Surnames and modern Norwegian traditions

by Line Grønstad

In Norway we have had fixed surnames for, roughly speaking, a century. The first Norwegian name law came into place in 1923. Every child born after this would be given their father’s last name, or if the parents were unmarried, either their mother’s or their father’s last name. Hence, last names that had previously changed from one generation to the next, or when the name user moved from one farm to another, now became fixed surnames.

The main purpose of the law was to create order amongst the lower classes in society, making it easier for the police, the poor people’s aid, and others to know which individuals they were in touch with. One way of doing so, was to make sure they kept the same last name throughout life. Unless you were a woman, as women should take their husband’s surnames, and the children should get their father’s surname.

Law and order were needed to avoid misidentification amongst the lower classes in society, in effect making all Norwegians follow the norms that had become practice for the higher classes during the 19th century. Turning such a practice into law, would also ensure that Norway followed suit with other, as was argued, more modern European countries (Department of Justice and Police 1922). 

But my aim here is not to write about how the practices changed during the decades before and after 1900 (for this, see for example Utne 2001; Torp 2018; Utne 2011). Rather, my aim is to write about how the naming practices of the 1923-law, by the 2010s was described in terms of tradition rather than law by Norwegian men. I wrote my PhD-thesis about Norwegian men in heterosexual relationships and their name choices in couples, and this article is based on a chapter where I discuss the meaning of tradition in surname choices (Grønstad 2020, 153-207).

Method and material

First, a few words about method and material. The material consists of responses from self-identified men on two qualitative questionnaires, i.e. lists of open-ended questions, on surnames and surname choices. In the first questionnaire (2014), aimed at a general Norwegian reading public, these questions had to do with surname changes by the person responding to the questions, or by persons close to them, thoughts of children’s surnames and accounts of reactions from others on the name choices. The second was aimed specifically at men who had changed their surnames to their wife’s or woman partner’s surname (2016). I did close readings of the 101 responses from men to the first questionnaire, plus the 60 responses to the second, to discover potential themes and patterns.

The current surname situation for Norwegian couples

Before I go into these themes and patterns, I wish to provide some more information on the choices Norwegian men and women make. As part of my PhD-work I developed statistics for the situation in 2018 amongst Norwegian couples (Grønstad 2020, 105-109). Those who were married or had been married during the first two decades of 2000s were included in the sample. Most Norwegian men kept their surnames when they married. Between 4 and 5% took their wife’s surnames as their own surnames. A few more combined their surnames with their wife’s, either with a hyphen or by taking it as a middle name. In Norway a middle name is a name of surname type, that is placed after the first names. Formally it counts as a first name, not as a surname.

Type of actionWomenMen
Kept the full name unchanged41%87%
Took the partner’s surname only26,5%1,8%
Took the partner’s surname as a middle name6,2%4,2%
Took the partner’s surname. Kept the previous surname as a middle name20,1%2,4%
Table 1. These are the different choices made by men as a group compared to women as a group.

Women take their partner’s surname to a much higher degree. Almost half of the women change their surnames, and almost half keep their surnames. A very few women hyphen their surnames with their partner’s. For some of the women changers, surname continuity is ensured to a certain degree through keeping their original surname as a middle name, and some of the women who keep their surnames, take their partner’s surname as a middle name.

Keeping and using men’s surnames as tradition

One theme in the responses to the two quantitative questionnaires was an understanding of the past in the present, often described as “tradition”. Throughout, tradition within surname choices equalled the use of the men’s surnames, meaning that men kept their family name throughout life, women change in marriage with men, and children get their father’s surname. These were the practices formulated as law in 1923, and kept and slightly amended in 1949, and 1964. The laws regarding surname choices was made gender equal in 1979 and came with even more possibilities in the newest law from 2003. One example is the possibility to connect two surnames with a hyphen, which was not a possible option before 2003.

The men positioned themselves in relation to certain understandings of tradition, and I found three such patterns. Within the first pattern, tradition as preference of men’s surnames was taken for granted, and tradition was associated with something positive. Within the second pattern, tradition was also understood as the preference of the man’s surname, but here this tradition was criticized or even outrightly dismissed. Within the third pattern, tradition was re-imagined in new ways, and these men drew on notions of continuity and connections with past relatives and practices, while adding a perspective of gender equality to the mix.

