Various Country and Ethnic Naming Customs

by Gary T. Horlacher, Sep 2000

African - Ghana , Nigeria
German - Schleswig , Ostfriesland , Westfalen
Latin America (Hispanic)
Scandinavia - Denmark , Finland , Norway , Sweden


Names of people are of central importance in genealogy. Often our interest in genealogy is a curiosity of where our name comes from. What strange meaning could a name like Horlacher have? The name Gary is not biblical. Where does it come from? Answering questions like these it may take years of research and extending the family back in time several hundred years, but it can be a challenge worthy of pursuit. There will not always be a certain explanation either.

In life, people interpret the world around them by their past experience. We all see the world a little differently depending on the experiences we have had, the people we have met, and the places we have been. As we begin to think about something new, we create a mental picture from our past as to how we expect to find it. Often things are not how we visualize and so we learn something new and expand our vision.

In genealogy we are mostly interested in people, places, and time periods. History and sociology that revolved around our ancestors become important in our search. We have to set ourselves into their world in order to know how to understand the documents, what type of records to look for, and where to find these records. Unfortunately over a century or two and in different countries some of this background is quite different than we anticipate.

Without having personally experienced the culture of the country or the time our ancestors lived we often grossly misjudge circumstances. As I work on guides for genealogy in Greece or Africa I find that if I guess about burial customs, naming customs, or marriage customs in these countries based on my knowledge of northern and western Europe, almost always I will be grossly mistaken.

For those who live a normal life in Europe or America, they have a given name their parents decided on and a family name or surname which they took from their father, who took the name from his father. As we begin doing research we assume that this family name was given from father to son for as far back as we can extend a family. Unfortunately this is not true for most of the world. It is often true for England, France, and parts of Germany, but most other countries had entirely different naming customs a century ago.

Patrons will often come to the Scandinavian reference desk at the library trying to understand how an ancestor such as a Jens Petersen Stoll could have been the son of a Peter Jensen. What happened to the name Stoll? Was his last name Petersen or Jensen? Did the previous genealogist just pick a name out of a hat. Once someone has explained to them a few things about Danish naming customs this all becomes clear.

Another thing to be careful of in working with names is the spelling. In the 21st century we get very concerned about the spelling of a surname. A family may insist that they are Mayers and not Meyers (pronounced identically in German). Like other naming customs this is something that has developed in the last two or three generations and was not the case a hundred years ago. The spelling of a name has become standardized with the advent of better education of the common people. In the 1800s our ancestors generally went to school until 14 years old when they didn't have more important farm work to do. If they were very diligent they learned how to read and write and basic mathematics. They generally did not keep records of their own. It was the minister and his assistants who kept records. The spelling of names often had several variations. The same minister could spell the same surname differently in various records, however even more common is that a particular record keeper spelled the name a certain way for 20-30 years and then the next record keeper might spell it another way.

It is interesting to see what people do with names even today and to think what kind of generalizations they will say about us. My own experience I am part of the younger generation who try to find unique names to name their children. Examples are easy to find. My uncle and aunt had 7 children from oldest to youngest: Ann Leigh, Barbara K., Clair Jay, David Isaac, Edith H., Forest Gary, and Gwen Faye. It is not hard to remember the order of the children in this family once you get to know their names. My sister had five daughters: Toinette, Tamika, Tennicia, Telencia, and Taniel. Although our ancestors often were not as creative as this and followed society norms, you may find that they had a mind of their own too and could have had their own variety of the standard practice.

This article is a bit of a hodge podge of interesting naming customs that I've noticed or studied in my comings and goings. It is not at all comprehensive of naming customs of the world or even for those areas mentioned below, but it can give you an idea of some of the types of variation you find (it will be a little more comprehensive for Denmark, Germany, Norway, and Sweden because of my background). Understanding this is kind of fun, but even more importantly it will help you to become a little more open-minded about naming possibilities. If anything can help in learning about things that are outside our realm of experience, it would be slowing down in making conclusions and having an open mind about possibilities.


Undoubtedly some of the most interesting naming customs in the world are going to come from areas quite different than our western cultures. There will certainly be different customs in Asian, Polonysian, Indian, and other cultures. I will not say anything about those, but will be willing to add some information of someone wanted to write about them and submit them. I will pass on a little information about a couple of the tribes in Western Africa that I have learned about recently.


Several things should be noted about Ghanaian naming customs:

  • Surnames are often not the same for all persons in a family. Often each child is given a different surname, which may be different from that of the parents or grandparents. Family surnames are more common in Cape Coast and Accra.
  • Sometimes in Ghana the father's given name is given to his son as a surname.
  • Married women did not take their husband's surnames until recently. They now will often retain their maiden name until the marriage is registered.

