Monday, November 05, 2012

Patronymic Naming Patterns in History

Oleanna Tollefsdatter Myklebost was beset by ghosts: winter ice in her veins, chill and stiff even during the long summer days of the midnight sun.

That's the first line of Oleanna. And you might wonder to yourself: what is up with that name?

All the way up until the 1920s, Norwegians named their children based on patronymic format (like many, many cultures around the world)--that is, you are the son or daughter of your father, and hereditary surnames were not widely used. In Oleanna's case, it's clear that her father is Tollef. Her sister is Elisabeth Tollefsdatter Myklebost, and her brother is John (Johan) Tollefson Myklebost.

But, of course, there were thousands of men named Ole, Anders, Tollef, or Samuel throughout Norway, and throughout the ages. So to differentiate (a bit!) Norwegians added the name of their farm. In this case, Myklebost--and that might change if they left the farm where they were born and grew up and moved to a different part of Norway. Which of course gets very complicated when trying to do genealogical research.

To add to the complexity, women used their patronymic throughout their lives, even when they got married; however, this had begun to change along with the turn of the century.

It gets complicated enough that there are websites dedicated to helping genealogical (and historical!) researchers understand when patronymics were used, and when the shift to hereditary surnames began.
  • before 1850: traditional system of given name, patronymic and farm name
  • 1850-1923: gradual change starting in cities moving towards hereditary last names [note: as with many other things, the rural farmers and fisherfolk--the majority of the country--retained traditional ways, including naming]
  • 1923-1965: Norwegian Names Act: everyone had to take a hereditary last name. Children would have their father's last name. Women would use their husband's name
  • 1965: Women could again keep their name (as before/tradition) and children could use either parents' last name, typically both (one as middle name) 
Information via

For additional reading, check out this article, Ancestors from Norway

When immigrants came to America, both men and women, they generally took their farm name as their surname; thus, Johan Tollefson Myklebost became John T. Myklebust.

John T. Myklebust, ca 1910, in North Dakota

Had he kept the naming pattern of the old country, he would have become Johan Tollefson Starkweather (Johan, son of Tollef, living on the farm in Starkweather, ND). I'm glad he kept Myklebust (moehk-leh-boost) though the Americanization changed the pronunciation entirely (michael-bust).

Of course, many immigrants changed their names completely to fit in--thus, my Danish great-grandfather changed his beautiful Christianson to Hunt. Which isn't a bad name at all, but it doesn't quite roll off the tongue the way Christianson does.

What are the naming patterns you've found in your family history? What has surprised you about naming patterns you've seen in other historical fiction?


  1. This is fascinating!

    The Ukrainian side of my family obviously had to change the spelling of their last name from Cyrillic letters to Roman letters when they came to Canada before coming to the United States but I'm not sure if the pronunciation stayed the same.

  2. Did they use patronymics in the Ukraine as well?

  3. I love learning about this topic. And of course, that photo, priceless!