Nobility". The year a noble family was introduced to the "Riddarhuset" counts as the starting year for the family as a noble family.

When the privileges of nobility were first handed out, the noble families were using patronymic names. When they were given their patent of nobility and privileges they also were given a Coat of Arms on which was emblazoned heraldic symbols. From these symbols the noble family names slowly evolved.

For example:

The noble family Uggla (Owl) had an owl on its escutcheon and the Svinhufvud family had a head of a pig (svin=pig/hog, hufvud=head).
The Hummerhielm family a lobster (hummer=lobster)
The Leijonhufvud family three heads of lions (leijon = lion, hufvud=head) etc.

The names of the noble families follow some typical patterns. The names often included names of animals (lion, falcon, pig etc), parts of the body (arm, head etc), star, crown, shield, helmet, golden or mountain etc. The names could be just one word (Uggla = Owl) but often they were combinations of two expressions (Leionhufvud = Lion head).

Comment: Syllables are the number of sounds in a word - Uggla is a two syllable word and Leionhufvud is a four syllable word - "syllable" is a three syllable word.

In the 18th century, the word "von" or "af" became a part of the noble names. In this context these words meant "of". For example Carl von Linné or Henrik af Klintberg. The name after "von" or "af" was normally then a name of a place, an estate etc. Like Carl of Linné and Henrik of Klintberg.

Before the 17th century, the noble names often were combined with their patronymic names. For example Bo Johansson Grip. His patronymic name was Johansson and his noble name Grip. The Swedish King Gustav Vasa was known as Gustav Eriksson (son of Erik). The noble name was Vasa, the family had a bunch of fasces as a symbol on their coat of arms (Vase or vasakärve = fasce, kärve=sheaf). The name "Vasa" was added later to the name.

At the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, the patronymic names were more or less abandoned by the nobility and clergy. The development of town guilds was a starting point for craftsmen to adopt special surnames.


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