Swedish Naming Customs

(Copyright © Hans Högman, dated 4 Mar 2011)

Although the current flag of Sweden wasn't instituted until just over 100 years ago, it has been used in some form or another for about four centuries previously. It is thought that the flag's blue and yellow colors come from the national coat of arms, which originated in the 14th century. This coat of arms features three gold crowns on a blue field. (hcorper, 2013, Flickr)

Although the current flag of Sweden wasn’t instituted until just over 100 years ago, it has been used in some form or another for about four centuries previously. It is thought that the flag’s blue and yellow colors come from the national coat of arms, which originated in the 14th century. This coat of arms features three gold crowns on a blue field. (hcorper, 2013, Flickr)

In the most ancient times every individual had only one name, their given name.  Later, in order to differentiate between people with the same given name, a short description of the person or his origin was added to the given name.  For example Olof the Red beard, John the Wild, Carl the Red Nose, Anders from Lida or Lida-Anders.  There are many examples of names like this in the Bible, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist etc.

Most cultures also started to use the father’s name to separate two individuals to avoid confusion about who a person with a certain given name really was.  A second name was added that derived from that of the person’s a father or paternal ancestor, usually by the addition of a suffix or prefix meaning “son”.  This name is what we now call a patronymic name.

In the patronymic naming system the “son” affix is usually attached to the father’s given name, however it is also possible to attach it to the father’s occupation (e.g., Clerkson).  Sometimes a patronymic name is simply the father’s given name (Thomas, Edward) or its genitive form (Edwards).

In some cultures the patronymic naming practice varies according to the sex of the child: In the Scandinavian countries, sons receive a patronymic ending of -son (e.g., Andersson) and daughters a form ending in -dotter (e.g., Andersdotter). A similar situation holds true in Russia.

In Europe family names came into use in the later Middle Ages (beginning roughly in the 11th century).  The process was completed by the end of the 16th century.  The use of family names seems to have originated in aristocratic families and in big cities.


Patronymic names

From early times Sweden has used patronymic surnames.  As mentioned above, the fathers’ first name was used as a part of his children’s surname.  For an example, if a man called Anders Johansson had a son named Karl and a daughter named Karin the childrens’ full names would be: Karl Andersson and Karin Andersdotter. Son = son and dotter = daughter.  Karl was a son of Anders – Anders’s son and Karin was a daughter of Anders – Anders’s dotter.  That’s why there is a double “ss” in Swedish “-son” names, Anders’s son, or in Swedish; Anders son = Andersson.  And, to take the patronymic naming to the next generation, if Karl Andersson had a son called Peter, then his full name would be Peter Karlsson.  The most important identity of a person (in a system with a patronymic naming practice) was his first name; I am Karl (son of Anders). The surname does not indicate a relationship other than among brothers or sisters.  Patronymic surnames were in constant use in rural Sweden and among day laborers in urban centers until the 1860’s.  At that time it became popular among these groups to adopt a family surname carried from one generation to the next.  A lot of families then adopted a name connected to their home village or a name connected to nature.  However, the majority just “froze” their patronymic surname as their family name.  Since Anders was a popular first name we have a lot of Andersson families in Sweden.


Marriage and patronymic surnames

When a man and a woman got married, the woman never adopted her husband’s patronymic name – a name ending with “son”.  A woman could never be someone’s son.  If they both had a family name, the woman still kept her family name.  If the husband had a family name and the woman a patronymic name she might change her last name to her husbands family name.  But it was not very likely to occur before the 1800s.  It did not become a custom for a woman to adopt her husband’s surname until the end of the 1800s, when most families had adopted family names.  Today quite a few Swedish wives do not adopt their husband’s surname, but now for professional or other reasons.  Alternatively she would adopt her husband’s surname but still keep her own surname, that is a “double” surname.  However the majority of the wives adopt their husband’s surname.

The Scandinavian countries were not the only nations using the patronymic naming practice.  In Ireland for example, the prefix O’ signifies the “son of” (e.g. O’Brian), as Mac or Mc in Scottish names (e.g. MacDonald), as P- in Welsh names (e.g. Powell – “son of Howel”).  The Latin word for son is filius.  In the French language this is fils, fitz in Norman French (e.g. Fitzgerald).  In northern Europe -son or -dotter were added the father’s given name (-son and -datter in Denmark and Norway).  Iceland is still today using the patronymic naming practice.