Children are often given native names at birth and a "Christian" name when they go to school. The Christian name is usually taken from the Bible and westernized. It holds some cultural prestige. The native names given at birth are generally derived from the day of the week of their birth and the names Papa (father), Mama (mother), and Nana may be given at birth to honor a famous relative.

The following table shows the names associated with various days of the week from the Fanti language (F) and the Ashanti (A) language (female names may have Ewura added to the beginning of the name or Ewuraba which means lady):


Day Male Female






F-Kojo, Kodwo (Paakojo means named after the father)


F-Adjoa, Adwoa



F-Kobina, Ebow, Ebo


F-Araba, Abena



F-Kweku, Abeku, Kuku

A-Kwaku, Agyeku (named after father or grandfather)

F-Ekua, Ewurakua

A-Akua (sounds like Akuya)


F-Ekow, Kow, Paakow (named after father)

A-Yaw, Yoa

F-Aba (Baaba is a nickname)

A-Yaa, Yawa

Friday F-Kofi, Fiifi A-Kofi




F-Ato, Kwamina (or both)




A-Amma, Serwah (or both)


Other native names include the following:

Nii/Naa Male and female names from Ga tribe, prevalent around the city of Accra, may indicate royal blood.
Donkor Child born after mother had 2-3 babies die. Three tribal cuts from the corner of each eye or sides of the mouth may be made as a token of honor.
Nana Either gender, named after an older relative. Nana sometimes precedes the weekday name, indicating the person is named for a grandfather or grandmother (e.g. Nana Kofi Mensah). It may also indicate the person is a chief or village elder.
Akwate/ Akuete


Names for male twins given in the Ga tribe

If two children are born on the same day of the week, they may be given the same name with one of them abbreviated.

  • A child (junior) named after his parent or grandparent (senior)
  • Twins with the same name (The firstborn is considered the youngest as he came first to prepare the way of the elder child. For example, twins born on a Sunday may be called Kwesi Ata Kakra (Kewsi the younger, born first) and Kwesi Ata Panin (Kwesi the elder).
  • Siblings who were born several years apart, but given the same name
  • A child dies and the next child in the family is given the same name
  • The last child of one wife and the first child of the next wife have the same name.

In recording family information, it is helpful to list all the names a person used during his or her life.


As with Ghana, naming customs in Nigeria very depending on the tribal and ethnic group a person belonged to. Most of the information in this article deals with southern parts of Nigeria. The western custom of passing a surname from father to son is becoming more common in the cities, but there is quite a variety of customs being following in the rural areas.

Most children in Nigeria are given at least three names at birth by the father, mother, and father's relative or the grandparents on the mother's side. Some parts of the country give up to four names to the child at birth. The first name is a personal name and may relate to the circumstances of the family. The second name is a complimentary name, an attributive name which expresses the personality of the child or what the child is hoped to become. The third name relates to the child's kinship. It may refer to the earliest ancestor such as a legendary hero or a god, or be a word for sacred trees or other objects held sacred by the families using it. When the child grows up, he takes two of the given names from birth and his father's name or great grand father's name, however the family custom is.

Two common naming practices in southern Nigeria are the following:

  1. A very important ancestor may have been so well thought of that later generations continue using his name. This may appear similar to our western way of naming but was not the rule, only one way of doing it. For example Okonkwo was a famous war warrior and hero. Following are four generations of his family:

    Okafor Ojo Okonkwo
    Okeke Okoro Okonkwo
    Okechi Obi Okonkwo (or he could be called Okechi Obi Okeke after his own father)

  2. A child could be referred to by his common first name and his father's two names. Following is an example of our generations of a family following this custom:

    Akpan Udo Okon
    Sunday Akpan Udo
    Effiom Sunday Akpan
    Peter Effiom Sunday

    When a woman marries she generally never uses the maiden name again, but rather takes the husband's two names. For example, three generations of a family might include:

    Eno Sampson Ekim (her father)
    Comfort Eno Sampson (her name)
    Monday Akpan Udo (her husband)
    Comfort Monday Akpan (her name after marriage)
    John Monday Akpan (her son's name)
    Elizabeth Monday Akpan (her daughter's name)


Prior to the late 19th century, Germany was not a united country. It was rather a patchwork of kingdoms, principalities, duchies, and fiefs. Naming customs throughout this vast territory differed in some areas and during different time periods.

