On the fascination with names and dealing with them across categories

by Katrine Kehlet Bechsgaard

It is a well-known fact that many people find names fascinating. And it seems that the socio-onomastic dimension is particularly interesting to the public – that the relationship between names and trends in society is what interests people the most, in particular when related to themselves and their own lives. This is, of course, why names continue to be of great interest to, for instance, new parents, people going through a name change, and business owners trying to come up with the perfect commercial name.

My PhD project focused on one of the topics that continue to be of interest to the public: contemporary parents’ name choices and the motives behind them. And when I was asked by Danish publisher Gyldendal if I was interested in writing a book about names, belonging to the popular science category, I knew that personal name trends and names for newborns would become an important part of the book in progress. Partly because this has been my research area and partly because of the general interest in this topic. For example, at least in Denmark, you can be sure to encounter news stories about the latest name lists every six months, when they are released by Statistics Denmark. Whether Ida or Emma has conquered first place, and how Liam managed to all of a sudden jump all the way to sixth place, continue to spark curiosity.

Inspiration from research and media

However, when I started working on the book, it led me to a new approach for thinking about names – compared to the approach I had previously taken. Researching for the book made me think about many other angles on names that I imagined would seem interesting and relevant to people not studying names or any related subjects for a living. Whereas previously, I had mostly been alert to any research or anecdote about topics such as personal names, name fashions, and social categories, I now became very alert to any fascinating research, news story, or anecdote about all types of names and in any context. Soon, I had a large collection of links and notes about all kinds of name related points. 

Some ideas came from research publications and some from news stories, as I found it natural to combine research on names with different kinds of name stories that had found their way to the media. Because, as I figured, no place can give us better insight into which aspects of names interest the public than the stories that the media choose to publish. As a supplement to these points, I interviewed people about their personal experience with names, such as an author who uses his characters’ names as a very conscious tool and a woman who was adopted as a child and later decided to change her name.

In other words, I decided not to limit myself to certain name categories or certain time periods. Instead, I wanted to focus on the many ways in which names are interesting and relevant – in my own personal opinion and with consideration of the audience of the book. This way, I stumbled upon many angles, stories, and anecdotes about names, which broadened my view of why this is such an interesting research field.

A combination of socio-onomastics and sociology of names

Most of the topics that I chose for the book are about names’ relation to social factors. To name a few examples: What are the unofficial rules for when we are supposed to remember another person’s name? Why are grandparents often sceptical of their grandchildren’s names? How can the right names help a fictional universe along – and the opposite? What does it mean for transgender people to change their names? How can a name help create group identity – both for people who already share a name and for people actively deciding to take the same name? What happens if your name is associated with another ethnicity than your own? How can companies get in trouble when choosing product names that have to work in every language? And what role did names play in the age of slavery?

As Gunnstein Akselberg argued in the latest blog post on this website, socio-onomastics and sociology of names are two different approaches. Whereas in socio-onomastics, social variables are used to gain knowledge about names, in sociology of names, names are used as a tool to study society. In my book, I have used both approaches, however mostly the latter, and I think there is great further potential in not only studying names by considering social variables, but also in studying society by using names as a tool.

An attempt to show how names are relevant to society

My book was published in April 2020 and has the very simple title “Navne” (“Names”) with the subtitle “Hvordan vi får dem, vælger dem, bruger dem, elsker dem, glemmer dem, ændrer dem, vænner os til dem, hader dem, fortryder dem, opfinder dem og bliver påduttet dem” (“How we get them, choose them, use them, love them, forget them, change them, get used to them, hate them, regret them, invent them, and have them forced upon us”).

The book is by no means an attempt to uncover the entire Danish name landscape. Rather, it is a subjective attempt to go for a tour in the Danish – and international – name landscape and make stops along the way, introducing the reader to what I consider some of the most relevant and thought provoking aspects of names and naming – and to seek out and discuss the ways in which names are important to us all and how names are relevant to society. Even though the book’s emphasis is on personal names, it is an attempt to not be restricted by name categories such as personal names and place names. For instance, a chapter called “Kunsten at vælge det rigtige navn” (“The art of choosing the right name”) discusses and compares choices of names for babies, streets, and IKEA furniture.

I hope that a book of this kind will spark curiosity in people of many different backgrounds and play a small part in justifying why research in names should continue to be a priority.

Updated 24-07-2020

New scientific journal for socio-onomastic research

A new scientific journal has been founded by members of the research network New trends in Nordic Socio-onomastics:

Nordisk tidskrift för socioonomastik / Nordic Journal of Socio-Onomastics!

The first volume of the journal, which is published by The Royal Gustavus Adolphus Academy in Sweden, will be available in spring 2021 and possible to access online via the journal website. The first volume open for submission is planned for spring 2022.