The use of patronymic names in the American colonies, when the country was still under British rule, was abolished by a proclamation in 1687.  However, it is difficult to order a change in a naming practice and it took several generations before it was actually abolished among the people.

The 19 most common surnames in Sweden today are “-son” names. The most common is Johansson, followed by Andersson and Karlsson.  The most common non “-son” names are Lindberg, followed by Lindkvist and Lindgren.


Some typical Swedish patronymic names

Andersson Axelsson Bengtsson Danielsson

Davidsson Eriksson Gustavsson Hansson

Håkansson Isaksson Jakobsson Jansson

Johansson Johnsson Karlsson Larsson

Lennartsson Mattson Nilsson Olofsson

Olsson Ottosson Persson Pettersson

Svensson Wilhelmsson Åkesson



Early in the Catholic era, the clergyman used only his given name preceded by Herr (Sir), like Herr Lars, Herr Olof, Herr Hans etc.  In order to differentiate clerics with the same first name, they later started to use Latinized versions of their patronymic names.


For example:

Abraham Eriksson  = Abrahamus Erici

Erik Steffansson  = Ericus Stephani

Lars Johansson  = Laurentius Johannis

Anders Henriksson  = Andreas Henrici

Olof  Karlsson = Olaus Caroli

During the 17th century a Latinized form of their birthplace became a common naming practice for the clergy.  A clergy student did not adopt his “clergy name” until he became a clergyman.  This means that he normally had a patronymic name before his ordination. Beware of this when tracing the roots of ancestors who were clergy.


Examples of names with places of origin

Andreas Pauli Helsingus: From the province of Hälsingland

Abrahamus Angermannus: From the province of Ångermanland

Laurentius Andreæ Gevaliensis: From the city of Gävle

Johannes Danielis Tunensis: From the Tuna Parish

Laurentius Christophori Hornaeus: From Hornön (The city of Härnösand)

Ericus Andreae Wattrangius: From the Vattrang parish

Olaus Hernodius: From the city of Härnösand

Another popular method was to have the name ending with “ander”, the Greek word for man.  For example: Alander, Björkander, Carlander Dalander, Elander, Gullander, Hållander, Insulander, Jullander, Kilander, Lysander, Mellander, Nylander, Svenander, Ulander, Vikander and Wallander.

The latinizing of first names as well as surnames was not only used by the clergy, but also most of the learned men such as university professors, scientists, mathematicians etc.



Originally, the patronymic names were also used by nobility.  The nobility was a privileged class who declared loyalty to the ruler and served him by equipping a number of soldiers and cavalry.  In return the nobility were exempted from taxes.  In Sweden they also were known as “frälse” or “stormän”.  The nobility were large landowners.  The nobility in Sweden was not formed as an independent class until the 13th century.  At that time they started to support the rulers and in return got special privileges.  In the Alsnö decree of 1279, the nobility and their privileges were determined.  The parliamentary meeting of 1435 in the city of Arboga is considered to be the first parliament meeting in Sweden.  At that meeting the nobility was represented as their own estate (one of four estates).  The term “adel” (nobility) was not used until the middle of the 16th century.  At that time the nobility were given special titles by the King, titles like “Greve” – Count (Earl in the UK) and “Friherre” – Baron.  In 1625 The House of the Nobility (“Riddarhuset”) was established and from that year forward all the noble family names had to be registered by the House.  It was called to “introduce the name to the House of the Nobility”.  The year a noble family was introduced to the “Riddarhuset” counts as the starting year for the family as a noble family.  When the privileges of nobility were first handed out, the noble families were using patronymic names.  When they were given their patent of nobility and privileges they also were given a Coat of Arms on which was emblazoned heraldic symbols.  From these symbols the noble family names slowly evolved.  For example, the noble family Uggla (Owl) had an owl on its escutcheon and the Svinhufvud family had a head of a pig (svin=pig/hog, hufvud=head), the Hummerhielm family a lobster (hummer=lobster), the Leijonhufvud family three heads of lions (leijon = lion, hufvud=head) etc.  The names of the noble families follow some typical patterns.  The names often included names of animals (lion, falcon, pig etc), parts of the body (arm, head etc), star, crown, shield, helmet, golden or mountain etc.  The names could be just one word (Uggla = Owl), but often they were combinations of two expressions (Leionhufvud = Lion head).

