Norwegian Language Blog

Norwegian last names-norske etternavn Posted by on Oct 21, 2010 in Culture, Language, Traditions

You may wonder why so many people with Scandinavian heritage have an etternavn (last name or surname) that ends in ‘son’ or ‘sen.’ There is a very simple answer and you will be much less perplexed to know the story behind the billion Johnsons of Olsons you know.  Ok, maybe you don’t know that many, but can honestly say I know dozens of people with these etternavn.

Norske etternavn are som regel (as a rule) derived from either a man way back in the family history tree or a location.  My etternavn is Bergeson.  My tippoldefar (great great grandfather) was named Berge.  His son, my oldefar (great grandfather) was Ragnvald.  His full navn was Ragnvald Bergeson because he was the sønn (son) of Berge.  Women would take the name of their father and add ‘datter’ to the end to form their etternavn.  Makes perfect sense, right?  Well, not really if there is to be an easy system of categorizing people into families for census data or taxation purposes because everyone would have a different etternavn!  A man would have one name and a woman another and their children yet another.  Super confusing if you ask me.

It wasn´t until 1923 that it became law that every family was to have one and the same etternavn.  Of course, a lot of etternavn died at that point and now a small number of etternavn are extremely common and der har du det! (there you have it!)- that´s why there are so many Johnsons and Olsons!

Both ‘son’ and ‘sen’ mean the same thing, ‘son of’ and actually a third ending ‘søn’ is also common in Norway.Still today there are norske etternavn used here in the U.S. that end in ‘son’ but the ‘sen’ ending is much more common, which explains why Norwegians always ask me why my last name ends in ‘son’ if I have norske forfedre (Norwegian forefathers).  I plead the 5th.

Many Norwegians that emigrated to the U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries changed their name from the ‘son’ ending to the ‘sen’ ending upon the request of immigration officials who wanted to make navn sound as Anglicized as possible without changing the meaning.  Don’t ask me why then, my oldefar was Ragnvald Duesund back in Norway and became Ragnvald BergesOn upon entering the U.S.  Who knows….either way, I’m happy my etternavn is Bergeson and not Duesund.  People have enough trouble with my fornavn (first name) Kari (pronounced car-ee, not care-ee), so I don’t need more with my last name, although it often gets butchered as well.

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About the Author: kari

I attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, where I majored in Norwegian and History. During college, I spent almost a year living in Oslo, Norway, where I attended the University of Oslo and completed an internship at the United States Embassy. I have worked for Concordia Language Villages as a pre-K Norwegian teacher and have taught an adult Norwegian language class. Right now, I keep up by writing this Norwegian blog for Transparent Language. Please read and share your thoughts! I will be continuing this blog from my future residence in the Norwegian arctic!


  1. Marca:

    Great post, Kari! My family’s navn before being anglicized was Rabben (now Robbin). My oldefar came to the US in 1866 at age 14, and I’ve always wondered why our family name didn’t end in “sen” and follow the paternal + “sen” tradition. My elders always said that “sen” was Norwegian and “son” was Swede, but now I see it is more complicated than that. Also, my oldefar took Haugesund as his middle name, because that was where the family lived when he left Norway. Is Duesund a place name?

  2. Stein:

    They still use the old name system in Iceland. Not easy to use a phone book there.

    My last comment didn’t came through, so again, impressive blog!

  3. olivia:

    My grandmothers maiden name is Duesund as well. Maybe we can talk about this over email? See if there is any relation.

  4. Alan:

    My father’s father changed his last name from Axeleson to Milton when he moved to USA.My father told me the reason he changed his last name was because he thought it would be easier getting a job.