Icelandic dog names past and present

by Emily Lethbridge (Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies)

Mollý – a 21st-century Icelandic dog

In January 2022, my family became a family with a dog. After lengthy deliberation, we gave our labrador puppy the name Mollý. On her official vets’ certificate, she is called “Mollý Karlotta Svensen McVoff Sesarsdóttir.” Mollý’s father is called Sesar and so Mollý has the typical Icelandic –dóttir patronymic. The name Mollý was chosen in part for its associations (my English grandparents had a dog called Polly when I was a child), and in part because we liked it for its friendliness. We also thought it would be easier to call out the name Mollý from a distance than “Kleópatra” or “Aggripína” (we considered keeping the classical naming theme alive). Karlotta Svensen McVoff was added to the certificate as a joke.

Mollý. Photo: Emily Lethbridge.

Although we were not aware of it at the time, our choice of the name Mollý was made on the basis of three aspects or functions that have been identified in animal name-giving by Bjarne Rogan (cited in Leibring 2016a: 617). These aspects are the singularizing function (the practical need for identification and communication with the dog as an individual), the expressive function (a more subjective influence, in our case, the friendly sound of the name), and the ritual function (the partial recycling of the name of a former animal, in our case the adaption of Polly to Mollý). Over two years on, it turns out Mollý was a good choice though on occasion the name causes confusion as it is very close to Moli, a popular (and rather traditional) name for male dogs in Iceland. Nor were we aware at the time that ‘Molly’ is slang for the drug MDMA. For me, my partner and children, the name Mollý will first and foremost probably always be associated with a much-loved animal who is part of the family.

Sources for Icelandic dog names

The oldest sources for Icelandic dog names date from medieval times. Probably the most famous dog in all of Icelandic literature is Sámr, an Irish wolfhound given to Gunnarr of Hlíðarendi, according to Njáls saga, written in the 13th century. This exceptional dog warned Gunnarr when his enemies were approaching Hlíðarendi to attack it. Gunnarr called the dog his ‘fóstri’ (his fosterling), and tradition marks a spot at Hlíðarendi known as Sámsleiði where the dog – killed by the attackers for his loyalty to his owner – was said to be buried. Other than the sagas, older written sources that preserve Icelandic dog names include the 13th-century work Snorra Edda, and Icelandic folk-tales recorded for the most part in the 19th century (see further Guðrún Kvaran). A considerable body of traditional rhyming verses (þulur) exist too, in which names of dogs, horses, sheep etc are listed. Most extensively and recently, a great deal of information is to be found in answers to two surveys sent out in 1987 by the Folkloristics department of the National Museum of Iceland, one on dogs, and the other about domestic and farm animals more generally. The surveys in question were ‘Hundurinn’, spurningaskrá number 66, 1987–1 and ‘Auðkenni og nöfn húsdýra’, spurningaskrá number 68, 1987–3.

Icelandic dog names in the 20th century

Answers to the two 1987 surveys indicate that dog names in the 20th century were overwhelmingly chosen on the basis of the animal’s colour, coat-patterning or temperament and characteristics, and that this tradition was a long-established one. Many of those who supplied answers were born at the end of the 19th century or in the first couple of decades of the 20th century.  As with Icelandic anthroponyms, dog names were traditionally gendered; male dogs were given grammatically masculine names and females grammatically feminine names. Some examples include Sámur, Skuggi, Krummi and Kolur for male dogs that were black or dark in colouring; Týri (m.) or Týra (f.) for a dog with a white or light tip to its tail; Strútur or Hringur for a male dog with a white collar or ruff; Depill or Flekkur for a male dog with a spotty or patched coat; Kópur, Kópi or Selur for a short-haired male dog, sometimes grey and resembling a seal in colouring; Stubbur for a male dog with a short tail; Lubbi, Flóki and Brúsi for shaggy-haired male dogs; Spori for a male dog with large paws. Tryggur was used for a male dog with a faithful temperament; Kátur for male dogs that were playful, happy puppies; Vaskur for a male dog with a courageous temperament; Hvatur for a male dog that was fast and quick in its actions; Sendill for a male dog that was speedy when rounding up livestock.

There was typically little overlap between anthroponyms and dog names. Some exceptions occurred when the names of foreign historical figures or leaders were adopted as dog names, e.g. Napóleon, Neró, Sesar, Plató – and (uncomfortably) Hitler, Göring, Stalín, Mússolini. In these latter cases, disapproval is indicated in some answers. On the name Hitler, one participant stated it to be “a dubious honour for dogs to bear these names.” Another participant noted that the dog in question “made up for the name with his qualities and intelligence, so that it wasn’t quite so awful.” Although we don’t know when the dog was born or given his name, he was alive during WWII, and the participant included the following anecdote: “This Hitler lived near Sauðárkrókur [a town in the north of Iceland], and a large number of soldiers were here in the town during the war; Hitler’s owner called to the dog when they passed the army camp and the soldiers rushed over to him, and there was quite a delay, since the dog’s owner had to prove that the dog was called Hitler, and he himself could not speak any English.”

