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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

What’s in a (Danish) Name?

When I give programs about The Legacy or The Claim, I frequently receive questions about why so many Danes have last names ending in ‘–sen’ even though most of my Danish characters do not. I posted this blog several years ago, but I’m reposting it today because it answers these questions. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

    Have you ever wondered why so many Danish surnames end in “sen?” Unless you have Danish ancestors, probably not. But the reason lies in a naming tradition that is not exclusive to Denmark.

    In the very-olden days, when the population was small and no official records were kept, most people had only one name such as Hans or Jens. As the population grew, many people were given the same names. To distinguish between the many who were named Hans, they added a descriptor such as Hans the baker as opposed the Hans the crook. These descriptors applied only to the individual, not to that person’s family.

     Surnames were initially used only by nobility and wealthy land owners, and they were usually based on where they lived, what they did for a living, a personal characteristic, or a parent’s (usually the father’s) name. This last option, known as Patronymics, became popular especially in the rural areas, which encompassed much of Denmark.

     The way Patronymic surnames work is to combine a person’s fathers’ first name and the word for son, sen, or the word for daughter, datter. So if you are a girl, your name is Inga, and your father’s first name is Jens, your full name would be Inga Jensdatter. If you are male, your name is Erik, and your father’s first name is Thor, your full name would be Erik Thorsen. Up until the mid 1800’s, patronymics were the most common type of surnames.

     As the population continued to grow, this naming scheme became problematic. Only one generation had the same the same surname, which made determination of familial lines in government records impossible. In 1828, a decree was issued, declaring that all families should have a permanent surname. However, especially in rural areas, it took many years to abolish the custom of patronymic surnames.

     In the 1850’s, people living in cities began taking permanent surnames that were not patronymics. Elsewhere, it was common for families to adopt a patronymic as a permanent surname.

     In 1904. a law was passed to allow people to change their patronymic family name to a more individual name. However, names ending in “sen’ are still predominant in Denmark.

     I am half-Danish. My mother’s family history inspired THE LEGACY. Neither of her grandfathers had a patronymic surname, but my married surname is Knudsen (Son of Knud). When I began writing, I knew I was going to choose a pen name that was easier to spell and easier to pronounce. My name is frequently misspelled as Knudson, Knutson, Knutsen, Kuntson, and so on. And then there is the dilemma, do you or don’t you pronounce the ‘K’? We do. Most people don’t. Why would they? Probably the most common English word beginning with ‘kn’ is ‘know.’ In Denmark, the ‘K’ is pronounced, but the ‘d’ is silent.

    When it came to choosing my pseudonym, I wanted something family-related, easy to spell, and easy to pronounce. I also wanted something that would reflect the women in my family. So I chose ‘Ann,’ the first 3 letters of my mother’s first name, ‘Mar,’ the first 3 letters of my first name, and ‘Kim,’ the first 3 letters of my daughter’s first name. All together it is Ann Markim. 

Do you know the derivation and meaning of your name? 

What kind of problems, if any, does your name cause you?

Ann Markim




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  1. Really interesting, Ann!
    I would be Lindsay Gordonsdatter
    My married name - I get Quiche a lot!
    My first publisher (Hodder) insisted I use another name, so I went back a generation and used my Mum's maiden name - Townsend. I've kept that as my writing name

    1. Thanks. Lindsay. I like how you also use a pen name that has a relationship with your family.

  2. I love genealogy, so enjoyed this post a lot. Great to hear your own history too. I write under my married name, which is based on the place my husband's family come from. It apparently means 'east manor.' My own name is Nic Loideain in Gaelic. That's a bit more interesting. It means 'daughter of descendent of Lugh, God of everything. Lugh was a warrior king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, in ancient Ireland.

    1. Very interesting. The Gaelic history of your name is very cool.

  3. You ladies now make me want to explore my family name. My maiden name is Knapp with the K pronounced but when I started school the teachers, etc., dropped the hard K. When my mother's husband adopted me, my name was changed to Kocsis and that too is a hard K but when pronounced the Hungarian way it came out sounding like Cochise, the famous Indian warrior lol so people didn't know how to spell or pronounce, so Hungarians pronounced it the old way while Canadians pronounced it phonetically like Kosis. When I bought my domain name I used my married name, but should have4 done some research. I had no idea there are so many Elizabeth Clements on Google and there's a cookbook writer on Goodreads with the same name that caused a little confusion I found this post very interesting, Ann, and love the way you combined several family names into your pen name.

  4. You have experienced a lot of similar pronunciation and spelling issues to mine. I also had problems related to my maiden name so I know how frustrating all of this can be.