Danish Naming Patterns

Gary T. Horlacher

Prior to about 1850 all of the Scandinavian countries used a form of patronymics. The given name of a father was used as a surname for each of the children. The son's used the father's given name and a suffix that meant "son" and the daughter's used the father's given name and a suffix meaning "daughter".

Following are examples from the four largest of the Scandinavian countries:

Denmark- Norway Sweden-Finland
Lars Andersen (father)

Hans Larsen (son)

Anna Larsdatter (daughter)

Anders Hansen (grandson)

Maren Hansdatter (granddaughter)

Olof Svensen (father)

Mons Olofsson (son)

Stina Olofsdotter (daughter)

Sven Monsson (grandson)

Katharine Monsdotter (granddaughter)

From about 1860-1904 the naming customs in each of these countries was changing from this system of patronymics that was used for hundreds of years to the type of system used in the rest of Europe and America where the surname was passed from father to son. This shift in naming patterns first took place in the cities and took place last in the rural countryside villages. During this period of change you will find several possibilities for surnames:

  • A person could use the patronymic name they were born with for a family surname and pass it on to all their children.
  • A person could take their father's patronymic name and use it for a surname.
  • A person could take an entirely different name such as a place name or a name they liked and begin using it from then on as their surname.

Because this is the same time period many Scandinavians emigrated to America, the first generation on either side of the ocean can be particularly difficult to research. Many Scandinavian records will therefore have a first name index rather than a surname index. In a single family three or four brothers often took entirely different surnames when they got to America.

Scandinavians also had some general naming customs they followed to greater or lesser extent for given names. They would often name the first son after the father's father, the second son after the mother's father, the third son after the father, and other sons after uncles. Likewise the daughters were named for the grandmothers, mother, and aunts. If a spouse died and the husband or wife remarried, the next child of the same sex as the deceased spouse would be give their name. If an infant died young, the next child with that sex was given the same name. This helped lead to the use of the same given names over and over again in each new generation. In many Norwegian and Danish examples you will find two or three children in a family with the same given name who all lived. For example a father's probate record in Norway might list among the children three sons: Torvald the elder, Torvald the middle, and Torvald the youngest.

Besides these customs each of the Scandinavian countries had their own unique naming customs. Someone who understands that soldiers in Sweden are given surnames often assume this is how names in Denmark came about. These type of generalization just do not work and cause a lot of confusion. You will need to refer to each of the unique paradigms listed below to understand surnames other than patronymics used in each of these countries.

Other Naming Patterns in Denmark

Additional surnames appear in Denmark besides patronymic surnames. Unlike the other Scandinavian countries, there is not an easy explanation for when, why, and how these additional surnames appear. There are some patterns but no fast and predictable rules. Although some places such as much of Jutland place names were used as surnames, they were not like the farm names of Norway. In Denmark there was no equivalent to the military and trade names used in Sweden.

In each of the Scandinavian countries the same dozen or so given names were generally used over and over again in different combinations making it difficult to distinguish between more than one person with common names such as Rasmus Pedersen or Jens Hansen. There might be three or four people with the exact same name living in the same small village. Among the strategies used to distinguish such people were:

  •  Use of an occupation: Jens Rasmusen Smed (blacksmith) or Rasmus Olsen Skredder (tailor)
  • Use of age indicator: Ung (young) Jens Pedersen, Gammel (old, abbreviated 'gl.') Jens Pedersen
  • Use of a place name where the person may have moved from: Hans Pedersen Skaarup, Rasmus Larsen Skablund
  • Use of a surname that may have come from Germany originally: Hans Jensen Schrøder.
  • A family could have used a more unusual patronymic surname in addition to their own patronymic. For example: Jens Pedersen Clemmendsen, Jens Rasmusen Svendsen, and Niels Rasmusen Ovesen. Sometimes they might use one or the other of the two surnames or both (see examples below).


In all cases the patronymic is the primary surname and the other surname is secondary and just used to better identify him.

