Icelandic Surnames

Icelandic surnames: Exploring common Icelandic last names

Are you interested in learning about Icelandic surnames? Perhaps you’ve recently learned Iceland is beginning to change its approach to naming, so modern people can have a less-gendered last name. 

Maybe you’ve even heard some people refer to Iceland as the country with “no last names”. Here at Scandification we think Iceland is an incredible place for a lot of reasons. 

Whether you fall in love with the amazing culture of Reykjavik, or you’re blown away by the Northern Lights, Iceland is a place you’ll want to keep visiting for years to come. However, it can be quite a peculiar destination too. 

Perhaps more than any other Scandinavian country, Iceland has a lot of unique rules regarding naming which can make it difficult to understand how anyone would trace their lineage there. 

Here’s your guide to Icelandic surnames. 

Icelandic last names: Are there Icelandic family names?

Surnames in Iceland are odd things. Some people even say Iceland doesn’t have any traditional “surnames” at all. In Iceland, there are technically no family names. Although some families adopt names related to places and ancestral names, Iceland doesn’t use a last name the same way we do. 

Icelanders typically use something called a patronymic or matronymic reference, instead of the typical last name. For instance. If a man and women get married in Iceland, their names stay the same. The woman doesn’t take the last name of the man she marries in most cases. 

Say your parents were Selma Jondottir and Egill Ragnarson. Those names would stay the same when the two get married. 

If Selma and Gill had a baby boy, and named him Olaf, his last name would be “Egillson” because his father’s name was Egill. If the couple also have a baby girl, then her last name would be Eglisdottir. Iceland uses the suffix dóttir for a girl, and -son for a boy. 

Notably, each last name is based on the mother or father of child. There’s no reference to your historic lineage in your Icelandic surname. 

Though this strategy for naming has appeared throughout Scandinavian countries for generations, it’s only Iceland which has continued to use the same system for so long.

Icelandic Surnames

Understanding Icelandic surnames

The patronymic reference in Icelandic last names is the most common and traditional option. However, you don’t have to use your father’s name in your last name if you don’t want to. 

The changes taking place in Iceland in recent years mean it’s now possible to use the matronym instead. An example is Heiðar Helguson, an Icelandic football player who uses his mother’s name in his surname to create “Helguson”. 

There are also occasions where a child might take both of the parent’s names as a last name, to give them a double-barreled surname, such as: Örvar Þóreyjarson Smárason. Some public figures also adjust their last name to make it more unique or memorable. 

There are a handful of families in Iceland who do have “family names”. This means in these families; the Icelandic surname is passed down from one family to the next. However, families with these names can only pass them paternally. 

If you were to have three daughters, for instance, and an Icelandic family name, none of your daughters will be able to pass the name to their children. Instead, the typical naming trend mentioned above would come into play. 

Up until around 1750 in Iceland, everyone had a single name, and their last name. Some people would occasionally get a nickname. Following the 1750s, a trend began to choose more than one first name for a child. 

Today, you only have 6 months to choose the name for your child (including the Icelandic surname). If you don’t register a name in this time, you will be fined. 

Interestingly, if an Icelander has a child with a foreign person, the child can take the person’s last name, but Iceland will require the child to have an Icelandic title too. Icelandic citizens also cannot take the last name of their foreign partners after marriage.

Common Icelandic last names are changing

As you can see, Icelandic surnames are tricky things. Fortunately, there are some changes beginning to happen to Icelandic surnames, and naming laws in general. 

Following the modernization of the world, and the growth of things like gender equality, and even the transgender community, Icelandic names are gradually becoming less gender focused. 

According to the RUV, Icelandic citizens will now be able to take any name in the registry of names approved by the Icelandic naming committee. This goes against the previous provisions of the naming laws in the country, which required girls and boys to have specifically gendered name. 

The decision to change this law came as part of the Gender Autonomy Act in Iceland. 

Going forward, Unisex names may appear more often in Iceland, although there are still a lot of people who feel Iceland has a lot of growth to do from a naming perspective. The new gender autonomy act also influences the Icelandic surnames in the country. 

As noted in the explanation above, the status quo for giving Iceland last names, is to refer to a son with the -son prefix, and a daughter with -dóttir. 