In the 18th century the word “von” or “af” became a part of the noble names.  In this context these words meant “of”.  For example Carl von Linné or Henrik af Klintberg.  The name after “von” or “af” was normally then a name of a place, an estate etc., such as Carl of Linné and Henrik of Klintberg.

Before the 17th century the noble names often were combined with patronymic names.  For example Bo Johansson Grip.  His patronymic name was Johansson and his noble name Grip.  The Swedish King Gustav Vasa was known as Gustav Eriksson (son of Erik).  The noble name was Vasa, the family had a bunch of fasces as a symbol on their coat of arms (Vase or vasakärve = fasce, kärve=sheaf).  The name “Vasa” was added later to the name.  By the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, the patronymic names were more or less abandoned by the nobility and clergy.  The development of town guilds was a starting point for craftsmen to adopt special surnames.

Below are a number of typical names of the nobility. The names are often spelled in old Swedish.

One word or expression:

Gedda Pike



Bonde Farmer


Uggla Owl






Two expressions:

Adelsvärd Noble – sword

Ankarcrona Anchor – crown

Ankarsvärd Anchor – sword

Armfelt Arm – field

Björnstjerna Bear – star

Cronhielm Crown – helmet

Gripenskiöld Griffin – shield

Gyllenkrok Golden – hook

Gyllenstierna Golden – forehead  (stierna can be derived from the German word “stirn” which means forehead in English)

Hammarskjöld Hammer – shield

Lagerbielke Laurel – beam or balk

Lagerfelt Laurel – field

Lagerhielm Laurel – helmet

Lagerskiöld Laurel – shield

Leijonhufvud Lion – head

Natt och Dag Night and Day

Oxenhufwud Ox – head

Oxenstierna Ox – forehead

Ridderstolpe Knight – pole

Silfverskiöld Silver – shield

Svinhufvud Pig – head


Examples of “Von” and “af” names

von names: af names:

von Bahr af Söderberg

von Döbeln Boije af Gennäs

von Otter af Geijerstam

von Platen af Klinteberg

von Rosen af Trolle


Foreign origin or influence:


De la Gardie






Staël von Holstein



When a person entered some sort of trade he had to start as a apprentice (lärling) by a master craftsman (mästare) in order to learn the basics of the craft.  After creating a qualifying piece of work (gesällprov) he became a journeyman (gesäll).  Of course, the work, had to be approved by a board of masters in the Guild.  The approval was documented in the journeyman’s diploma (gesällbrevet).  In order to improve as a craftsman and to get experience of the trade the journeymen did travel around, both in Sweden and abroad, to work with different masters.  Only masters could take on journeymen.  This journey that the “gesäll” did was called “gesällvandring”.  The system of journeymen was also a way to make sure the master craftsmen had enough labors.  The journeymen was normally not married and lived in the master’s household.

In order to operate as an independent craftsman the journeyman had to become a master (mäster).  First the journeyman had to be approved as a master by the guild (Skrå), he had to be skilled enough.  To prove his skills, he had to pass an exam, to do a qualifying piece of work.  This exam was called the “mästarprovet”.  “Mästarbrevet” was a master craftsman’s diploma or certificate.  One had to be a member of a guild in order to work as a master craftsman, and only the guild had the right to approve of masters.  As a master one could train his own journeymen.  The power of the guild system was strengthened in 1621.  All trades and handicraft outside the guilds was forbidden from that year forward.  The guild system was abolished in 1846, however all individuals could not freely practice a craft until 1864.  The guilds in France were abolished in 1791 and most of the European countries followed during the 1800s.  Also after 1846, when the system with guilds were abolished in Sweden, master craftsmen took on apprentices and journeymen to train them.  The title “gesäll” was abolished in 1864 but associations of  master craftsmen (hantverksföreningar) still appointed journeymen and their diplomas, the “gesällbrev” after that year.  Also the “journey” the journeymen did to work for different masters was still in practice until the beginning of the 20th century.  The word craftsman is not a professional title but rather a group name for persons working with crafts – maters and journeymen.  Craftsmen could only work in the towns and cities.  However, in order to practice as a craftsman in a city you needed a license from the city (burskap).  The Swedish word for a town or a city is “stad”.  One way of defining a “stad” is as an urban place with the right to do trading and keeping craftsmen.  An urban place could only be granted a Town Charter (“stadsrättigheter” or “stadsprivilegier”) by the King.  Without the Charter – no trading.  A town wall with guarded gates normally surrounded a ”stad”.  Everyone bringing merchandise into the town/city had to pay a toll (stadstull).  The toll was introduced in 1622 and was not abolished until 1810.



