This page provides some basic information about traditions regarding Danish names. This may be helpful when searching for Danish ancestors.
If you know that an ancestor was born in Denmark about 150 years ago and had a name such as “Mary”, “Jean”, “Henry” or “Lawrence” you can quite sure that this was not the original Danish name. Foreign (English) names were not generally popular in Denmark prior to the beginning of the 20th century.
There are no strict guidelines that would indicate the original version of a name. However, often people would choose a name that bore a similarity to their original name.
Until about 1850 to 1870 most ordinary people used patronymics instead of surnames. Patronymics are constructed from the Christian name of a person’s father, followed by “sen” (= son) or “datter” (= daughter). So, for example, Jens Nielsen’s daughter Maren’s full name would be “Maren Jensdatter”, and his son Søren would be “Søren Jensen”.
Patronymics were legally abolished in 1826 since authorities wanted people to use family surnames instead. Nonetheless, it took several decades before patronymics stopped being used. Regarding any person born in Denmark from about 1826-1870 it is impossible to be sure whether their last name is a patronymic or a family surname unless, of course, you already know the name of that person’s parents.
In earlier times the choice of Christian names was much more restricted. Partly due to the tradition of naming a newborn baby after a deceased family member, a large percentage of the population was given one of the 20-25 most popular names.
Often a certain pattern was followed when naming a baby, and understanding this pattern can give you some insight when researching your ancestors:
150-200 years ago the choice of names was limited. A large percentage of the population was given one of the 20-25 most popular names. This was partly due to the tradition of naming a newborn after a deceased family member. Naturally this meant that it was difficult to introduce new names.
There are no rules without exceptions; nonetheless, people often followed a certain pattern when they had to name a newborn child:
Rules with exceptons
The “rules” were not always followed. For a long period of time it was customary not to use the names of living people. For example, a couple whose parents were still alive might choose names of more distant generations, and name a child after a great-grandmother. Also, for instance, if the child’s maternal grandfather had a higher social status than the paternal grandfather, the couple might decide to use his name for their first son; likewise, if they had inherited a farm or house that had originally belonged to that grandfather.
Named after deceased spouse
If somebody lost a spouse and remarried, it was customary to name the first child of the new marriage after the deceased. A child could have been named after a parent if it was born after the father’s death, or if the mother died in childbirth. A baby might also be named after an older sibling who had died.
Boys named after women…
Usually a child would be the same sex as the person he or she was named after, but this was not always the rule. In memory of a deceased grandfather called “Søren”, a little girl could be baptized “Sørine”, being the female version of the same name. A little boy might be named after a grandmother called “Marie”, and he would receive the name “Marinus”.
Multiple names became fashionable
In the period from about 1880 through 1920 it became popular to give children several Christian names – often as many as four or five! “Foreign” or “unusual” names were also fashionable. During that period one found names like “Thorvald Julius Gotfred Amandus” or “Alvilda Margrethe Dagmar Ernestine” and so forth. Naturally, children thus encumbered would usually use only one name, or possibly just an abbreviation of one. During that period one also sees the name “Skyldfri” (meaning “Innocence”) used as a female name; this was particularly popular for illegitimate girls.
If you have a Danish ancestor with a typical English-American name, this list may give you an idea about the original Danish name.