23 November 2011


The newly-appointed Danish Minister of Finance (October 2011) has brought the surname Corydon into the limelight. Bjarne Corydon shares his surname with 172 other Danes and at least as many others who bear the name as a middle name. It is also found in Denmark as a middle name with the spelling Coridon.

At first glance the name has a foreign appearance and it might well, like so many surnames in Denmark, have entered Denmark together with immigrants from abroad. This is not the case, however; Corydon would seem to be have been adopted by a family in South Jutland at some time in the late 18th century.

Scholarly surnames

Corydon belongs to the group of surnames that are referred to in Denmark as scholarly surnames. In the 16th and 17th centuries it was quite common for a man to assume a Latin or Greek surname in the learned world, particularly at the time when he was matriculated at a university. It was humanism that led to the introduction of this practice in Denmark. The humanists were interested in classical antiquity and the motive for giving the new names was to give them a patina to make them fit in with classical culture and style.

Some men translated their names into Latin, others found forms that more or less resembled the original name. They wanted the name to have an association with known figures in antiquity. Most Danes are familiar with the scholarly names because of the comedies of Ludvig Holberg. Just as in these comedies, the scholarly names faced some opposition from the public at large. Erasmus Montanus, for example, had originally been called Rasmus Berg 'mountain'. From around the year 1700 there were no longer many men who assumed scholarly names in Denmark.

The meaning and origin of Corydon

Corydon was a Greek name which is considered to derive from the word corudos meaning 'lark'. It occurs as an archaic name for a shepherd in classical pastoral poetry, e.g in the works of Vergil and Propertius. In his second Eclogue Vergil makes the lovelorn shepherd boy Corydon lament his rejection by his fellow shepherd boy Alexis, while in the seventh eclogue Vergil describes a singing match between Corydon and Thyrsis, in which Corydon is the victor. (note: cf. E.V. Rieu edition and translation of The Pastoral Poems (Harmondsworth, 1954, pp.30-37 & 80-87).

In England of the 16th and 17th century the name-form Corydon or Coridon is borne by shepherd boys in pastoral poetry, frequently in association with the feminine name Phyllis (cf. poems by George Peele, Robert Greene Nicholas Breton and anonymous authors). At the same period in Denmark the forms Corydon and Coridon appear, particularly in the pastoral poetry of Anders Bording (for example his Drikkevise from 1663) but also in the works of Anders Arrebo and Thomas Kingo. Here, however, the love interest, in the spirit of the age, is directed more to members of the female sex.

It has incidentally been noted that the Icelandic word dóni, which means 'churl' or 'scoundrel', probably also goes back to the name Corydon in Vergil. The form is thought to have arisen as a slang term in the Latin school at the see of Skálholt in Iceland in the 17th century.

Corydon in Denmark

As a Danish surname Corydon would seem to have arisen in South Jutland. Here it appears for the first time in the church register from Gammel Haderslev parish in South Jutland where a farmer Peder Korridon [Jacobsen] is named as the father when his daughter Kirsten and son Jørgen are confirmed in 1749. The next to appear with the name is the above-mentioned Peder Korridon's son-in-law farmer Nis Thomsen, who is married to Kirsten. He is referred to by the name Coridon, when his daughter Mette Thomsen is betrothed to Laurits Jessen in 1788.

The next time the name appears is when the second son of this marriage is baptized Jens Lauritsen Corydon in 1796 and then the third son is baptized Jacob Lauritsen Corydon in 1798. In this connection it is striking that the eldest son of the couple, Nis, who must have been named after his maternal grandfather, did not have the name Corydon recorded on the occasion of his baptism.

The oldest bearer of the name that has so far been located in Denmark is the above mentioned Peder Korridon [Jacobsen], and the name would seem to have been re-adopted by his son-in-law Nis Thomsen Coridon, who gave away his daughter in marriage in 1788. The Corydon-name, however, is not mentioned in connection with the baptism of Mette in 1761, or when her younger siblings, the twins Nis and Maria Catharina, were baptized in 1772. Nor is Nis Thomsen given the name Corydon (Coridon) anywhere else except on the occasion of his daughter's marriage.

As a family, it would seem that Laurits Jessen and Mette Thomsen were the first to adopt the name Corydon. Thus it is only Laurits Jessen who bears his father-in-law's name Corydon in the census return from 1803 – the children are recorded without a surname. It is noteworthy that the name on several occasions is passed from a girl to her husband.

It is very atypical for a smallholder to adopt a Greek name and it is uncertain from where the inspiration for the name arose. It seems most likely that the name of the Corydon-figure was known from Danish pastoral poetry and had been thought suitable as a name for a countryman.

2. revised edition 4 June 2012

Thanks to Matthew J. Driscoll for drawing attention to the Icelandic word dóni. And thanks to Peter Nybye Oest for supplementary and adjusted information about the earliest records of the Corydon-name.