In central and southern Germany during the 1700s you find most of the boy children had the name Johann with a second given name. The child would use the middle name that was unique in daily life unless he was given a single name Johannes. Likewise all daughters in a family might have dual given names with the first name being Maria or Anna for most of the children. A hundred years earlier in these same areas the boys were generally called by dual given names with the first part of it Hans instead of Johan (such as Hans Georg Müller).

In northern and north eastern German areas, including much of the territories that are now part of Prussia, the Germans in the mid-1800s gave their children 3-5 given names, following the pattern of the nobility in those areas. It seemed the person was more important the more names he was given. To distinguish which of the many names a person would use in his day to day dealings the minister would underline the preferred name. Often in a marriage record the names will be in a slightly different order or might be simplified from how they are listed in a birth record.

For those who are interested in how German names were changed when Germans emigrated to America, that will be the subject of another article.

Most parts of Germany began using permanent surnames around the 1500s although some started much earlier and other areas later. In Switzerland, southern Germany, and elsewhere often a family will change over a couple generations from one surname to another. For example in a particular town in the canton of Zürich there were many families by the name Huber. One of these families was distinguished from the other Huber families with the word genannt (called) followed by the name Müller. Apparently he was the local miller in the town and after this transition, his branch of the Huber family went by the surname Müller. Other words like gennant which are used to distinguish a second nickname or surname that a person went by other than their family surname are vulgo, modo, sive, and alias.

These generalization fit for most of the German territories, however for at least three other provinces there was a very different naming custom being followed.


The duchy of Schleswig, which is the northern part of Schleswig-Holstein, was in the possession of various feudal lords, the King of Denmark, and the Prussian empire at various times. After 1920 the area was divided, the northern part of Schleswig becoming part of Denmark again and the lower part of Schleswig and the duchy of Holstein becoming part of Germany. Although many names in Holstein sound like patronymic names, fixed surnames became used in the early 16th century and before. By the earliest church records most people in the duchy of Holstein had fixed surnames. Many names were similar to other low-German dialect areas and included patronymic names as well such as: Peters, Jürgens, Johannsen, Ruetke, Scheel, Hopner, Classen, etc.

In Schleswig, however, patronymics continued throughout the 18th century just as they did in the rest of Denmark. This meant that if a person's father was named Jep or Peter, then the sons and daughters used the surname Jepsen or Petersen. Areas closest to Denmark the daughters sometimes used the surnames as Jepsdatter and Petersdatter, but most areas of Schleswig they took the same patronymic form as the boys.

Because of problems in identifying heirs and relatives with common patronymic names for probate proceedings, a law was passed in the duchy of Schleswig in Nov 1771 requiring the taking of set-surnames throughout the region. The result was that in some places people took fixed patronymic names or used old nicknames or farm names, or in a few areas took entirely new names. Sometimes a person may have taken a patronymic name other than their own or their father's patronymic name. This law was passed by Struensees in the name of the mentally ill King Christian VII. If Struensees' had not fallen from power a similar law would have probably been passed about this time for the rest of the country (Denmark).

Although this law changed the naming customs in this part of Denmark, the change took time to completely take effect. It took a full generation before the fixed-surnames were well established. The generation born about 1770-1800 may be listed several ways in various records. For example, we find a woman named Ingeburg, wife of Hans Casper Jepsen, listed in several records as follows:

  • Birth record, 1794: Ingeburg Peters, daughter of Detlef Jürgensen
  • Marriage record, 1812: Ingeburg Peters, daughter of Detlef Peters.
  • Birth record of children, 1813 & 1825: Ingeburg Petersen
  • Birth record of children, 1815 & 1822: Ingeburg Detlefs
  • Birth record of child, 1818: Ingeburg Detlefsen
  • Birth record of child, 1828: Ingeburg Jürgensen [father's surname]
  • Birth record of child, 1834, & 1835 census: Ingeburg Peters

In Ladelund parish Peter Christian Kristensen, born 1777, was the son of a Kristen Jensen. All his descendants used the surname Kristensen. Hans Caspar Jepsen, born 1786, was the son of Christian Jepsen, so he used his father's patronymic name.

It is important to find this transition generation in the later 1835, 1840, 1845, and subsequent census records, and in the death records where it lists the birth place and parents names to verify all the name variations a person might be listed in records from the late 18th century and early 19th century.

Many did not wish to stop using Patronymics in spite of the law. In some towns the people continued to use a patronymic name as a middle name which sometimes appears in the records as a double surname.

