Names, Names, What’s in a Name ?

I’ve recently been doing research and writing about my ancestors from Sweden and Germany. This has caused some real confusion related to names. I’m used to the “typical” name pattern used in the USA, i.e. first, middle, last. Confronted with Swedish and German names I came up with quite a few questions about how and why people were called what they were. The information below was obtained from websites and individuals with experience and knowledge in the area. What I present is a simplified version and any mistakes or omissions are strictly my fault,

Many years ago people probably only needed one name. As the population increased and more people began to live in the same area, it became necessary and convenient to give people more than one name to properly identify them. In Sweden the second name was derived from the name of the father and is called a patronymic system. If the child was a son he had a given name and a second name which was his father’s name and the suffix -son. If a daughter she had a given name and a second name which was her father’s name and the suffix -dotter. For example, if Lars had a son (Carl) and a daughter (Ingrid), the son would be known as Carl Larsson and the daughter as Ingrid Larsdotter. In addition, the woman never took her husband’s name when married but retained her original patronymic name her whole life.

This system prevailed into the early 1800’s when slowly some people began to adopt (with government encouragement) the use of a surname. Sometimes the surname was merely the original patronymic name and sometimes not. Thus Carl Larsson might decide to adopt Larsson as his surname so his son Petter would be Petter Larsson and his daughter Sissa would be Sissa Larsson. The change to surnames slowly became more prevalent into the mid to late 1800’s and was pretty much complete by the turn of the century. Another twist is that the Swedish Army gave soldiers a surname upon enlistment. This was a complicated process but was meant to distinctly identify each soldier in a company. When done with their service many soldiers no longer used the military surname but others chose to keep it and some passed it down to their children.

This all definitely bears upon the post I wrote about my great grandfather Charles Sanburg. I thought he changed his name after immigrating to the US but maybe not. Apparently changing a name in Sweden at that time was not a big process, you just went to the local priest and said I now want to be known as ” ” and it was done! So he may have done that before he left or he may have waited until he immigrated. Also, it’s possible that was his “soldier name” and he decided to keep it. If i can find his immigration information that may shed some light on it.

The German naming system is different than the Swedish system. Since about 1500 most of what is now Germany regularly use surnames. Different areas had slightly different customs related to given names. In the Mecklenburg – Vorpommern area which was part of Prussia, children were given from three to five given names. Which name they went by was a matter of choice and not easily defined. Generally the oldest son was given the name of the father, the paternal grandfather and the godfather. The second son would get the name of the paternal grandfather and the god parents. Later sons were given combinations of names from the father, grandfathers and godparents. Daughters were named in the same way; the oldest got the mother’s name, grandmother’s name and godmother. Second daughter the grandmother’s and god parents’ names, and so forth.

This makes the names of my immigrating Goesh ancestors somewhat understandable. The oldest son, Johann Carl Friedrich Christian was named for his father (Johann), his grandfather (Carl) and apparently god parents (Friedrich and Christian) and went by the name Carl (Karl). The third son (the second died early) was Johann Ernst Ludwig Friedrich was named for his father  (Johann), a grandfather  (Ernst) and god parents (Ludwig and Friedrich) but went by the name Friedrich (Frederick). The fourth son, Carl Friedrich August Wilhelm, seems to be named for a grandfather (Carl), and then grandfathers and/or god parents (Friedrich, August and Wilhelm) and went by the name Wilhelm (William). The last son I have information on is my great grandfather Ernst Friedrich Ferdinand and seems to be named for a grandfather  (Ernst) and god parents (Friedrich and Ferdinand) and went by the given name Ernst.

All of this makes it more understandable why the same names are given to several children but still doesn’t make it clear how the German (Prussian) individuals chose which names to be called. The Swedish system makes sense in a different way and if you have the patronymic last name you at least know what the father’s first name was.


Barbara Schmidt: Information by email.

About larrytom2

Older guy interested in genealogy and family issues.
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