How to tag a Norwegian: on names

While many signs of Norwegian heritage may be on decline, our surnames remain

Photo: Nancy Coleman The Larry Barsness memorial stone in Virginia City, Montana. If you look closely, you’ll see Norwegian names all over the United States.

Photo: Nancy Coleman
The Larry Barsness memorial stone in Virginia City, Montana. If you look closely, you’ll see Norwegian names all over the United States.

Nancy L. Coleman & Olav Veka
Brumunddal, Norway

Norwegians who travel to the United States are usually well aware that between 800,000 and 1 million fellow Norwegians immigrated to the States and became Americans, most of them settling as farmers in the Midwest. With travel costs now affordable for a large number of Norwegians, the U.S. has become a popular destination. Will Norwegian tourists on a road trip across America be able to find traces of their people in the American social and cultural landscape?

In residential areas, a few Norwegian flags will wave over doors. And then there is the occasional t-shirt with slogans like “Kiss me, I’m Norwegian,” “Powered by Lutefisk,” or the various UFF DA! paraphernalia, and even a street called Uff-Da Hill Road on Orcas Island in the San Juans north of Seattle.

Americans themselves will not be readily identifiable as having Norwegian blood, since they look like others with Germanic roots. If you meet a Norwegian on the street in Seattle, you will probably not recognize him or her as such. Clothing, height, hair and eye color will not be much help. In bygone days you might spot a Norwegian wearing a typical lusekufte or wadmal britches, but nowadays H&M and other international fashion brands see to it that everyone in the western world dresses just about alike. If you are in Soho in New York, LA, or Minneapolis’s Mall of America, you can visit the Moods of Norway store. But only a fashion connoisseur will recognize these trendy rags as products of Norway.

Most Norwegian Americans have long since forgotten how to speak Norwegian, and even if Americans of Norwegian descent hear you speaking the language, they will probably ask you if you are from Germany. If you talk to oldsters in Juneau County, Wisconsin, you might catch a trace of a Norwegian accent though, typically characterized by a singing intonation and the pronunciation of th in words like “dis,” “dat,” and “ting.” Even so, the old norskie brogue has almost died out.

What about food? There must be some restaurants specializing in Norwegian delicacies. Not all the jokes about lutefisk and lefse can be just rhetoric. Yes, there are a few, but as you cruise across the U.S. in your rental car, you will certainly have to hunt for them. The charming café at Scandinavian Specialties in Ballard in Seattle, where you can enjoy shrimp or salmon smørbrød, lefseruller, fyrstekake, eplekake, krumkake, or verdens beste kake with coffee or a Solo or Farris, is a rare find among the Mexican and Asian restaurants that dominate the landscape. Norske Nook in Osseo, Wisconsin, is well marked and hard to miss as you cruise along I-94, and there is a Swedish restaurant in Portland, Oregon, but uff da, no Norwegian would want to be caught going in there! As for dinner, Scandinavian meatballs will be your best bet. You will hunt in vain for the sign advertising such mouthwatering delicacies as fårikål, fiskekaker, or smalahovud. But if you stumble across a Sons of Norway lodge during the Christmas season, you might get there in time for a delicious all-you-can-eat lutefisk dinner.

About 1975 we came across a café in central Iowa where we saw a handwritten sign, “Today: komle!” Maybe it was on a Thursday, the National Norwegian Komle Day. It seems you can still get komle at Royal Café in Story City, Iowa, but for some reason they serve it on Wednesdays.

Even so, there are quite a few traces of the Norwegian heritage to be found. What you should look for are names. Trade in the rental car for a bicycle and peddle out on a country road, for example in Winneshiek County, Iowa. Look at the mailboxes along the road, and you will be surprised at how many Norwegians live there: Rude, Engen, Haugen, Bjorgo, Olson, etc. And if your path takes you by a Norwegian-American Lutheran Church, the cemetery will be filled with Norwegian surnames, names that you can hardly imagine any mainstream American could pronounce: Guggedal from Suldal in Rogaland, Ildjarnstad from Valdres, Sivesind from Toten, Helgeland, Ritland, and so on.

Now we’re getting close! The most visible traces of ethnic culture among Norwegian Americans are their surnames, very many of which have hardly changed since the folks stepped onto American soil in the 1880s. Norwegian given names on the other hand largely went to the grave with the first generation of immigrants. Girls’ names like Ingeborg, Berit, and Ambjørg, and boys’ names like Knut, Askild, Bjørn, and Kittel, have long since given way to mainstream American names. Sometimes only the patronymics, consisting of a given name + -son, have survived: Askelson, Aslakson, Kittleson, Tollefson (from the boys’ names Askild, Aslak, Kittel, and Torleif).