Because of some of the people in this region belonging to the cultural group of Ostfriesland, you also find a lot of surnames that don't end in -sen, but just -s, such as Peters and Jeps. The -s suffix is possessive. It often has the implied meaning of the person's wife as well as a person's son, so a Else Peters might actually be the wife of a Peter rather than the daughter of a Peter. This should be kept in mind when dealing with the shorter name.


Another area of Germany which had a different naming custom was the very northwestern corner of modern Germany. This area used a patronymic system quite similar to their Dutch neighbors to the west. Instead of adding the suffix -sen or -datter to the given name of a father, they just used a possessive -s with the son or daughter implied. One should be careful if doing research in this area and also Denmark or Schleswig where the possessive -s often implied wife, not daughter (such as Karen Peters might indicate Karen wife of Peter in Schleswig and Denmark, where in Ostfriesland and other parts of Schleswig it might mean Karen daughter of Peter).

When Napolean came through this area around 1808, he required that all people take a surname. According to the law, they were supposed to find the oldest living direct ancestor at that time and all descendants of that person would be known by his surname.

There is a wonderful article about naming customs in this part of Germany in the German Genealogical Digest Vol. 16, No. 1 (Spring 2000) entitled, "Surname Changes in Northwestern Germany". I will try to incorporate some information from that source here as soon as I get a chance.


Another interesting area of Germany as far as naming customs go is the area of Westfalen and bordering parts of neighboring Hannover, Rheinland. In these areas an entirely different system of naming was established from medieval times. In this area a family's surname was called a Hofname (farm-name), however it different in several ways from the farm names of Norway and Finland. To summarize, each farm had a surname associated with it. The surname associated with the farm was not the name of the farm, however the family living on the farm took this surname. If a daughter inherited a farm, when she got married, her husband would change his name to the name associated with the farm he moved to. During this transition period they would often list his old name and his new surname with a phrase such as genannt, vulgo, modo, sive, or alias listed between them meaning he had one surname but was called by another.

Even up until present times the hofname have continued to be associated with the farms so that often a person will change his surname when he takes over the old property.

More detailed information on naming customs and records of Westfalen  can be found the Spring 2000 (Vol. 16, No.1) volume of the German Genealogy Digest by Roger Minert, a specialist in this area. 


Much has been written about naming customs about Jews, so I will not give a full description here. Instead, I will only highlight a few things. A particular difference is found between two groups of Jews:

  1. Sephardic Jews had surnames like we are used to today where the name was passed from father to son for hundreds of years. These Jews came mostly from Spain and their names reflect that influence and the influence of the Moorish Muslems (Arabs) who ruled over that country in medieval times.
  2. Ashkenazic Jews were the Jews from central and eastern Europe. Some who were in the larger cities began taking surnames in the 17th and 18th centuries, however most living in rural areas did not have set surnames. They used a patronymic system with the father's name followed by a patronymic (Joseph, son of Isaac).

The Ashkenazic Jews were required to take surnames by law in many countrys beginning at the end of the 18th century as Napoleon changed the record keeping of much of Europe. In several countries such as France and Netherlands Jews were required to take surnames and records of their names were recorded in official record books. Laws of this nature were passed between 1790-1863 throughout central and eastern Europe.

Latin America (Hispanic)

Given names in Latin America were typically from Roman Catholic saint names, often the name of a saint on whose day a child was born. More than one given name was often given to a child and in some areas nearly all of the males had at least one given name as Jos� and the females at least one given name Mar�a. Children were often also named for godparents or deceased family members.

Spanish and Portuguese naming practices were brought to Latin America by explorers, colonists, and missionaries. Often the Indians however were not required to take surnames until the middle of the 19th century.

Probably the most distinguishing characteristic of Hispanic naming is their use of a double surname system. This system traces back to the nobility class of Castile in the 16th century. Under this system a person takes two surnames, one from the father and one from the mother. For example a man named Carlos Dom�nguez L�pez's father's surname would be Dom�nguez and his mother's surname would be L�pez. Women generally kept their maiden name throughout their life. She could also add her husband's surname to the end of her own.

In Spanish names, the first of the two surnames is the primary family name. In Portuguese names, the last of the two surnames is generally considered the primary surname. Compound names could be found with or without a y, a dash (-), or a preposition (de, del, de la).


In Brazil, many surnames of Portuguese origin were given to native Indians and Black children when the priests baptized them. Others may have been baptized with no surname. Although the two surname custom described above was common in Brazil, other variations of naming customs were also found there.

