The Surprising Origins of Swedish Surnames

Did you know that many Swedish surnames have literal meanings that can unlock their history? Swedish surnames often originate from ancestors’ names or are words that describe nature or even characteristics. Learn how to decipher some famous examples and discover the history behind them!
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The Surprising Origins of Swedish Surnames

Have you ever considered that surnames have quite different origins depending on language and culture? If you have an English surname, there’s a big chance that it either has its origin in a profession, like with Smith or Taylor, or in a male ancestor’s name, in the case of Williams or Johnson. Surnames are used in most cultures around the world, but the traditions surrounding how these names are formed, passed down and used today vary widely. In some countries, like Spain, it’s common to have two surnames, while in others, like Greece and Iceland, there are different name forms for male and female members of the family. These meanings and origins follow a variety of patterns across the globe, but today, let’s take a look at the particular history of Swedish surnames.

Benny’s Ancestor Was A Son Of Anders

The most common surname in Sweden is Andersson — you may be familiar with musician Benny Andersson from the Swedish pop group ABBA. Andersson is a patronymic, or a name derived from a male ancestor, as it’s composed of the father’s name and the ending “-son.” Other common Swedish patronymics are SvenssonOlsson and Johansson.

Until the 19th century, new patronymics would be created for newborn children, and the surname of a daughter would end with “-dotter” (and in some cases, the mother’s first name would have been used instead of the father’s). So, if a man called Lars had a son and a daughter, his children could have been called Martin Larsson and Anna Larsdotter. However, in the early 20th century, patronymics evolved into fixed family names that were passed on through generations, regardless of the parents’ names or the gender of the child. If you today meet a Swede called Anna Karlsson, it doesn’t mean that her father is named Karl, but it does tell you that one of her ancestors was called Karl!

Too Many Anderssons

In Sweden, you might meet people called FriskModig or Stolt, which are the literal translations of “healthy,” “brave” and “proud.” These names have their origin in the 17th century (and later), when young men all over the country enlisted in the military. As many of them were using the same patronymics, it was difficult to differentiate between all the Anderssons, Svenssons and Olssons. So they were given new names, based on their characteristics. Besides human attributes and traits, it was also common to create new surnames out of objects related to the military, like HjälmStål or Svärd (literally “helmet,” “steel” and “sword”).

“My Name Is Oakleaf” And Other Surnames From Nature

Another common type of Swedish surname are those related to landscapes and nature. Would you be able to recognize famous Swedes if their names were translated to English, such as Ingmar “Mountainman” or Astrid “Limetwig”? (Hint: Both are famous for cultural masterpieces.) Too difficult? Well, perhaps you’ve heard of the film director Ingmar Bergman and children’s books writer Astrid Lindgren. Not only were they both great storytellers, but they both have surnames related to nature. About a third of all Swedes have a surname with this type of origin.

Considering that Sweden is the land of lakes and forests, it’s probably no surprise that so many surnames are inspired by nature. If you’re learning Swedish, you can also decipher ornamental surnames such as EklövBäcklund and Granskog (literally “oakleaf,” “brookgrove” and “fir forest”). Another great name from nature is Carola Häggkvis(“Birdcherrytwig”), the 1991 Eurovision Song Contest winner and one of Sweden’s most popular singers to this day!

origins of Swedish surnames, Eklöv

How Many Johnsons Live In Sweden?

There are of course plenty other surnames in Sweden. You can check them out on the homepage of Statistics Sweden, if you’re curious. Perhaps there’s even someone in Sweden that shares your same surname! If you’re still curious about Swedish surnames and their origins, you can learn more about them (and expand your Swedish vocabulary) in one of our special Babbel courses!

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