Nordic names and how to find them

TLDR – jump to the key URLs

Throughout my childhood and youth, growing up in Britain, I can’t remember seeing more than a very few TV programmes in foreign languages with subtitles. This would be in the 60s and 70s. For sure, there were many foreign produced children’s programmes, but either they were dubbed or the original soundtrack was surpressed and an English storyteller voiced over the story. (I’m thinking of The Magic Roundabout and The Singing Ringing Tree.)

Reaching back for this article, the only adult, subtitled, foreign language dramas I can remember for sure were all films. (Interestingly, the only two that actually come to mind both feature the recently deceased Swedish actor Max von Sydow. Playing chess with Death in The Seventh Seal, and a snatch of von Sydow and Liv Ullman struggling to farm in The Emigrants.)

There was a resistance to foreign language drama. Or there was a resistance to subtitling. Or the two fed into one another. And perhaps this reflected a real state of monolinguistic insularity in the British public, or perhaps just a conviction in the minds of TV programmers. I don’t know (though I imagine there may be academic studies arguing every which way).

Portraits of some of the Nordic names mentioned in the article.
Some Nordic names

Times change

… and we change with them. Isn’t that the saying? But the changes were going on at home while I was elsewhere, out in the world. One summer about ten years ago I was back in England visiting family. At a loose end one evening I put on the TV and found myself watching Krister Henriksson as Kurt Wallander detectiving away in southern Sweden. Subtitled.

Of course I’d heard Nordic Noir was taking the world by storm. The Killing, Borgen, The Bridge. But until I saw a run-of-the-mill Swedish crime drama running on UK terrestrial TV, I’d put it down to Scandinavian self-aggrandisment.

The surprising (to me) success of Nordic noir across the world’s TV screens has had creative consequences. There’s been an opening up of interest in Scandinavian situations. Nordic characters have been making increasing appearances in books and TV series. Midsomer Murders has been graced with Danish detective Birgitte Poulsen (Ann Eleonora Jørgensen). Shetland has crossed the North Sea to Norway (Season 4).

There’s been a parallel development in the real world too as Scandinavians have become more visible. (I’m interested in filmed drama, so, off the top of my head: Alicia Vikander and the Skarsgård family from Sweden, Joonas Suotamo from Finland, Kristofer Hivju and Ingrid Bolsø Berdal from Norway, Mads Mikkelsen and Sidse Babett Knudsen from Denmark.)

Nordic names

So, perhaps you are thinking of writing a story with a character from Norden, as we say in these parts.

About 6 years ago I wrote a blog post about Swedish women’s names, where I assumed the first names that would come to you (if you were an Anglo, hetero-male in your best years) would be Agnetha or Ingrid. (For the benefit of the rest of you: Agnetha was the blonde one from Abba, Ingrid was Ingrid Bergman.)

Things have clearly moved along since then, but I wonder what would be the go-to names today. Scanning quickly through the names I’ve mentioned so far, there are several that – for all they are the real names of truly Nordic people – just don’t feel quintessentially Nordic. Max, Ann, Alicia, even Kristofer – not to mention Bill (Skarsgård). Would you want to use one of these for a Scandinavian character?

What about the others? Mads, perhaps, (it’s the Danish form of Matts short for Mathew), though perhaps only for a character who’s a little crazy. We have to think about how a name will work in English too. Liv is nice, it means life, but it might seem like a chopped off form of Livia or Olivia, neither of them exactly Nordic names. (Though both are popular in Scandinavia today.) Joonas is fun, but it’s the Finnish version of the Biblical name Jonas.

Cecilia/Sidse

Sidse then? It’s a Danish variant of Sisse, short for Cecilia, but that connection feels quite obscure to me. It looks to me like a good name – for a Danish woman.

There are more than 600 Danish women called Sidse today, but only 4 in Norway and none in Finland. Although the Nordic countries are very similar in some ways, they each have subtly separate naming traditions. Which is something else to bear in mind. (And, by the way, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal’s middle name isn’t a personal name but a family name, so you can’t use that.)

Statistics

Fortunately for the Nordic names hunter, one cultural quirk that is shared across the Nordic countries is an obssession with collecting statistics. Also a long tradition of making them available to the general public. All the Nordic countries have statistical offices, all keep statistics about names, and all make those statistics available in various ways. The bulk of the statistics are only available in the local language, but a very good selection is accessible in English. However, there’s no uniformity about how the material is made available or how you can search it.