The Nordic Journal of Socio-Onomastics will publish peer-reviewed scientific articles that discuss the role of proper names in society and social interaction. The journal is interdisciplinary and welcome articles from any discipline. This allows authors to use a wide range of theories, methods and perspectives to analyse names as well as to combine different types of data. Purely theoretical contributions are also welcome. The analyses may consider any kind of proper names, and although the journal focuses on Nordic perspectives, articles of Scandinavian or international interest from all over the world are welcome. The journal has an international and multidisciplinary advisory board, with members from different disciplines and different parts of the world.

Articles can be written in English or any of the Scandinavian Languages (Danish, Norwegian, Swedish). All articles are published with an English abstract. If you are interested in submitting, please note the instructions on the journal website.

Emilia Aldrin

Mellemnavne i Danmark

Af Birgit Eggert

Midt i april forsvarede Lars-Jakob Harding Kællerød sin ph.d.-afhandling med titlen Adam Gottlob Øhlenschlæger Hauch & Jeppe Smed Jensen. Et studie af etableringen af det efternavnetypologiske mellemnavn i Danmark i 1800-tallet. Afhandlingen er banebrydende på flere punkter: Den giver et fremragende bud på hvordan man kan analysere store, digitale navnedata; det er den første landsdækkende undersøgelse af danske mellemnavne og afdækker den tid hvor alle danskere prøver at vænne sig til de lov-påtvungne efternavne og i en vis udstrækning er begyndt at bruge mere end ét efternavnetypologisk navn. (I dansk navnelovgivning kan kun det sidste navn i en persons navnerække være efternavnet. De navne som har efternavnetypologisk karakter, men står før efternavnet, er mellemnavne!)

Flere aspekter i afhandlingen er socioonomastiske. Eksempelvis er kønsfordelingen skæv – der er mange flere mænd end kvinder som bærer mellemnavne, og den geografiske fordeling af personer med mellemnavn i 1880 har – ganske overraskende – tyngdepunkt i Nordvestjylland. 

Afhandlingens resume lyder:
”Afhandlingen undersøger mellemnavnebrugen i Danmark i det 19. århundrede i forhold til geografiske og demografiske aspekter. Mellemnavne defineres her som et efternavnetypologisk navn, der optræder mellem fornavn(e) og efternavnet i en persons fulde navn (onomastiske profil).
                Datasættet omfatter alle navne, der er registreret i den digitaliserede version af den danske folketælling fra 1880, hvori lidt under 2.000.000 individer er registreret. Da datasættet er omfattende og yderst heterogent præsenteret, er en systematisk metode etableret, hvorved navnekomponenter typologisk kan identificeres ved en kombination af mekaniske og manuelle processer. Derved har det været muligt at identificere mellemnavne eller fraværet af mellemnavn i mere end 98 % af de onomastiske profiler, der er anført i folketællingen. Mellemnavne findes i ca. 6,2 % af tilfældene. Samtidig giver afhandlingen et bud på en opstilling af principper for lemmatisering og kategorisering af mellemnavne i historisk materiale.
                Mellemnavne har en lang historie i Danmark, men var indtil det 19. århundrede næsten udelukkende i brug i samfundets bedrestillede klasser. Forholdet mellem en socialt bredere brug af mellemnavn og en række samfundsmæssige forandringer i det 19. århundrede er undersøgt. Til dette formål er opstillet tre forskningsspørgsmål: 1. Hvilke mellemnavne bruges i folketællingen? 2. Hvordan anvendes mellemnavne? og 3. Er de tegn på en tidlig relation mellem brugen af mellemnavne og individers identitet og identifikationsbehov, som på grund af en række samfundsmæssige forandringer i det 19. århundrede kan forventes at have ændret sig i perioden? Ved at undersøge dette i relation til en række grografiske og demografiske aspekter (eksempelvis køn og alder) opnås et dybtgående indblik i tidens mellemnavnebrug.
                Mere end 80 % af mellemnavnene udgøres af patronymer, mens mellemnavne dannet til stedbetegnelser dominerer i forhold til antallet af leksikalske navne. Der er betydelige geografiske forskelle i mellemnavnebrugen, da de er mere almindelige i landdistriktene, hvor de højeste frekvenser findes i Jylland. Mænd er langt oftere anført med mellemnavne end kvinder, men i visse sogne findes dog relativt høje frekvenser for kvindelige mellemnavnebærere. Med hensyn til alder, er mellemnavne forholdsvis jævnt fordelt. Dog ses en mindre stigning i andelen af mellemnavnebærere blandt personer født efter 1856, hvilket kan hænge sammen med tidens navngivningsrestriktioner.”

Ph.d.-afhandlinger fra Københavns Universitet har desværre ikke status som udgivne bøger, og derfor kan man ikke bestille Kællerøds afhandling, men den kan downloades i pdf-format her.