The first pattern

Amongst older men and name keepers in marriage more generally, the understanding of tradition as something worth following, or practices that could be taken for granted was quite common. One man wrote that he married almost 50 years ago during a time when “the old naming traditions was common where I lived” (born in 1938). Following tradition had certain values, and this tradition supported men as a group, affording them surname continuity through life as well as the possibility of sharing surnames both with their birth family and the nuclear family of their own creation. Another man who kept his family name when he married in the late 1970s, wrote: «It has never been a topic to change or not to change […]. [An a]lternative situation is so hypothetical that I have no answer to this» (born in 1952). Theirs was a privilege some of the younger men no longer took for granted:

«I wish to continue the family name, and I am the only one from my generation who can do that. This feels like a very patriarchical and paternalistic point of view, something I am not 100% comfortable with, but I still feel like this is something I really wish to do» (born in 1983).

He grew up in the 1980s and 1990s and saw gender equality as important. This made it difficult to take surname continuity for granted even though he was a man.

The second pattern

Some took this reflexivity further, by questioning the basis for the tradition. One argument was that the interpretation of tradition as using the man’s surname was a newer custom, and that the older custom had been for both husband and wife to keep their surnames as these were usually their father’s first name with a -son or -daughter attached. The couple would change additional surnames whenever they moved, as the name of the farms they lived on, often provided a combined last name and address. One of the men who took his wife’s surname as early as the early 1980s, argued that present day wedding customs are neither Norwegian nor gender equal. Both women’s surname change and the practice where the father follow the bride up the church floor to hand her over to her new husband “as a package” are imports as well as of a newer date than previous customs, he argued (born in 1959).

The older traditions were both more original and more gender equal. Other men argued that they did not want to follow some “old traditions” at all. One example of this is a man who took his wife’s surname for several reasons. Most importantly for him was that they “wanted to create something of their own rather than just continue with something old” (born in 1991). Just because something was old did not mean it should guide their present-day actions, but it could be dismissed.

The third pattern

Some disregarded traditions completely but the notion of continuity and connection with past practices and ways of life was attractive to some of the men who changed their names:

“When we had children in 2010, we decided to give the children my wife’s surname because it is a name connected to a place where she has roots and with a strong family tradition, a name which is unique to her kin, while my name had no history, no connection to a place, and many others that we are not related to, also share it” (born in 1983).

Instead of taking the concept of tradition to equal the use of the man’s surname, these men looked at the surnames and searched for name continuity with the past, either through choosing the wife’s last name and her name continuity, or by choosing to give their children new names based on older customs such as using the first name of one of the parents with a -son or -daughter attached.


Tradition is a vital concept in the understanding of surnames, both among men who keep their last names and men who make changes. Tradition understood as the preference of the man’s surname, work as a guidance to action that favour men and men’s lineage. Breaking with tradition may come with a cost not all men are willing to pay. However, leaving gender out of the equation, shifting tradition to mean continuity with the past, the concept of tradition may continue to be important and vital. It may add more possibilities to think about surname choices for all, not only women.


  • Grønstad, Line. 2020. “Fellesskap og individualitet. Kjønna etternamnsval blant norske menn i heterofile parforhold.” PhD, Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion, University in Bergen.
  • Politidepartementet, Justis- og. 1922. Om utferdigelse av en lov om personnavn (Prop. 12 1922). edited by Justis- og Politidepartementet. Christiania.
  • Torp, Arne. 2018. Etternavna våre: fra Astrup til Åstorp. Bergen: Vigmostad Bjørke.
  • Utne, Ivar. 2001. “Utviklinga av slektsnavn i Norge, med særlig vekt på sen-navn.” Genealogen. Medlemsblad for Norsk Slektshistorisk Forening (2).
  • Utne, Ivar. 2011. Hva er et navn? Tradisjoner, navnemoter, valg av fornavn og etternavn. Oslo: Pax.

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