How to tag a Scandihoovian: on names

Though the countries share many cultural features, names usually identify a person as a Dane, Norwegian, or Swede

Photo: Anne-Lise Reinsfelt / Norsk Folkemuseum / The Numedal Farmstead at the Norsk Follkemuseum in Oslo. Many Norwegian names are derived from the names of farms.

Photo: Anne-Lise Reinsfelt / Norsk Folkemuseum /
The Numedal Farmstead at the Norsk Follkemuseum in Oslo. Many Norwegian names are derived from the names of farms.


Nancy L. Coleman & Olav Veka
Brumunddal, Norway

Most people know that there are many descendants of Scandinavian immigrants living in the USA today, but few know how many. The most recent estimates, from 2009, show that some 1,516,126 Americans claim Danish ancestry, 4,642,526 claim Norwegian ancestry, and 4,347,703 Swedish ancestry. The number of Americans with Norwegian ancestry was only a little less than the population of Norway in 2010, 4,858,200.

North Dakota is the state with the highest percentage of Norwegian Americans, a whopping 30.8%, while Minnesota is the state with the highest population. In 2009, 868,361 Minnesotans were of Norwegian descent, the second highest in percentages.

Wisconsin has the next largest Norwegian American population. 53.3% of the people in Blair, Wis., claim Norwegian ancestry, and 8.5% use the Norwegian language, the highest of any community in the USA.

Many people find it difficult to distinguish between Scandinavian countries, because their cultures and languages are very similar. Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish are so similar that they are mutually understandable, and Scandinavians can communicate with each other in their native tongue.

Even though these countries share many cultural features, naming traditions are surprisingly different. But is it still possible to identify a person with Danish, Norwegian, or Swedish ancestry based on his or her name? Yes it is, but names have undergone changes, so it will not work in every case.

Norwegians are the ethnic group world- wide with the most surnames taken from the names of farms. About 70% of all Norwegians have a surname that is a farm name. Swedes are the population with most ornamental names, surnames that have been made up, and Danes are the population in Europe where the smallest number of surnames is borne by the most people.

Norwegian surnames from farm names are easy to recognize. They end in rud, heim (hjem), stad, haug, by, land, dal, and other elements describing natural formations. If you have visited Norway you have certainly noticed the variations in the landscape; Norwegian contains a large vocabulary of names to describe these geographical formations.

Ole Evinrude (Evenrud), inventor of theoutboard motor, immigrated to Wisconsin as a child. Linnerud Drive in Sun Prairie, Wis., is certainly named after a Norwegian, likewise Olstad and Nesheim Roads in Deerfield, Wis. Elvehjem, which is the name of an elementary school and a university building in Madison, is named after Professor Conrad Elvehjem at the University of Wisconsin. Hauge Church, a form of haug “mound,” near Blue Mounds was named for the place or a Norwegian by that name, or perhaps both. The town of Westby was named to honor Ole T. Westby, who came from a farm called Vestby in Norway. The word “by” means farm, so Westby is “the farm to the west.” Civil War hero Colonel Hans Christian Heg (1829-63) was born on a farm named Hegg, meaning “bird cherry tree.”

Many Wisconsinites have Norwegian farm names as surnames. Football punter James Bakken, comic book artist Steve Rude (Rud), and champion curler Nicole Joraanstad (Jøråndstad) are all examples of native Madisonians with such surnames.

Swedish names are also easy to recognize. They are often composed of two syllables using elements from nature. Lindberg is a typical example, composed of lind “linden” and berg “mountain,” as well as Lindgren, where the last syllable is gren “branch,” and Lundberg, where the first syllable is lund “grove.” Charles Lindbergh, the first to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean, is easily identified as a Swedish American.

The elements comprising such Swedish names are combined randomly, and they do not point to a place, nor really mean anything. Whoever made them up just thought they sounded nice. Thus, they are called ornamental or decorative names. Such names are not found in Norway or Denmark.

And the Danes? In Denmark many unrelated people have the same last name. The most frequent are Jensen, Nielsen, Hansen, and Pedersen. All of these are found in the USA, though the ending has sometimes been changed to son (Hanson, Anderson). These names are also common in Norway, so it is difficult to be sure that the bearer is Danish. They are also common in Sweden, but the forms are different. Johansson, Andersson, Carlsson, and Larsson are typical Swedish surnames, ending in “sson.” In America such names were often written with only one s: Johnson or Anderson. But a surname ending in sson almost always identifies a Swedish background.

Norwegian surnames can be a big help for genealogists looking for their roots in Norway. Farm names can easily be located on Google Maps. Many farm names are found at only one location, for example Tufteskog and Fisketjøn in Suldal County in Rogaland. A well-known bearer of the name Fisketjøn is Gary Fisketjon, a nationally known critic and publisher. Others, such as Haugen, Berge, and Lunde are more common farm names and can be harder to locate in regard to a specific heritage.

So it is definitely not only a myth that some Americans searching their roots in Norway just looked up the name in the telephone book and made a call, or rented a car and drove to the farm – and there were the cousins waiting for them!

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 31, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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