Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What's in a name?

I have just received a request from abroad asking me to provide the phonetic spelling of my name. This caused me some problems since phonetics are only mastered by linguists in Iceland as here we know how all the words sound. What probably instigated this request is my last name: Sigurðardóttir, which looks a bit easier to pronounce than Eyjafjallajökull , but only by a slight margin.

If I am repeating myself I apologise but here we go by first names and last names are mostly used to discern between the Yrsas, Örnólfurs, Þórs, Freyjas and so on. Gravestones, formal letters etc. use full names but you will never see the last name placed in front of the first name as is common elsewhere. The phone book contains full names but you look under the first name. This relates to our last names not being a family name but a patronym, i.e. it says who your father is. My father is Sigurður (his first name) and I am his daughter (dóttir) so I am Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Yrsa the daughter of Sigurður. Had I been a son I would have been Sigurðarson or Sigurðsson. This way last names change with every generation, my son and my daughter are Ólafsson and Ólafsdóttir, last names which neither my husband nor I carry, nor do our parents and neither will their children. This system is pretty good in my mind as it removes the existence of fancy family names and increases the likelihood that each person makes their own dent in society based on their own worth. (I feel the need to mention that the photo accompanying this paragraph is not of my family, this particular photo opportunity has never presented itself in our case).

Women never take their husband’s last name when they get married here and never have. It would make no sense at all as although married they remain the daughter of their father and would become the son of another father altogether if they were to assume their husbands name. This coupled with the whole patronym thing, does have its downsides. When my parents moved to Texas to study in the 70s with my sister and me, they were not able to take a hotel room as they had separate last names, in addition to my sister and me having the third last name. To the receptionists at the hotels they had all the makings of a sinful couple accompanied by  someone else’s children to boot. This was not considered good form in the Bible belt at the time. We ended up having more conventional passports issued for the whole family under my father's last name Þorsteinsson, and were subsequently able to travel without having to camp.

Back to the phonetics. Since I know not a single linguist I had to figure out some way to explain how my name sounded. Needless to say I drew a blank when it comes to my last name. There is a letter in it that does not exist in English: Ð, in small caps: ð and it sounds like trying to say a T when leaving the dentist’s office having had too much aanesthesia which has affected the toungue. So I focused on my first name noting that the last name is never used. Yrsa luckily does not contain any odd letters and originates from Latin, having evolved from the word Ursa meaning female bear. So I was able to use my newly acquired ad-hoc phonetic ability to say my name sounded like Ursa with an I.

This is the version explaining the meaning of my name that I like. There are other much less appealing ones that I keep trying to forget but seem unable to. To give you an idea the definition provided in the book of Icelandic names says it means: wild person, madcap, giantess, grumpy sheep. Not exactly something I want my name associated with.

I was brought up being told that the first woman to be named Yrsa was a Scandinavian queen known as “the mother of kings”. I tried looking this up to boost my self esteem and found the following on Wikipedia:

"Yrsa was a tragic heroine of Scandinavian legend. She appears in several versions relating to her husband, the Swedish king Eadgils, and/or to her father and rapist/lover/husband Halga (the younger brother of king Hroðgar who received Beowulf) and their son Hroðulf. The consensus view is that the people surrounding Yrsa are the same people as those found in Beowulf, and the common claim in Beowulf studies that Hroðulf probably was the son of Halga is taken from the Yrsa tradition. Several translators (e.g. Burton Raffel) and scholars have emended her name from a corrupt line (62) in the manuscript of Beowulf, although this is guesswork."

The brief paragraph above is at best runner up to the worst written paragraph on Wikipedia, but putting aside the incomprehensible text and connections, what threw me completely was the reference to the rapist-lover-husband. The three are really ill matched and I thought the Wikipedia people must have misunderstood the saga – maybe thinking they were written in phonetics. So I looked up the original saga where Yrsa appears, Hrólfs saga Kraka, and lo and behold the name appears very early on with an explanation of the origin of the name to boot. Only not in the way I expected or wanted, and incredibly enough seem to have been able to forget at some point.

“As time passed queen Ólöf gave birth to a child. It was a girl. Ólöf hated the child in every way. She had a dog called Yrsa and she named the female child Yrsa, after the dog. “

I stopped reading, the rapist-lover-husband hook no longer working. But, being a crime novelist I don’t like leaving readers in the dark so I can tell you what I do remember of Yrsa’s story, she was given pauper farmers for bringing up as their own never knowing that she was a princess. She ended up marrying a king but before you get your mind set on a happy ending you should know that this particular king was her father. Think female Oedipus less the eye poking out dramatics.

If you have time on your hands I suggest looking up the origin and meaning of your name. Who knows, maybe there is another name out there meaning grouchy sheep.

Yrsa - Wednesday


  1. Yrsa, I looked up the names of people in my family and our names are very boring.

    On the other hand, I have no trouble imagining what a misery my brothers would have made of my life if Elizabeth meant "grouchy sheep". They were bad enough without having ammunition like that.


  2. My last name is Latvian for a type of fish--I forget what sort, but it was a rather unpleasant one.

    Although if I had had to take on my father's first name, well, God help me.

  3. I am buying all your books as I think you are the best and FUNNIEST writer going. Lots of luck whatever the pronunciation! quirkfarms

  4. It is what your parents thought it meant that is important. Of course you might not want to ask your mother what was the name of her dog.

  5. Oh no, I am not a grumpy sheep. I am God´s gift (dorothea)- but I can assure you I felt it was a huge burden when I realized that as a child!

    It was so funny to hear about the phonetics; if it was so simple, why would they have had to teach us at the university?

  6. I live in Sweden and just named my baby daughter Yrsa. In Swedish it can also have the meaning "giddy one" or "wild one", which completely struck my fancy. :)

  7. Hello Beverly - how wonderful! Congratulations on both your daugther and for the good selection of a name for her. Yrsa has served me well, it is short and strong and I would not want to be called anything else at all. Say hi to the litle giddy one from me.

  8. Yrsa,

    That was a terrific and fascinating piece. But what personally struck me was that until reading it I never realized we were related! Sigurdar, Sigerdear, what's the difference?

  9. What a fascinating post. When I worked in London I knew someone with the same last name as you. She did once explain that it was her father's name, and I was a little confused as I also had my father's last name before I married. Now I see what she meant. I love the idea of each person having their own name. What if the father isn't known - do they then take the mother's name? Society is changing and through both your books and those of Arnaldur Indriðason we are getting a more realistic view of Icelandic society.