Icelandic Last Names and their meaning
Traveling in Iceland you will be surprised to find how informal people are, everyone from the bus driver to the highest government official will be addressed by his or her first name and never their last names.
Icelandic singer and actress Björk does not use a stage name but simply her first name (her full name is Björk Guðmundsdóttir). Björk is how any Icelander would address her, whether formally or casually.
This is because Icelandic last names differ from most current Western family name systems by being patronymic and occasionally matronymic. This means that they reflect the immediate father or mother of the child and not the historic family lineage, Icelanders do not have last names as most of the world understands them. This also means that the telephone directory is alphabetized by first name rather than surname.
Iceland shares a common cultural heritage with the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Icelanders, however, unlike these other Scandinavians, have continued to use their traditional patronymic name system, which was formerly used in all of Scandinavia. The Icelandic naming system simply does not use family names. Rather, a person’s surname indicates the first name of the person’s father (patronymic) or in some cases mother (matronymic).
The vast majority of Icelandic surnames carry the name of the father, but occasionally the mother’s name is used: e.g., in cases where the child or mother wishes to end social ties with the biological father. Some women use it as a social statement while others simply choose it as a matter of style.
This is not to say that last names, as they are understood by most people in the western world, do not exist in Iceland, they do, although they are mostly inherited from parents of foreign origin or were created and adopted by people wishing to do so.
Notable Icelanders who have an inherited family name include former prime minister Geir Haarde, football star Eiður Smári Guðjohnsen, actor Magnús Scheving, film director Baltasar Kormákur Samper, actress Anita Briem and news reporter Elín Hirst.
Before 1925, it was legal to adopt new family names almost on a whim, you could make one up as it were. One well known Icelander to do so was the Nobel Prize-winning author Halldór Laxness. Since 1925, however, one cannot adopt a family name unless one explicitly has a legal right to do so through lines of inheritance.
Example of the Patronymic naming system:
A man named Jón Einarsson and his wife Brindís Magnúsdóttir have a son named Ólafur and a daughter named Edda.
Ólafur’s last name will not be Einarsson like his father’s; it will become Jónsson, literally indicating that Ólafur is the son of Jón (Jóns + son).
The same practice is used for daughters.
Jón Einarsson’s daughter Edda would not have the last name Einarsson; she would have the name Jónsdóttir. Again, the name literally meaning „Jón’s daughter“ (Jóns + dóttir).
Example of the matronymic naming system:
Ólafur and Edda, the children of Bryndís, wish to carry their mothers name and not their fathers. Ólafur’s last name will therefore be Bryndísarson („the son of Bryndís“) and his sister will be Bryndísardóttir („the daughter of Bryndís“).
An Icelander whose father’s identity is uncertain may also carry a matronymic name. Some people have both a matronymic and a patronymic last name: for example, Dagur Bergþóruson Eggertsson („the son of Bergþóra and Eggert“), a former mayor of Reykjavík.
Complications: Using the fathers middle name:
In some cases, an individual’s surname is derived from a parent’s middle name instead of the first name. For example, if Jón is the son of Hjálmar Arnar Vilhjálmsson he may either be named Jón Hjálmarsson (Jón, son of Hjálmar) or Jón Arnarsson (Jón, son of Arnar). The reason for this may be that the parent prefers to be called by the middle name instead of the first name; this is fairly common. It may also be that the parent’s middle name seems to fit the child’s first name better.
Complications: People having the same names.
In cases where two people in the same social circle bear the same first name and the same father’s name, they may be socially distinguished by their paternal grandfather’s name, e.g. Jón Þórsson Bjarnarsonar (Jón, son of Þór, son of Bjarni) and Jón Þórsson Hallssonar (Jón, son of Þór, son of Hallur). Although this method is uncommon (as middle names are normally used), such tracing of lineages can easily be seen in the Sagas.
Another way to resolve this is to use nicknames, make family references or the classic senior – junior addition which works in most cultures.
Complications: traveling or living abroad.
This rather special Icelandic naming system occasionally causes problems for families travelling abroad, especially with young children, since non-Icelandic customs staff (apart from those of other Nordic countries) are usually unfamiliar with the practice and therefore expect children to have the surnames of their parents. However, as a result of each person using patronymics, a family will normally have a variety of last names: Jón Einarsson and his wife Brindís Magnúsdóttir have separate last names as do their children Ólafur Jónsson and Edda Jónsdóttir. Using matronymics, their names would be Ólafur Bryndísarson and Edda Bryndísardóttir.
People of Icelandic descent who live in foreign countries, such as the significant Icelandic community in the Canadian province of Manitoba, often do not follow the traditional Icelandic naming system. Instead, they generally adapt to the naming conventions of their country of residence—most commonly by retaining the patronymic of their first ancestor to immigrate to the new country as a permanent family surname. That is why many Americans carry the last name Jonsson – despite there being no family relation. Other Icelanders who choose to live or study abroad with their families may choose to temporarily take up the last name of the father as their own in an attempt to save confusion.