Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Bouchercon Hiatus - What's in a name

Bouchercon and hiatus are two words that are pretty hard to spell for a foreigner. I hope I got them right though. I am in hotel room in Minneapolis, two hours away from boarding the plane to St Louis. The two days spent here in the Twin Cities my husband and I have used to shop and if we are taken aside in customs when returning to Iceland the customs officials are in for a big surprise. We have four suitcases full of aluminuim foil, shampoo, toothbrushes and plastic jars. We considered buying toilet paper but had no more space. But do not dispair, we are not only taking away from America we have also come bringing gift - not inscence, gold or myrrh but scourged sheeps' heads and a pate made from .... you guessed it: scourged sheeps' head. This we intend to offer to those Bouchercon guests who have always wanted to try a scourged sheep's head but never had the opportunity. These delicacies will be served by Murder is Everywhere in the venue bar, I cannot remember if it is on the Thursday or the Friday evening. This means if you will have to go to the bar both evenings I guess which is a positive thing. So enough of this, here is a post from August 2010 that I hope might interest you: 

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.

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. I laughed while reading this just like I did the first time I read it.

    My family are Irish Catholics. The rule was/is that children have to be given the name of a saint. This creates a boredom factor when looking through class lists from the fifties and sixties. I went to an elementary school with nuns. It was a very big school. There were three classrooms of each grade, fifty kids in a class. Did this encourage creative thinking? Not a prayer. We were really good at multiplication tables, diagramming sentences, and learning how to spell.

    In my classroom of fifty, there were three Elizabeths, three Margarets, two Thomases, four Josephs, and an infinite variety of Marys, none fancy enough to be a Marie. My cousin is Maureen but that was as imaginative as it got. There were Marys, Mary Anns, Mary Elizabeths, and, the one my sister got stuck with and hates to this day, Mary Frances. Mary Frances lends itself to a tone that can be a taunt.

    In the United States today, one can't take a step without tripping over some guy named Matthew. I didn't know anyone named Matthew until I got to college. There weren't any Marks or Lukes either but there were so many Johns.

    When my daughter went to college there was an ice breaker in which each student was invited to explain why they were given their name. In may day, no problem. Check the family tree; names were repeated constantly. I am Elizabeth Mary, as was my mother, both grandmothers, and a great-grandmother. The other great-grandmother was Catherine with a C. Katherine with a K was Protestant.

    Predictably boring as it was it beats the names today. A name that has consistently ranked in the top ten for girls for ten or fifteen years is Madison. This trend started when Tom Hanks met a mermaid and had to give her a name. He was pressured into coming up with one fast so he looked up at a street sign and he named her Madison after the avenue in New York City.

  2. I'm a little late, but I wonder what it is like to grown withe name that is a grouchy sheep? Here, it would invite all kinds of mayhem, I suppose. The myths and sagas bear little resemblance to the happily ever after of our favorite fairy tales. I think they were designed to express the harshness and difficulties of life, plus the complicated human psyche. Strange. I do like your name though.