Trading was not accepted in the countryside, so the craftsmen lived in the towns and cities.  The farmers were, of course, doing handicraft but trading was not really allowed in the countryside.  In the 1680s the authorities did allow some craftsmen to work in the countryside, first of all tailors, blacksmiths and shoemakers.  During the 18th century more craftsmen were allowed to work in the country side.  These craftsmen were called “sockenhantverkare” (parish- or local craftsmen) and were only licensed to work in one parish (socken) at a time.  It was the local socken council (sockenstämman) that appointed the local craftsmen (sockenhantverkare).  The local craftsmen were not members of a guild like the city craftsmen and they were not demanded to have any documented qualifications like a journeymen certificate (gesällbrev).  In the Decree for Freedom of Trade (näringsfrihetsförordningen) of 1846, all types of tradesmen and craftsmen received permission to operate in the countryside.


Naming custom

It became a custom among craftsmen to adopt special surnames of the trade.  They did not adopt these surnames until they had passed the qualifying piece of work requirement (gesällprovet).  The craftsmen’s surnames were often constructed with two expressions and usually connected to some form of names from nature or topographical localities.  The names from nature were often names of trees combined with some other description found in nature.  The linden tree (lind) was very popular in these names.  For example:

Lindberg Linden – mountain

Almgren Elm – branch

Lindgren Linden – branch

Björkegren Birch – branch

Lindström Linden – stream

Boklund Beech  – grove

Lindblad Linden – leaf

Ekman Oak – man

Lindblom Linden – blossom

Grankvist Spruce – twig

Lind Linden

Hägglund Bird-cherry  – grove


The topographical names were often names where different nature forms were combined.

For example:

Berg Mountain

Sandberg Sand – mountain

Bergman Mountain – man

Sjöblom Lake – blossom

Bergström Mountain – stream

Sundkvist Sound/channel – twig

Borgström Castle – stream

Söderlund South – grove

Forsberg Rapids – mountain

Törnkvist Thorn – twig

Högman High – man

Åberg Creek – mountain

Lundmark Grove – land

Östlund East – grove



At the end of the 17th century, the Army and later the Navy started to give the soldiers special surnames.  When a soldier was enrolled the Captain of the Company gave him a special “soldier name”.  In each Company the soldiers had to have a unique last name.  When an order was given to a certain soldier only one soldier was to react.  These soldier names were of special character, many of the names had a military touch.  Normally the names consisted of only one word.


Examples of Army names:

Sköld  Shield

Glad  Happy

Attack  Attack

Rolig  Funny

Hård  Hard

Lång  Tall

Stål  Steel

Munter  Cheerful

Svärd  Sword

Flink  Quick

Blixt  Lightning

Fager  Fair

Granat  Grenade

Tapper  Brave

Strid  Battle

Frisk  Healthy

Sabel  Saber

Modig  Courageous

Other names were adopted from the world of animals, names like Mård – Marten, Järv – Wolverine, Hjort – Deer, Örn – Eagle etc.

Another set of names were adopted from names of trees like Al – Alder, Alm – Elm, Ek – Oak, Gran – Spruce, Björk – Birch, Lind – Linden, Syrén – Lilac etc.

The largest group of soldier names was adopted from the name of the soldier’s croft or the name of the soldier’s ward (soldat rote). Those names were similar to the names of craftsmen, for example Sundin, Blackberg, Bårström, Brolin, Brunnberg, Beckman, Fagerberg, Kihlström, Sjölund, Malmberg, Lid, Snytberg etc. The previously noted names are examples of soldier names in the Södermanland Regiment.

In the Navy the names often were associated with nautical terms, like:

Ankare  Anchor

Mast  Mast

Däck  Deck

Köl  Keel

Kompass  Compass

Talja  Tackle

Segel  Sail

Hake Hook

Boglina Bowline

Abborre Perch

Hök Hawk

Lax Salmon

Storm Gale

Strand Shore

Block Pulley

Vind  Wind

Brännare Burner

Reling Gunwale

The same name could be used in different Companies.  However, within the same company, each soldier’s name was unique, therefore there could be a few named “Attack” within a Regiment but only one soldier with the name Attack in the same Company.  This meant that many soldiers in a Regiment over a period of time could have used the same name.  That doesn’t mean they were related.  When a soldier retired he normally took back his patronymic name.  But it also was not unusual for retired soldiers to keep their soldier’s name, especially during the 19th century.


