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Understanding surnames and given names can help you find and identify your ancestors in the records.
Before record-keeping began, most people had only one name, such as John. As the population increased, it became necessary to distinguish between individuals with the same name. The problem was usually solved by adding descriptive information. John became John the skredder (tailor), John the son of Matthew, John the short, or John from Nordgaard (farm). At first, such "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 Siver Jensen (son of Jens)
- Occupational, based on the person's trade, such as Hans Smed (Smith)
- Nicknames, based on a person's characteristics, such as Olav Blatann (Blue tooth)
- Geographical, based on a person's farm name, such as David Mundal
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.
The predominant type of surname in Norway is patronymic. Such names are based on the father's given name. This "last name" changed with each generation. For example, Sjul Gulliksen was the son of a man named Gullik. If Sjul had a son named Hans, the son would be known as Hans Sjulsen (Hans son of Sjul). His brothers would be called Sjulsen, while his sisters would be known as Sjulsdotter (daughter of Sjul). Where the population used patronymics, a woman did not change her name at marriage.
After about 1850, it became the custom in the cities to take permanent surnames. By 1900 most of Norway began doing so. In some places, the patronymic naming customs continued until 1923, when a law was passed requiring persons to adopt permanent family names to be passed to successive generations. When this happened, many Norwegians chose to use the name of their farm (residence) as their surname.
A specific naming pattern was very common in Norway until about 1900. Although not always followed strictly, the following pattern may be helpful in researching family groups and determining the parents of the mother and father:
- The first male child was usually named for the father's father.
- The second boy was named for the mother's father.
- The first female child was named for the mother's mother.
- The second girl was named for the father's mother.
- Additional children were often named for the parents' grandparents.
If a spouse died, and the surviving spouse remarried, the first child by the same sex was named after the deceased spouse.
Two or three children in the same family sometimes were given the same given name. In some cases it was done because an older child died and the next child was given the same name. However, two or more children by the same given name lived. Therefore, do not presume that the first child with the same given name died unless the actual death records is found.