Swedish Surnames


By CAROL J. WILLIAMS, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer, January 2001

     STOCKHOLM--When you're one of 288,496 Johanssons in a country as small
as Sweden, it's awfully hard to feel special.
     You get your neighbors' mail. You get lots of wrong numbers.
Co-workers often can't remember if you're the tall, blond Sven Johansson
who works in marketing or the one with similar attributes in accounting.
     And there's the annoyance of having no right to invoke a common name
for your personal business or Web site because some other Johansson holds
the trademark.
     For a people cursed by a profound lack of originality in surnames,
Swedes hold the identifying power of their monikers close to their hearts.
So, to enhance individuality and diversity in a society long bereft of
either, the government has compiled a repository of 40,000 new names, eased
the legal procedures for obtaining a change and offered copyrights to
ensure that the invented surnames don't fall victim to the contempt bred by
the familiarity plaguing the old ones.
     "People are tired of being known as someone's son. They want to be
seen as individuals," says Mattias Benke, a personal-names examiner at the
Swedish Patent and Registration Office. "If you look at the people changing
their names, you see that they are mostly Johanssons and Anderssons and
     Each year, about 5,000 Swedes legally change their names--a tiny
fraction in a country of 8.8 million but a trend that over time could
change the way this nation's citizens label themselves.
     To gain state approval for a proposed change, an applicant must select
a surname that is unclaimed by a countryman but still has a Swedish ring to
it. And because most of those applying for revision are fleeing the
monotony of the "son" suffix that adheres to the 10 most common last names,
the nation is becoming divided into polar camps of people whose names are
either overly common or completely unheard of.
     Take, for example, the marriage of Mats Jonsson and Susann Nilsson. To
coincide with their wedding last summer, they applied for and received the
patent office's permission to adopt a new last name: Leresloev, which most
Swedes interpret as a combination of leres and loev. Benke said that could
be translated as something like "muddy leaves."
     In fact, explains the new Mats Leresloev, he and his bride built the
name from the first three letters of his native village--Lerebergert--and
the full name of hers--Esloev--to become the first and last Leresloevs in
the country.
     "I think we are probably the only people in the whole world with this
name, as the loev ending only exists in the Nordic countries," says the
32-year-old truck driver, who adds that he and his wife are pleased to have
escaped from the tedious Top 10.
     Steffan Nystroem, a professor of Nordic languages at Stockholm
University, explains that name-changing has been going on since the
mid-19th century, when Swedes began moving from isolated farms to
industrializing cities. The initiative back then came from the government,
which sought to more easily differentiate among the many Svenssons and
Nilssons and Petterssons setting up housekeeping in the dense urban zones.
     "It wasn't until the 1960s and 1970s that people started feeling that
there were too many Anderssons and Karlssons," says Nystroem. "In the
search for more individuality, people started to regard their names as too
     But he worries that name-changing has become too trendy.
     "These are mostly people who don't want to be seen as plain. They are
the same ones who tend to buy cars that are too expensive," says the
professor. "This is why we had to have laws regulating name changes,
because all these changes threaten our cultural history--and I wouldn't
want to see that happen just because of some short-lived fashion."
     Until about 150 years ago, Swedes of both genders routinely took their
surnames from the first names of their fathers, adding an S for possession
and then the suffix son. So if Per and Pia Nilsson had a boy they named
Eric, he would be called Eric Persson and any children he had would take
the surname Ericsson.
     Compounding the problem was the tendency to stick to common first names.

     The first state law governing name changes was enacted in 1901, when
the push to reduce the "sons" was strongest and the instances of mistaken
identity at their most frequent. To be helpful, officials suggested
geographically inspired surnames built from the words for lake (sjoe),
valley (dahl), mountain (berg), north (nord), beach (strand), river (),
branch (gren) and dozens of other physical features, resulting in people
named the equivalent of Southriver or Greenfield instead of as their
fathers' sons.

     A revised Personal Names Law passed by parliament in 1982 not only
further eased the conditions under which a Swede was allowed to apply for a
name change but established restrictions against names that might expose a
child to ridicule or suggest noble descent where there was none. In 1992, a
new menu of unclaimed names was drafted and a review board seated to
adjudicate conflicts.
     Since 1995, a Swede's legal right to his or her last name has faced
another restriction: None of the 150,433 Ericssons in the country, for
example, can call their businesses after themselves because that brand is
already registered to the telecommunications giant of the same name,
explains Lena Frankenberg Glantz of the patent office's trademark division.
     The same applies to Web sites, she says, noting that the problem of
cyber-squatting that persists in the United States and elsewhere in Europe,
where anyone can claim a name for a Web address even if it suggests someone
else's identity, does not exist in Sweden.
     "You can't register as madonna. com or clinton.se [with the se for
Sweden] because that is trying to present yourself as a famous person when
you're not," says Frankenberg Glantz, whose own surnames reflect the past
century's search for something different. Frankenberg, her married name, is
a geographic compound, while her maiden name, Glantz, derives from the
German word for gleam and probably was affixed to a male forebear during
late 19th century military service.
     Margareta Schoen, a technology journalist, traces her family name back
to the same origin, when Swedes sometimes picked up names drawn from their
enemy's language. She must have had a handsome great-grandfather, as the
name he was given by superior officers more than a century ago to
distinguish him from others in his unit means "beautiful" in German.
     "We were Anderssons before that, and it was quite common for the upper
ranks to give these short German words to name the soldiers so they could
tell them apart," says Schoen. "That's why you find Swedes nowadays with
names like Schnell [fast] or Klein [small]."
     More than 90% of applications for name changes are approved, says
Benke, the examiner, whose job it is to explore whether a proposal violates
any of the numerous rules against identity poaching or social climbing. A
few that have been rejected recently include Asterix, a widely known comic
book character in Europe; Baileys, because it wasn't Swedish and evokes the
brand name of a beverage with a trademark; and Applegate, a name one
applicant borrowed from the U.S. sitcom "Married With Children," which
remains wildly popular here.
     Sweden's telephone books and postal registries also are being slowly
diversified because of an influx of immigrants and refugees over the last
decade that has boosted non-Swedes to more than 10% of the nation's
population. While more than half of the foreign-born population is from
elsewhere in Europe, there are growing numbers from Asia, Africa and Latin
America contributing to the transformation of the naming culture.
     Most Swedes with common names are little bothered about them,
preferring to stick to the identity they have had since birth or to change
it only to reflect a marriage or divorce.
     But for increasing numbers, there are options being invoked to avoid
going through life as an anonymous son.
     When Boedil Mattiasson and her first husband, Goran Andersson, were
planning to marry in 1972, they decided to get rid of their common names
and pored over the government registry of suggestions until they came upon
Asketorp, which means a village of ash trees.
     "We wanted something that began with A so he wouldn't have to change
his initials," the 50-year-old radio host says of the name she kept for
professional reasons even after the marriage ended.
     Asketorp's second husband descends from Petterssons--another in the 10
most common surnames--but his parents changed to Andolf years ago,
combining the beginning of his grandmother's name, Anne, and the end of his
grandfather's, Adolf.
     "I still think Asketorp sounds quite nice, but if I had it to do over
again, I wouldn't have changed my maiden name in the first place," she
says. "After all, there is only one page full of Mattiassons in the
Stockholm phone book."
* * *
     Williams was recently on assignment in Sweden.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times