Other foreign anthroponyms given to Icelandic dogs included Don and Jock (probably inspired by the presence of American troops in Iceland from WWII onwards) and Spasskí (a puppy at the time when Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky played their famous World Chess Championship game in Reykjavík in 1972). Very few examples of dogs with Icelandic personal names are given in the survey answers, though one owner called his female dog Hrefna, and explained: “My lovely Hrefna didn’t get her name on account of her glossy black colour. No, it was her beautiful deep eyes that always reminded me of a beautiful girl in the next-door house when I was a 6-year-old in Vopnafjörður. Always when I looked into my Hrefna’s eyes I was reminded of Hrefna with the beautiful eyes in Vopnafjörður.” Here it might be noted that although in the medieval sources Sámur is an anthroponym as well as a dog name (e.g. Sámur Bjarnason in Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða), the name subsequently dropped out of the Icelandic anthroponymicon — no men called Sámur are found in sources such as census records from the early 18th century to present day.  

Icelandic Sheepdog Alisa von Lehenberg, 1 year 7 months old.  Photo: Veronica Druk (2008) CC BY-SA 3.0 (Wikipedia: Icelandic Sheepdog)

Overall, Icelandic dog-naming practices in the 20th century probably reflect conventions and usage in earlier times, and they seem to be fairly well-aligned with traditions elsewhere in Scandinavia and the world (Leibring 2016a: 623). Occasionally, the Icelandic dog name provided an opportunity for a benign joke: one woman (b. 1923) called her dog ‘Sama og þú’ (‘the same as you’) for the fun of giving that answer when people asked the dog’s name. Leibring gives examples of Swedish dogs called Gissa (‘Guess’) and Fråg’en (‘Ask’im’) that work along similar lines (2016b: 115). Whether or not the Icelandic tradition of calling several generations of dogs the same name is found elsewhere is unclear. A few examples of this phenomenon are found in the sources, e.g. an individual born in 1903 who noted that “My father’s dogs were called Hrafn. When the first gave up the ghost [i.e. died], pabbi got another black dog that was given the name Hrafn.”

Icelandic dog names in the 21st century

When contemporary dog names are studied, a marked shift in naming can be seen. A much more recent questionnaire sent out by the National Museum of Iceland in 2016 asks a series of questions about pets and attitudes towards them. Questions about current pet-naming habits, and whether participants see any shifts in naming trends, are included. Many participants in their answers note that names for dogs in Iceland are in general more varied than they were, and that it is now common to use anthroponyms (both Icelandic and foreign) as dog names. Ambivalent, positive and negative attitudes towards this shift are communicated in some comments (“names are more original”; “names are more varied”; “times change and so do people’s and pets’ names”; “Some people give their pets human names. That seems strange to me”). Occasionally, disapproval regarding this development is explicit and anxiety at what is perceived as a kind of cultural loss, perhaps the watering down of Icelandic identity, is hinted at: “It seems as though more pets are given foreign names which isn’t to my taste, since I want to uphold Icelandic traditions” (b. 1966); “I never hear the dog’s name Snati any more, that’s a shame. It’s also always strange to see a light-coloured dog that is called Kolur for example. It’s a bad thing if old animal names are lost though it’s inevitable, as with good old personal names” (b. 1965).

Some participants articulate thoughts on why this shift has occurred. One individual writes that “pet-names have become more personal over recent years or decades, my feeling is that this happened after pets were moved out of the country and changed from being partly work-animals to additions to families. Dogs called Snati and Lappi are at least less common than they were, and I have met a dog that was called Jón Þormarr after the owner’s grandfather”. With reference to the first part of this comment, it is only relatively recently that dogs have been officially allowed in urban areas as pets: between 1924 and 1984 dogs were banned in Reykjavík, with dog-keeping in the city only fully legalized in 2006 (see Laxdal 2014). A more fluid and creative attitude towards dog names may also be linked to a shift in attitudes towards personal names in Iceland that has gained momentum in recent years. As is well-known, laws controlling personal names are in place in Iceland and any name that is not on the ‘official’ list must be submitted to the Icelandic Naming Committee (mannanafnanefnd) for approval (see e.g. Willson 2023). Recent years have seen amendments to these laws and some restrictions have been loosened as arguments for greater personal freedom with regard to naming practices gain traction. A bill proposing further changes to current laws regarding personal names is currently being considered.

Katharina Leibring has identified a trend in Sweden where baby names are influenced by popular dog names, and claims that “two-way traffic, whereby names can wander from humans to animals and back again, has evolved in recent decades, possibly as a consequence of the widespread anthropomorphisation of companion animals” (2016b: 117–118). It may be that we are seeing the beginnings of such a trend in Iceland, although the legal restrictions regarding personal names mentioned above mean that dog names can’t easily be a “testing-ground” for new baby names in the same way as they may be in Sweden. Nevertheless, one 2016-questionnaire informant does comment that dog names “are becoming closer to people’s names, because more people are giving their children pet-names.” At the time of writing, my request to access dog name data in the Dýraauðkenni pet-database established by the Icelandic Veterinarians’ Society (Dýralæknafélag Íslands) is still pending but if granted, these data will offer rich possibilities for further research on the subject. Clearly, as with anthroponyms, ideology and questions of identity have always played a part in Icelandic dog naming traditions – sometimes obviously and sometimes obliquely – and continue to do so.