Danes were clever at using nicknames to distinguish people but official records tend to not use these nicknames often. Nicknames will often appear in at least some records. Following are a couple examples showing what can in some cases be situations:

  • A family had the name Holme in three generations of the family and it became the name the family was known by in America. The earliest ancestor identified by earlier genealogists was Jens Pedersen Holme, son of Peder Rasmusen. The family wondered if this could be a mistake since they expected to see the Holme surname. Further research showed that Jens Pedersen married the widow of a man named Lars Holme. Since he took over the farm where Lars Holme had been living and married his widow, it was an obvious name for the people in the town to continue calling the new farmer at that place by the same surname or nickname.
  • A merchant in Korsør, Peder Berg (died 1810), was listed as born in Skelskør about 1770, but was not listed in the birth records of Skeskør. As some of his siblings were known, all of the birth records from 1750-1800 were searched for their given names. The only couple who had children with those names was the skipper Christopher Norsk and wife Sara Poulsdatter. It was discovered that this was the right family after going back and searching all of the records for the Christopher Norsk family. One record was found where the minister wrote Christopher Berg, called Norsk. Perhaps Christopher Berg was not unique enough or somehow he got the nickname Norsk and it stuck even though his official name was Berg.
  • Searching tax lists and other documents for a particular property in Gylling Parish (Århus County) it was found that a Jens Pedersen was living at the farm in 1678, but Jens Clemmendsen was living at the same farm in numerous lists from 1682-1711. Finally a probate record was found for him in 1724 which listed his name as Jens Pedersen Clemmendsen. A person doing genealogy on this family might miss some of the references to his family if they were only looking for the surname Pedersen or Clemmendsen but not both. Because Pedersen was such a common name, he probably was referred to as Clemmendsen because it was more unique. He may have been the son of a Peder Clemmendsen or taken over the farm after a man named Clemmendsen and the people decided to continue referring to him as Clemmendsen rather than a common name like Pedersen.
  • In the parish of Falling we find a man named Jens Foghsen. In his probate in 1792 he lists five children: Søren Fogh 22 (living in Copenhagen), Fogh Jensen 20 , Niels Jensen 14, Jørgen Jensen 11, and Maren Jensdatter married to Mogens Jensen of Skabling. In his wife's probate in 1801 the five children are listed as: Mr. Søren Fogh, Fogh Jensen, Niels Fogh 23 (living in Copenhagen), Jørgen Fogh 19, and Maren Jensdatter, married to Mogens Jensen. In the records of the children of the daughter Maren Jensdatter, is listed in one of her children's birth records as Maren Fogh. Although Foghsen was the father's surname most of the children in the family became known by the nickname Fogh rather than their own patronymic name Jensen. This was natural since Fogh was much more unique and descriptive than Jensen.
  • Another challenge in came in identifying information on a Jens Svendsen of Skablund, Hundslund Parish. A search of surrounding parishes could not locate the record of his first child's birth or the record of his marriage. Further search in the copyhold records showed that in 1786 his son Mogens Jensen took over the farm from the father Jens Rasmussen. Once the records were searched again for the name Rasmussen the marriage, birth of first child, and other records and connections were made. When Mogens Jensen was born in 1761 he was illegitimate. The absolution record listed his father as Jens Svendsen. The marriage record two years later lists the same man as Jens Rasmussen. Since Jens Rasmussen was such a common name he was also called Jens Svendsen to make his name more unique. Later it was found that his father's name was listed in the mother's probate document as both Rasmus Svendsen and Rasmus Jensen. His grandfather's name was found to be Jens Svendsen, apparently the first with the name Svendsen whose grandchildren took his patronymic name as their second surname. Recently I found another case where a Jens Rasmusen Ovesen was using the name Ovesen in the same pattern as described here for Svendsen. This took place in Vejle County, so this practice was found in more than one part of Denmark during the mid to late-1700s.


When all else fails you might need to look at the names of the people in the entire community to see if you might have missed a few documents on a family where you did not recognize the surname.

Essential Danish Vocabulary for Genealogy Research

E. Wade Hone 

Birth - født Illegitimate - uægte
Christening - døpt, dåb Parish - sogn
Engagement - trolovet County - amt
Marriage - ægteskab Year - år
Death - død Month - måned
Burial - begravet Day - dag
Military Levy Roll - lægdsrullerne Moving in record - afgangsliste
Probate - skifte Moving out record - tilgangsliste
Male - Mandkiøn Female - Qvindekiøn, Pige

The Danish alphabet has three extra letters that come after "z," "ae," "ø," and "å." Names of counties, parishes, or people that begin with these letters will fall at the end of the alphabet.

There is a more extensive Danish vocabulary for genealogy research listing presented on Norman Lee Madsen's website.


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