Farm Names

A farm name (gårdsnamn) is primary the name of a certain farm/estate.  However, it can also stand for the persons living on that farm.  In other words, farm names served as a complement to the patronymic names used by rural people in order to separate persons with the same names.  There are two principles how the farm names were used as a complement to people’s names.  In most places the farm name was placed last in a person’s name, for example Anders i Backen (Anders from Backen and Kerstin Bengtsdotter vid Dammen (Kerstin Bengtsdotter from Dammen).  In Dalarna province (and surrounding areas) on the other hand the farm name were placed in front of a person’s first name, for example Grudd Olof Bengtsson (from the farm Grudd), Busk Margit Jonsson (from the fam Busk) and Damm Anna Persdotter (from the farm Damm).  In certain areas there could be many persons with the same name, i.e. person with the same first and last name.  Hereby, the use of farm names to separate persons with identical first and last names.  When the practice of farm names as being part of a person’s name once was established it followed the farm.  So when a man got married to a woman and that woman had inherited a farm, and the couple then settled down on the woman’s farm, the husband took the farm name of that farm.  That means that he changed his name to include the new farm name in his full name instead of his old farm name.  For example if Grudd Olof Bengtsson married Damm Anna Persdotter and then settled down at her farm Damm, then Olof’s full name now would be Damm Olof Bengtsson instead of Grudd Olof Bengtsson.


The end of the patronymic era

Patronymic names were used in Sweden until around the 1860s when many individuals started to adopt family names.  It soon became fashionable to adopt a family name, but not everyone changed at this time.  Most people just “froze” their patronymic name as their family name.  Many also chose to adopt a new name.  These names, that now were adopted, were very much of a similar pattern as the names the craftsmen were using.  That is they were often constructed from two words and usually connected to some form of names from nature or to topographical localities.  When the patronymic names were abolished, the woman simply adopted her husband’s family name when she got married.  In some areas, certain names were more popular then others.  However the fact that many families in the same area adopted the same family name does not mean that they were related.  At this time there was no law governing the taking of permanent surnames.  You just went to the parish minister and told him what you wanted to call yourself.  No legal or other action was needed.  Children in the same family would not necessarily change at the same time.  And furthermore, they did not necessarily change to the same family name.

In genealogy you have to be aware that a person could have had more than one surname in his lifetime.  Also remember that his brothers and sisters could have had different surnames too.  The adopted surnames of craftsmen and soldiers and in many cases even clergy were not normally passed down to the next generation.  If a son entered the same profession as the father he probably would use the same surname as his father.  Otherwise, the children would use the patronymic name.  In the 19th century, it more or less became a custom to pass down the surname as a family name for these groups.


The Names Adoption Act of 1901

In 1901 a law, The Names Adoption Act, was passed concerning the adoption of family names.  The most important thing about the law was that the patronymic naming practice was abolished.  From 1901 everyone had to have a family name that was passed down to the next generation.


Names of children born out of wedlock

There were no set rules in giving surnames to children born out of wedlock.  If the father was known, the child in most cases got a patronymic name after the father’s first name.  If the father had a family name, the child would probably get the same family name.  If the father was unknown, “fader okänd” in the birth records, the child would be given another surname.  If the mother had a family name, then the child could adopt that name or adopt a patronymic name after the maternal grandfather’s first name.  It also happened that the child could get a metronymic name after its mother’s first name.  If the mother’s first name were Karin then the child’s name would be, for example, Eva Karinsdotter.  If it were a boy, the name would be Karl Karinsson.  Karinsdotter means daughter of Karin and Karinsson – son of Karin.


Names of emigrants, USA

The spelling of a persons name could have changed when the person arrived in America.  Either the immigration official spelled the name in the way the name sounded, or the person changed his name to look more American.  For example Nils became Nels,  Bernt became Bent, Karl or Carl became Charles, Gustav – Gust etc.  The surname Svensson became Swanson or Swenson,  Bergström became Bergstrom, Johansson became Johnson, Andersson became Anderson (with one “s”).  Some even translated their family name into English, for example Östman into Eastman, Högman into Highman, Stål into Steel etc.  Another group completely changed their surnames and adopted typical American names like Wilson, Rodgers, Brown and Harrison etc.


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