Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Icelandic Naming Laws

This might come as a surprise to some but Iceland has a very strict policy when it comes to naming babies. We have special laws about how this all works and a list of permitted names. There is also a committee that reviews and rules on any applications for new names the rules they are to follow are very conservative.

The basic rules for naming a baby are the following:
  • The baby can only have two names + plus the last name.
  • The baby must be named before it is six months old.
  • Names must be from the list and a girl must be named from the girls list and the boy from the boys list.
In the old times here babies had to be christened before they died in order to get to heaven. Such a ridiculous and mean custom that must have been introduced into the religion to keep priests in demand. There can be no other reason for causing so many grieving parents so much pain through the centuries.

But back to the present: When reviewing additions to the list, the names committee is supposed to take the following into account:
  • The name must conjugate in a manner that suits the Icelandic language.
  • The name shall not be likely to cause the child grievance.
The name laws are a bit more complicated when it comes to last names. The normal way is for the child to bear its father‘s first name coupled with –son or –daughter, depending on the child‘s gender – be it temporary or not. There is also an allowance to use the mother‘s first name, something that is now becoming more common than it used to be when a last name involving your mother meant that she did not know who your father was or did not want to acknowledge him because he was such an idiot.

One is also allowed to use both the mother’s and the father’s name to construct a last name. Had this been my destiny I would be Yrsa Kristínar- og Sigurðardóttir. Which would really be joyful to my foreign publishers. And the cover designers.

In addition to these three options there are certain families that are allowed to use family names that work the same way as elsewhere, i.e. the family name is passed directly on to the children. There are not many occurrences of this here but we do have a few old family names, dating from a long time ago when the better off tended to take up a Danish sounding last name or simply because they were descendants of Danish officials that were stationed here. The trend now is for people with such names to renounce them and take up the normal father/mother system.

For those with a fetish for super long last names – here is the final option for last an Icelandic name: If you come from a family that has the right to use a family name, you are allowed to use as you last name, a combination of the mother/father son/daughter system plus the family name. I am not from such a family but to give you an example of what my last name could be if this was the case, this is what my name could have been: Yrsa Kristínar- og Sigurðardóttir og Gudbrandssen. With this name the foreign publishers would simply have passed on me. The Icelandic ones probably as well.

An Icelandic national is not allowed to take up his or her spouse’s last name upon marriage. This is a big no-no, understandably since the usual last names have to do with your lineage and gender. If someone has to change their last name to that of their spouse upon moving abroad to show a married status and moves back – they must change it to the original name immediately upon entering the country. Same goes for any children such people may have.

Nowadays if one intends to undergo gender reallocation one can select a name from the opposite list prior to having any surgery done.

The laws we have today are a big improvement from about ten years ago when foreigners who took up citizenship had to forego their own names and take up Icelandic names, both first and last. If Jeff had moved here for example he could have been forced to become Jesper Siggeirsson – I am trying to pick the most similar names I can find, from the list of course. Now only the children of those that immigrate need take up an Icelandic first name. They can have a foreign middle name though and a foreign last name.

Funnily enough the naming committee just allowed the name Þyrnirós to be added to the girls names list. This is highly unusual seeing that it is Icelandic name for Sleeping Beauty.

Yrsa - Wednesday


  1. I know 'Dolce' and 'Gabbana'- they are twins. Nike, who is a wee boy. Two kids called Pokahontas (girls!), numerous Skies, Clouds, Keegan's and one Huckleberry. In a bid to satisfy all family members 'Jasper Jock Surname' 7lbs 3oz, entered the world last Wednesday. I think he is going to private school in the south, he might have to! :)

  2. Yrsa, I applaud the rule against giving children names likely to cause them grievance. In Scotland that would have forced some sense into the folks who called their twins Dolce and Gabbana. And in Texas, it would have rightly made it an indictable offense when Governor John Hogg named his twin girls Ima and Ura.

  3. Hmmm, I left a comment and it appears not to have appeared.

    In Southern Africa, there are no rules when it comes to naming someone. When the colonists arrived, their lack of facility in speaking or pronouncing foreign tongues forced the locals to adopt English names to avoid being called "Hey you". I have a woman who comes in half a day a week who introduced herself to me as Zelda. When I asked if that was her real name, I was told that it wasn't. It was actually Nosipho (how difficult is that?). However for most whites her last name does present a challenge, unless you are willin gto take a few minutes to practice. It is Qolo, starting with a hard-palate click.

    Then there are uncountable people with official names such as Witness, Goodluck, Beauty, Happy, Pleasant, Two-Rand, At-Last, Mistake, Captain, Trouble, Don't Worry, Captain Morgan, Trymore, Oblivious, God Knows, and Enough.

  4. Fascinating - 2 questions - what does the og mean in your 'if'names. And in a book I recently read including a foreign female marrying an Icelandic man, she adopted his surname making her --son. Is that what would happen, and does it confuse everybody re her gender?Oh and Governer Hogg should be shot

  5. BTW didn't want to comment as anonymous - I'm not shy - but this page wouldn't accept any of my tries to give my name

    1. I add my first name at the end of the comment and then choose "anonymous" from the list.


  6. For some folks, Yrsa, a name enforcement policy may not a bad idea . What I am about to tell you is an honest to goodness true story (as opposed to...):

    When I was first married the first wife worked in the recovery room of a major Boston maternity hospital. One night she came home seized by hysterical fits of laughter and I'd not yet said a word. Between fits and starts of laughter she told me of a woman who'd endured a particularly difficult labor and come into my wife's unit quite groggy. As the woman came around she was all smiles over her beautiful baby would be expected...and that she felt particularly blessed not just for the child but for a vision that had come to her during the delivery.

    My wife, of course, couldn't help but ask, "What vision?" and the woman explained that she and her husband (not present) had been struggling to come up with a name for a baby girl should that be their blessing. Lo and behold, as she lay in the delivery room, going in and out of a groggy haze, she'd envisioned the perfect, most beautiful sounding name for her daughter:....


    Yep, you can't make this stuff up. At least not easily.


    1. I knew a woman who was a nurse in the neo-natal intensive care nursery of possibly the same hospital. Many of the babies were born to very young mothers. Because the babies were kept in the hospital for extended monitoring, she spent time with the mothers. Sometimes she just had to tell them, "No, you cannot name your baby...." and she would explain why. Sometimes the names were derivatives of body parts, sometimes they had unfortunate double meanings, and sometimes the names would have set the child up for a life time of misery.


  7. I remember reading an article in the newspaper when I was a kid, lo, these many years ago, about strange and humorous names parents had given their kids. The one that's always stuck in my my memory was a couple named Butts who named their son Cigar.

    And yes, from now on when I type 'Jeff' my fingers are going to heading towards 's' and 'p' after the 'J' and 'e'...

  8. Names are tricky, but I must say I haven't laughed this hard in quite a few days. I can always count on MIE.