Norwegian Naming Practices
Originally published in the Kendall County Record, April 15, 1880.
To the Editor,
Lately I saw in one of our papers a remark about a correspondence n the Wisconsin "State Journal" on "Norwegian Names," which had gone its round in Wisconsin papers, generally. I do not know the tenor of this correspondence, but the remark put me in mind that an attempt to explain that conundrum might interest both of you and those of our readers who have had dealings with out people.
In the early history of our settlements, especially, the quibbling way in which the Norwegians gave their names was often a matter of mirth and sometimes a source of trouble. It was no uncommon occurrence, that one would give his name to the storekeeper, land agent, etc., as Ole Oleson, another as Andrew Larson, while among Norwegians they were respectively known as Ole Farness and Andrew Myrland. An American held a note against Ole Nielson, for instance, the bearer drove into the settlement where Nielson lived, and inquired for him of a Norwegian; the later would hesitate, and finally say something like this: It must be Ole Hangen you mean. The bearer, chagrined at finding that the payer went by another name, inquires more particularly and finds that he "calls himself" Ole Nielson. Now to the cause of the quibbling.
In Norway each farm or estate has its distinct name, such as Farness, Myrland, Hangen, Skogstad, Hangsrud, etc., and as such it is known in the records; but among this multiplicity of names there is seldom any such repetition that caused confusion. Now suppose a man names Lars (Lawrence) owns or lives on the farm Myrland: let his father's name be Knud (Canute); Lar's full name is then Lars Knudson (Knud's son) Myrland-usually Lars Myrland. He has sons and daughters; let his son's name be Ole, and he will go by the name Ole Larson Myrland, or for everyday use Ole Myrland. He settles on the farm Skogstad as proprietor, or even as tenant, and his name becomes Ole Larson Skogstad. Again suppose Lars Myrland's daughter, whose maiden name s Carolina Larsdatter (daughter) Myrland, is married to Erik Hangsrud, her full name becomes Carolina Larsdatter Hangsrud.
The rule is, therefore, that the name of the farm becomes the surname of its occupant. This rule generally applies even to the small tenement houses and lots belonging to the larger estates - a system which I believe belongs exclusively to Norway - even these lots have their fixed names, which becomes the surnames of the tenants. Now this exhibit of names of course applies only to the agricultural class or country population. The city population and officials, even in the country, have their family names and retain them through all changes of residence.
Now further: When Lars Myrland emigrates and arrives here he finds that the place where he settles has no fixed name and he is no longer a resident of Myrland, and besides that the Americans can not pronounce the name Myrland to suit him, so he gives it up and hits upon the expedient of giving only a part of his name, Lars Knudson. His daughter, Maria, whose full name is Maria Larsdatter Myrland, gets a place in an American family and encounters the same difficulties; she cuts them short by giving her name as Mary Larson (or even anything her employer can make out of her Norwegian name), but by and by that family or some American friend learns that her father's name is Knudson and not Larson, and she is given to understand that she must bear her father's name. Well, so said, so done. Thus in time she becomes known as Mary Larson, Mary Knudson and perchance as Mary Myrland, because the last is her name among the Norwegians. What happened to her may have happened to her brother and a large number of Norwegian brother and sisters. If their father had at once adopted his farm's name or some suitable equivalent as his surname, all this ado would have been avoided; but it was with this matter as with many other things that we had to learn; they were forced on us through experience.
Another fruitful source of changed names especially among a certain class was a dread of the epithet "Norwegian." They wished to obliterate everything that reminded them of their descent from poor old Norway. With this class I have no sympathy. A son that despises his mother because she is poor, does not possess very good qualities for an adopted son in my estimation. A poor parent out of necessity must teach her son many a wholesome lesson - form in him those stern qualities which make up the frame work of his normal structure through her means deny her the opportunity to apply the outer polish; which after all is only of second rate import. But here I enter a field of speculation from which I shall withdraw in time.
Lisbon, April 5th, '80 Nordmand
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