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Understanding given names and surnames can help you find and identify your ancestors in the records.
Before record keeping began in Denmark, most people had only one name, such as Jens. As the population increased, it became necessary to distinguish between individuals with the same name. The problem was usually solved by adding descriptive information. Jens became Jens the smith, Jens the son of Matthis, Jens the short, or Jens from Fredericia. At first, "surnames" applied only to one person and not to the whole family. After a few generations, these names were passed from father to son. Surnames developed from four major sources:
- Patronymic, based on a parent's name, such as Lars Nielsen (son of Niels)
- Occupational, based on the person's trade, such as Jens Smed (the smith)
- Nicknames, based on a person's characteristics, such as Anders Blåtann (bluetooth)
- Geographical, based on a person's residence, such as Peder Tolstrup
Surnames were first used by the nobility and wealthy land owners. Later the custom was followed by merchants and townspeople, and eventually by the rural population.
Patronymic surnames are the predominant type in Denmark. Such names are based on the father's given name. This name changed with each generation. For example, Lars Pedersen was the son of a man named Peder. If Lars had a son Hans, the son would be known as Hans Larsen (son of Lars). His brothers would be called Larsen, while a sister would be known as Larsdatter (daughter of Lars). Where the population used patronymics, a woman did not change her name at marriage.
From about 1850 on, it was customary for Danes living in cities to take permanent surnames. By 1875, many rural parts of Denmark followed suit. In some places, patronymic surnames were used until 1904, when a national law required people to adopt permanent family names.
In Denmark, a particular naming pattern was very common until about 1850. The following pattern may be helpful in researching family groups:
The first male child was usually named for the father's father.
- The second boy was usually named for the mother's father.
- The first female child was usually named for the mother's mother.
- The second girl was named for the father's mother.
Additional children were often named for the parents and the parents' brothers and sisters.
If one spouse died, the other remarried, and children were born to the new pair, the couple usually named the first child of the same sex after the deceased spouse.
Danish genealogical records may be in Danish, Latin, or German. Your ancestor's name could be in Latin in his birth record, in Danish in his marriage record, and in German in his death record. Names are often very different when translated into different languages. For example—
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