Although most names today come from the parents' surname, historically the surnames might have been used of more prominent family or from a grandparent. During the first half of the 1800s a male child often took the surname of his father, while a female child took the surname of her mother. In many cases a surnamed was arbitrarily adopted. Often family disputes, popular surnames, local surnames, or a desire to express appreciation or sympathy to someone resulted in the change of a surname. These changes can cause problems for a genealogist.

Until recently surnames were seldom passed on to children from father to son like is done today. A person could have also been recorded differently in more than one record. Some names had many different variations. For example a man named Joaquim da Silva Paranhos could have been listed variously in different records: Joaquim Jos� Paranhos, Joaquim Jos� da Silva, Joaquim Jos� da Silva Paranhos. One woman might be referred to by the following names: Maria Isabel da Silva, Maria da Silva Concei��o, Maria Isabel, or Maria da Concei��o da Silva. The name Concei��o could sometimes be replaced by Encarna��o and an additional name Livramento or da Dores might be added if the saint was popular with the family or individual or recorder of the record.

Another difficulty arises in Brazil when a slave became a free person. For example a slave named Isabel Parda could become Maria Isabel da Costa after becoming free.


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.


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.


All Finns had patronymic names. Some also had a farm name they used (similar to Norway) or a family surname. The same person may have been listed with a patronymic name in one record and a farm or family name in another record.

Eastern and western Finland had different naming traditions. In some areas these practices overlap and you find both customs being used by different families. It might not be obvious which custom a family was using until the children left the home farm and they begin listing a surname for them.

  • Patronymic Surnames (found mostly in Western Finland, primarily: Ahvenanmaa, Häme, Kymi, Turku-Pori, Uusimaa, and Vaasa Counties). Surnames changed from generation to generation just as was done in the other Scandinavian countries and after the same pattern as you find in Swedish patronymics.
  • Place Names. In western parts of Finland the farm names were used to refer to a family living on the farm, just as was the tradition in Norway (see Norway below). As a family moved from one farm to another, their farm-name could change.
  • Soldier Names. Just as with Sweden (see Sweden below), when a person joined the army in Finland they were required to take a surname that was derived at the time of their enlistment. Also some names were taken in the 19th century when a person finished an apprenticeship or had a professional trade.
  • Permanent Surnames (found mostly in Eastern Finland, primarily: Kuopio, Lappi, Mikkeli, Oulu, and Viipuri Counties). surnames did not change from generation to generation. They follow the same pattern as we are used to today where a surname was passed from father to son for many centuries. Many names are similar to those found in western Finland but they do not change as a family moves from one farm to another or from one generation to another.


Prior to 1814, Norway was governed by Denmark for a few centuries. Because of this the patronymic endings we generally standardize to -sen and -datter. Modern community histories (bygdebøger) on the other hand, have often standardized these names according to local dialect pronunciation variously -sson, -søn, etc.

Most unique for Norway besides what is mentioned previously is the use of farm-names in addition to their patronymic names. As set surnames were required in 1923 or as people emigrated to America they often used their farm-name as their permanent surname. Because of this, if they had an unusual farm name, one can often find the town where a family was from in Norway just by knowing the family's surname and looking it up in a gazetteer (index of place names).

If you consider the farm name as not really a surname but rather an address, it might be more appropriate in some cases. Certainly the name of the farm was associated with the family living there, however if the person moved to a new farm, their farm name changed. If a person lived at four or five different farms prior to coming to America, he could have had that many different farm names. The name he eventually used in America might be the farm he last lived on in Norway or the farm where his family was originally from.


Besides the patronymics as described above, the most obvious other naming custom was the use of surnames for soldiers in Sweden (and Finland). These names were different than other Scandinavian names as they were derived and not generally related to the person in any way. When a soldier joined the military he needed a name. If his father had been a soldier, he might take the same soldier name his father had. If he was taking over the military cottage from a retiring soldier, he might take the retiring soldier's name. In some cases he might have a name he likes the sound of. If he had no idea what name to take, then the one registering him in the military records would assign him a name. These names belonged to the soldier. Sometimes in the 19th century other family members used the name of their father, but generally the children would use a patronymic and the soldier name did not automatically transfer to the children.

Often in researching a military family the greatest challenge is to learn what the patronymic name of the soldier was before he joined the military. Sometimes the patronymic and military name are both listed in the first few years after he joins and only in a record of marriage or birth of a first child.

Another area in Sweden where people took surnames was skilled craftsmen. Often when an apprentice finished his apprenticeship he took a surname. Again this was a derived surname. Often they will take the name of who they apprenticed with but other times they make up a new surname. Tradesmen's names are similar in form to the military names, but neither are very similar to names found in Norway or Denmark. 


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