Forenames, middle names and surnames – University of Copenhagen

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Names in Denmark > Personal names > Forenames, middle name...

Forenames, middle names and surnames

All Danes have at least one forename and one surname because the Law says that this is compulsory. Many people, however, have several forenames and one or more middle names in their full name.

Forenames are the first names in our full name. In Signe Marie Hansen the two first names – Signe Marie –  are forenames. These are individual names that have been given to us by our parents, or which we have elected to give ourselves at a later date.

Middle names are found in the middle of our full name. In Thomas Schougaard Jensen the name Schougaard is a middle name. In most cases the middle names are hereditary names that have also been borne by earlier generations of the family. A few middle names, however, are not hereditary but consist of gender-opposite forenames. One example is Kaj in Emma Kaj Madsen.

Surnames are the last name in the full name, e.g.  Hansen, Jensen and Madsen in the examples above. It is only possible to have one surname in Denmark. A hyphenated name is considered to be a single name, even though it was originally formed from two names, e.g. Møller-Hansen. It consists of hereditary names that have been borne by earlier generations.

How are the names formed?

Names can be formed in many different ways but some of these ways are more widespread than others. If we look again at some of the examples mentioned above, we are able to identify some of the more common methods.

Signe is an old Nordic name (a compound of the words 'victory' and 'new') which has probably been in use in Denmark as far back as our records allow us to go. Marie, on the other hand, has been borrowed from Christianity and thus adopted from literature and the religious sphere after the conversion of the Danes.

Schougaard is a place-name that must have been linked to a person in the family in earlier times and, as a personal name, it has been preserved in an archaic spelling. Place-names are very widespread both as middle names and surnames but Kaj belongs to a rather less common type of middle name since it consists of a gender-opposite forename.

The two names that together form the surname Møller-Hansen belong to other very widespread types of middle name and surname: Møller is an occupational term 'miller' and Hansen is a patronym, that is an identification of the bearer's father. Hansen belongs to the very common fixed patronyms, that is secondary patronyms.

The secondary patronyms, the -sen-surnames, were fixed in most cases in the middle of the 19th century when they no longer referred to the bearer's father but instead had been inherited in unchanged form. The same development took place in the greater part of Europe and in the Nordic countries it is only in Iceland and the Faroe Islands that the practice of employing primary patronyms, that is where the surname is formed from the forename of one of the parents, is still a dominant method of forming patronyms – and surnames as such.