In the Name of the Father


“Mr. Arnarsdóttir,” an American flatmate of mine in London once addressed my father in an attempt to be polite. We gave each other puzzled looks. “No, no,” I hastily explained as it dawned on me what was causing this misunderstanding. “We don’t have the same surname. He’s Mr. Sverrisson.”

This explanation seemed only to make matters more complicated. How I could be unmarried and still not share the surname of my father was beyond him. Given how much I resemble my father he could tell that I was not adopted. Did I then have the same surname as my mother? “Well, no,” I said. “My brothers also have different surnames; I’m the only one in my family who is called Arnarsdóttir.”

Before I came to London I had only reluctantly gotten used to being called Miss Arnarsdóttir at my uni in Erfurt, Germany, where I studied between 2001 and 2004. It sounded silly to me; we never use surnames without first names in Iceland. Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde is Geir to everyone, same as President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson is called Ólafur. He is only called herra (Mr.) Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson on very special occasions and never without his first and middle name. Even the phone book is listed by first names.

But I know that Germans like to be über polite, so I adapted to their customs saying “Sie,” “Ihnen,” “Herr” and “Frau so-und-so” in every other sentence. In London they were not as strict; I was on a first-name basis with most of my professors. To be polite, though, I called them Mr. and Mrs. followed by their surnames to begin with. But sometimes politeness backfires. In the case of my American flatmate, by using my surname when addressing my father, he was not only calling my father a woman but also implying that he was his own daughter.

You see, in Iceland we have a different naming system from the rest of the world (though I believe Russia has something similar). It is the old Norse system, our Viking heritage if you will, where a child is given the first name of the father in addition to the suffix –son or –daughter.

My father is called Arnar, Arnars in genitive. As his daughter, my surname is Arnarsdóttir, dóttir being the Icelandic word for daughter (the genitive form signifies possession, i.e. daughter of Arnar). Please do not confuse my surname with Arnardóttir as often happens. In that case my father’s given name would be Örn, Arnar in genitive.

(Come to think of it, we don’t really have surnames as such, but patronymics, so when inquiring about the identity of a fellow Icelanders we ask: “Whose son/daughter are you?” instead of asking, “What’s your surname?”)

This system is simple, really. My brothers have the surname Arnarsson, son meaning, well, son. My father is Sverrisson because his father’s first name is Sverrir, and my mother, who obviously has a different father, is called Johansen. In her case, since she is from Norway, Johansen is an actual family name, though it is based on the same principle.

At one point one of my mother’s forefathers, who was the son of Johan, (sen being the same word as son) decided that he wanted his family to have a joint surname. This became the common practice in Scandinavia where the majority of surnames now have a –sen (Norway and Denmark) and –son (Sweden) ending. Many surnames in the Anglo-Saxon world have a –son ending too, which again is an echo of the old Viking tradition.

When Icelandic couples want to register the names of their newborns abroad they often run into difficulties where the system demands that the child is given the surname of the father if the parents are married and of the mother if they are not.

I often listened to young parents complain about this system when I was living in Denmark where changing the automatic surname given to their child called for major battles with the bureaucracy. They could have given it up, but having their kids called the sons and daughters of their grandfathers just seemed a little perverse.

While I was living abroad, I was often asked to explain how the Icelandic naming system worked, which people seemed to find both bizarre and fascinating. “What if they are orphans?” people would ask. There are in fact very few Icelandic orphans. Most children who cannot rely on their biological parents for upbringing are taken into foster care but keep their original surnames. Otherwise they are given the surnames of their adoptive parents. I once read that in the cases of orphans whose origins were uncertain, they were given the family name Hansen. I don’t know if that’s true.

(Iceland does have some family names which are normally used in addition to the –son/–daughter system, like Hansen, which is Scandinavian. When the Danes served as some kind of an upper class in Iceland, having a family name was considered posh so some people changed their Icelandic names, e.g. Thorlákur into the family name Thorlacius. Others, like my boyfriend’s great-grandfather—when finding out that his father was not his biological father—adopted the name of the region where they were born as their surname, like Laxness, Blöndal, Eyfjörd, or in his case, Vatnsdal.)

“Don’t many people have the same surname then?” inquiring friends would continue. Well, yes, Jónsson/-dóttir and Sigurdarson/-dóttir are very common surnames because Jón and Sigurdur are, or at least used to be, very popular first names. However, there are many more Johnsons, Smiths and Changs (which is the most common surname worldwide) in the world and since we don’t rely on surnames only, that rarely causes more confusion than abroad.

“Isn’t the mother ever given credit for her child?” would usually follow. It happens that a child is given the first name of the mother followed by –son or –daughter instead of the father’s first name, but it is rare. In the majority of such cases the father is either unknown or does not want to have anything to do with his child. The most famous Icelander I can think of who has a matronym is footballer Heidar Helguson who plays for the English Premiere League. I heard that he had adopted the name himself to honor is mother Helga.

It is, however, becoming popular among feminists in Iceland to name their children after only the mother or both the mother and the father. In such a case my surname would be Arnars- og Kariardóttir, which is really long and complicated even though my parents have relatively short names compared to say, Arngrímur and Karólína.

I guess using the mother’s name does make sense since it is easier to verify the true maternal bloodline than the paternal bloodline, but I like the old system. As my friend said when she was asked whether she did not want her child to bear the name of both herself and her husband, “I have the privilege of carrying this baby inside my womb for nine months; the least I can do is give it the name of its father.”

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Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.