As you cruise along on your road trip through states with a significant Norwegian-American population, you will be surprised at the number of businesses bearing Norwegian names. On I-5 south of Seattle Jorstad from Jørstad, the name of several farms in Norway, might catch your eye. During an election season, there will certainly be Norwegian names on signs in peoples’ yards, such as Haugen or Brekke for Judge! Ruud for Mayor! Senator Tracey Eide is a member of the Washington State Senate, and the surnames of several Minnesota State Senators reveal their Norwegian heritage: Tom Saxhaug, Kevin L. Dahle, Bill Ingebrigtsen, and Carrie Ruud. Eide, a farm name in many Norwegian communities, means “the farm on the isthmus.” Dahle or Dale, “the farm in the valley,” is also found in a number of communities. Saxhaug on the other hand is only found on the island of Inderøy in Trøndelag. Sax- is most likely from the boys name Saxe, and haug means “mound.” Ruud, meaning “clearing,” is quite common in Eastern Norway. You will also see signs with patronymics like Ingebrigtsen, Andersen or Anderson, Olsen or Olson, Nelson, Hansen or Hanson, Jensen, Peterson etc. However, farm names will be your best bet for determining whether a Scandinavian surname indicates Norwegian ancestry. Among these patronymics, only Ingebrigtsen will distinctively mark a Norwegian. Ingebrigt is a Norwegian given name, whereas Anders, Nils/Niels, Hans, Jens, and Peter/Peder are common in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.

During the recent election season, Norwegian names were also in the news. The incumbent Governor Terry Branstad (from the boys name Brand + stad “place”) of Iowa was re-elected on November 4. U.S. District Court Judge Scott W. Skavdahl in Wyoming made news when he struck down Wyoming’s law banning gay marriage. Skavdahl is a farm name found five places in Norway. And Sherry Reishus in Kansas was interviewed in Aftenposten recently about the election. Reishus is a farm name from Seljord in Telemark. The actor Kevin Sorbo from Minnesota played Hercules in the TV series of that name. Sørbø is a farm name in about 10 locations in Norway.

A keen newspaper reader will also discover Norwegian names in article bylines, for example Elizabeth Hovde in The Oregonian, bearing a surname from the farm name meaning “hill, knoll.” Gary Fisketjon, a farm name from Suldal meaning “fish pond,” made a name for himself as an editor at Vintage Books.

Norwegian surnames turn up in all kinds of places. In the old mining town and former capital of Montana, Virginia City, you will find a marker commemorating Larry Barsness, founder of the Virginia City Players. Barsness comes from a farm name in Sogn. If you go by a bookstore, you are likely to see a number of crime novels by Jo Nesbø, or Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. Both Nesbø and Petterson are bona fide Norwegians, while Florida author Carl Hiaasen’s name comes from a farm name in Sigdal in Buskerud, hi meaning “burrow, animal habitation” + ås “hill.”

If you stay at a motel in Norwegian America, you will likely find two books, the Bible and the telephone book. In Moses Lake in Eastern Washington State, the telephone book contains an impressive list of Norwegian names: Haug, Haugan, Hauge, Haugen, Hauger, all of which are grammatical variants of haug “mound.” The only form missing here is Haugom, dative plural of haug. And if you take a look at the faucets in the motel bathroom, you will often find the name Moen, a company based in Seattle. Moen is one of the most common farm names, the definite form of mo “sandy plain.” Today, over 10,000 Norwegians have the surname Moen—which is only about 2,500 more than the number of Moens in the U.S. Ca. 6,900 Norwegians and close to 10,000 Americans are bearers of the definite form Moe, and 1,600 Norwegians and 2,500 Americans write it Mo without the e.

Personalities from bygone days are still icons for many readers: football player Knute Rockne, with roots from Voss, CBS journalist Eric Sevareid, a name from Etne in Sunnhordaland, Walter Mondale from Mundal in Sogn, and Carl Rove, shortened from the farm name Roverud in Østfold. Rove- in this name means “animal tail.” We will resist the temptation to comment on the appropriateness of this name for a bearer like Carl Rove!

These examples show that surnames are an important factor in determining the “visibility” of Americans of Norwegian descent in American society. They are markers of a probable heritage, and bearers of such names who are personalities in the media, culture, and politics are public reminders of the Norwegian-American contribution to American society. While given names are chosen for each new generation and subject to naming fashions, surnames are quite stable. They are therefore an enduring part of the Norwegian-American heritage.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 16, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.