The statistics organisations in Norway, Sweden and Finland all offer lists of the most popular girls and boys names through time. (Well, the last 100+ years.) Suppose you want to name a female character who is 43 this year. That means she was born and named in 1977. The Norwegian list tells us the top three names that year were Linda, Anne and Camilla. Not exactly what we’re looking for. But how about Kristin, Hilde or Hege?

(Statistics Norway: Table 3 Historical top girls’ names 1880-2019)

The equivalent Swedish information is not quite so easy to find. You have to open a spreadsheet and the information is aggregated by decade, but in the 1970s the top three names were Anna, Maria and Linda. Again, not perhaps what you want, but a bit further down the list there’s Malin, Åsa and Ulrika.

(Statistics Sweden: Names normally used, women, per decade, top 10)

Finnish names are also aggregated by date. In the 1970s the top three girls names were Johanna, Maria and Susanna, but the list also includes Maarit, Hanele and Kristiina.

(Statistics Finland: Name Service, Most popular first names)

More statistics

Statistics Denmark is less helpful, but if you already have a name, you can check how many Danes share it. (Perhaps to avoid picking a name that is held by only a very few people.) Mads, for instance, is shared by 31,739 Danes in 2019. Out of a population of just under 6 million, that’s a pretty popular name.

(Statistics Denmark: How many Danes have the name…)

We can, though, see a graphic representation of the popularity of a name in the period since 1986. Now, we can’t get back to a 43 year old, but we can check the popularity of a name for a 34 year old. We have a Danish character of 34 and we want to call him Mads. His daughter, aged 6, we want to call Sidse. How common was Mads as a given name in 1986? How common was Sidse in 2015?

I shall tell you!

There were 557 Mads named in 1990, so it’s a perfectly OK name for our character. But in 2014 there were only 3 little girls named Sidse. It seems like the name has been declining in popularity for about 10 years. So, maybe, find another name?

(Statistics Denmark: Barometer of names)

Iceland – home of Björk

In Iceland the situation is different again. It looks like the database is only very recently compiled. This probably has as much as anything to do with the country’s relatively small population. (Only about 364,000 according to Wikipedia.) I imagine that people know one another, or one another’s families, and the necessity for a database was not apparent until recently.

As in Denmark, you have to come with a name you want to search for. Suppose I want to create a character with the Icelandic equivalent of my name. That would be Jón. Using the database called Male names 1 January 2019 I discover there are 5,177 Jóns on Iceland. It’s a popular name. (As it should be!)

But let’s be a bit more specific. My character is in his 60s, but he has a grandchild of, say 10, also called Jón. Using the database called Ranks of male names by age group, I find that Jón is the number one Icelandic name in the 60 and 64 age group and in the 10-14 group. Both names are possible.

But what about the most internationally well known Icelander (probably)? What about Björk?

There are 329 Icelanders with Björk as a first name. A further 3456 have it as a second personal name. Look through the Ranks of female names by age group, however, and you won’t find Björk ranked. It’s too unusual. The lowest ranked name in the top 100 is Rebekka. There are 438 Rebekkas.

You will find some of the many people who have Björk as a second name though. Look under Second name of females born in 2018. Björk ranks 8th or 9th with 29 girls named “Something Björk” in 2018. Linda Björk seems to be the most popular combo at present.

More portraits of people with Nordic names referenced in text
Some more Nordic names

Names for a long life

There’s one other Nordic naming practice I want to mention. In Sweden it is very common for parents to choose names for their new-born babies from an earlier generation than their parents’. To be sure, this isn’t always true, but it’s common enough for it to be obvious in school class lists. (Believe me. I’ve seen my share of those.) And it’s born out in the naming statistics kept by Statistics Sweden.

I don’t know how common it is across Norden, I know it’s also practice in Finland. Thirty-five years ago, friends in Finland who were expecting their first born daughter, told me how they went about finding her a name. They took a walk through the local cemetary and found a name that seemed to them old, but not old-fashioned, just unusual. The woman who bore it, recently deceased, had had lived a long life. That name, they decided.

My friends named their daughter Emilia.

Statistics Finland tell me Emilia was the 6th most popular girl’s name in the 1980s. (11,469 girls were named Emilia that decade.) Before 1980 it was practically absent from the records for 70 years.

In other words, if you want Nordic names for your Scandinavian characters, you ought to check how likely it is that the names you choose would have been given to your characters when they were born.

Well, I think I’ve gone on far too long. Time to stop.


Notes

Too Long Didn’t Read


This is the second in an occasional series about the naming of characters. (The first was last week’s post.)

The pictures of all the actors with Nordic names are taken from Creative Commons images on Wikimedia. Several are displayed in connection with Wikipedia articles in other languages than English.

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