4 Facts about Iceland‘s Peculiar Naming Traditions

Icelanders do have multiple peculiar customs and traditions. For instance, there are various rules and even laws in the country that pertain to naming. Plus, Icelanders don't have surnames! Don't you find that intriguing? Read on to discover more about the peculiarities of the Icelandic naming tradition.

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Nína Þorkelsdóttir

26. October 2021

1. Icelanders do not have surnames (or, not really)

A commemorative stone for Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir. As you can see, her patronym has been shortened in order for it to fit on the stone.

When foreigners ask me about my full name, I always feel a bit embarrassed. First of all, my full name is very long and impossible to pronounce, and secondly I don‘t really have a surname. In fact, it is a characteristic I share with most of my compatriots.

Instead of family names, Icelanders tend to have patronyms. You might be wondering what on earth a patronym is, so I‘ll explain it in brief. So, when a baby is born it is not given a family name. Instead, its last name is a combination of the father‘s first name and the icelandic word for son or daughter (son or dóttir in Icelandic). My last name is Thorkelsdóttir, which literally means Thorkell‘s daughter. As you have probably figured out by now, my dad was called Thorkell. My partner is called Arni Gunnarsson, which translates into Gunnar‘s son – et cetera, et cetera.

In recent years, it has become more common to name babies after both their parents. This means that a couple named  Jón and Katrín could for instance name their baby Anna Jóns- og Katrínardóttir. Although this newly emerged trend makes the patronyms (or patro/matronyms in this case) even longer than they used to be, it is at least more egalitarian than the traditional patronymic system.

Despite the strong patronymic naming tradition, there are certainly some people in Iceland that have family names. In fact, it became quite common in 19th century to create family names out of existing patronyms or placenames, due to the fact that it used to be considered sophisticated and cosmopolitan (and still is, by some). This was particularly common amongst those who belonged to the upper classes. As a result, some uniquely Icelandic surnames still exist in Iceland, such as Breiðfjörð, Mýrdal and Thorarensen. Some Icelanders also have surnames that originated in other countries, such as Beck, Zoega and Cortes.

2. Iceland has a naming committee

In Iceland, it is legal to be called Bolli (English: Cup) while it is illegal to be called Undirskál (English: Saucer). 

In Iceland, it is illegal to pick a name for your child that has not been approved by the Naming Committee. Sounds dystopic, doesn‘t it?

The Icelandic Naming Committee has been operating since 1991. Its main purpose is to protect Icelandic naming traditions from foreign influence. It is also supposed to protect individuals from being given a name that would cause them nuisance. If you are expecting a child and are considering a name that hasn‘t been approved by the Naming Committee, you will have to apply directly to them and wait until they reach a conclusion. They routinely disapprove of names that are considered to possibly cause their bearer some trouble, or names that cannot be easily adjusted to Icelandic grammar rules.

Ironically, there are plenty of legit Icelandic given names that are extremely strange, and could easily be a cause for bullying. The reason why the Naming Committee does not forbid them is that they were present in Icelandic culture before the committee was established. Here are a few ones that I find particularly odd:

Ljótur (literal meaning in English: Ugly)

Bolli (literal meaning in English: Cup)

Gestur (literal meaning in English: Guest)

Mey (literal meaning in English: Virgin or maiden)

Rán (literal meaning in English: Robbery)

As you might imagine, the Naming Committee is quite controversial. There is a large group of people who firmly support it, but it surely has quite a lot of opponents as well. There have been several bills presented at the parliament proposing to shut the Naming Committee down. The most recent one is from last year, but it didn‘t pass during the last parliamentary term. If they manage to shut it down in the next term, it would mean that Icelanders would be free to take up family names, should they wish to. Experts fear that this change would threaten the existence of the patronymic system, which has been the dominant naming tradition in Iceland since settlement.

3. Foreigners had to change their names

Icelandic citizenship used to come with a huge sacrifice. Wonderguide/Nina.

Before 1997, foreigners who were granted Icelandic citizenship were required by law to take up an Icelandic name and drop their former one. They were even required to stop using their family name and take up an Icelandic-style patronym instead.

As an example, a Columbian-born man called Jorge Ricardo Cabrera Hidalgo was granted Icelandic citizenship in 1996, but he changed his name into Eilífur Friður Edgarsson (meaning Eternal Peace son of Edgar). It is a ridiculous name of course, but his choice of a name was an act of rebellion against the regulations at the time. Fortunately, this has been changed, which means that foreigners who apply for Icelandic citizenship do not have to worry about losing their own name!

4. Babies are not named immediately after they are born

Babies are often called 'Junior' during the first months of their lives. Unsplash/Michal Bar Haim.

When a baby is born in Iceland, it isn‘t named right away. Usually, parents wait 2 to 4 months until officially naming the baby. Behind this is the notion that parents should get to know their babies before they choose their names. In other words, a name should fit a person‘s personality.

Unlike in most other countries, paperwork does not get in the way of new parents who want to wait for a few months. It is possible to issue a birth certificate and apply for a social security number or a passport for an unnamed baby. They would simply be referred to as "stúlka" or "drengur" in addition to their patronym.

But what do parents call their newborn baby then? Well, it depends. Many parents simply call them Junior (Lilli or Lilla in Icelandic) while others use multiple nicknames. Others might choose their actual name early and call them by that. If they choose to do that however, the parents usually keep the name a secret from friends and family until it is formally announced, either at a naming ceremony or baptism.