Iceland is now beginning to offer the name ending -bur, which will follow the same rules for patronymic and matronymic naming but doesn’t carry any gendered connotation. 

This means someone named “Alex” in Iceland wouldn’t have to choose the name “Alex Jonsson” or “Alex Jondottir” if their father was named Jon. Instead, they could become Alex Jonbur, but only if they are officially registered with the country as neither male nor female. 

Icelandic Surnames

Surnames in Iceland: Common options

The use of family names in Iceland is very rare. Unless a family had a specific surname before 1925, they will be required to follow the patronym or matronym strategy for last names. 

Many people in Iceland do say they would like to one day take a hereditary name following similar rules to the Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish patterns of naming

Since surnames are not passed down through the generations, there aren’t really any common Icelandic last names which always appear more often than others. 

The most common last names in Iceland will depend on the popularity of specific male and female first names at the time when children were born. Currently, some of the most regularly occurring last names are:

1. Jónsdóttir or Jónsson

The Icelandic version of “John” is Jón, meaning “God has been gracious”. The popularity of this simple name means both Jónsdóttir and Jónsson, meaning the daughter or son of Jón is common throughout Iceland. 

2. Kristjánsson or Kristjánsdóttir

Kristjánsson or Kristjánsdóttir means the son or daughter of Kristján. This Icelandic given name is male in origin, and it appears frequently throughout Estonia. Kristjan means “Christian” or “follower of Christ”, and can be an alternative to Chris. 

3. Guðmundsdóttir or Guðmundsson

Guðmundur is a popular name in Iceland, which is sometimes shortened to Gvendur, or Gummi. The name means “protection of God”. A son of Guðmundur would have the -son suffix, while a daughter would be Guðmundsdóttir

4. Einarsson or Einarsdóttir

Einar is a popular warrior’s name in Iceland, so it’s no surprise you’ll see both Einarsson and Einarsdóttir frequently around the country. The name, which means “bold warrior” comes from Old Norse, along with titles like Odin. 

5. Sigurðardóttir or Sigurðsson

Sigurðardóttir or Sigurðsson refers to either the daughter or son of Sigurður, a name which is slightly shortened for the purpose of becoming an Icelandic last name. The title means “eagle”, or “victory” and comes from Old Norse. 

6. Ólafsson or Ólafsdóttir

Another well-known patronym around Iceland, Ólafsson or Ólafsdóttir means either the son or daughter of Olafur, or Ólafur. This slightly more exotic version of Olaf comes from Old Norse, and means “ancestor’s relic”. 

7. Magnúsdóttir or Magnússon

The male name behind these Icelandic surnames is Magnús, which is an Icelandic twist on the better-known Magnus. Magnus is a popular name throughout the whole of Scandinavia, meaning “great”. These two last names refer to the daughter or son of Magnús.

8. Jóhannsson or Jóhannsdóttir

Stemming from the masculine given name, Jóhannsson or Jóhannsdóttir mean the son or daughter of Jóhann. This is another Icelandic alternative to the name “John”. The Icelandic title means the gift of God, or “noble and bright”. 

9. Björnsdóttir or Björnsson

Björn is an extremely popular name in Iceland, the Netherlands, and Germany. There are also versions of this name in Denmark, and Norway. Björnsdóttir or Björnsson would simply be the name given to the daughter or son of Björn

10. Árnason or Árnadóttir

Árni is an officially approved male name in Iceland, meaning the “eagle”. It’s also a common prefix for surnames where it switches to “Arna”. Árnason or Árnadóttir would mean the son or daughter of Árni in Iceland. 

Alternative Icelandic surnames 

Iceland’s rather unusual naming laws make it pretty difficult for the locals to stand out when it comes to last names. Common Icelandic surnames don’t really exist. The most popular names are based on the forenames of the fathers and mothers of the current generation. 

However, as we mentioned above, there are some alternatives to this rule.

Although it’s not common, you will find a handful of people around Iceland who have created their own Icelandic last name. These may be names passed down through the generations (since before the early 1900s when new laws were implemented). 

There are many names taken from Icelandic nature, as well as certain titles pulled from careers, or elsewhere in Iceland. 

Here are some alternative Icelandic surnames:

1. Waage

Waage is an Icelandic last name, and Norwegian surname. You may have heard this title before if you know the Icelandic opera singer, Elsa Waage. Most people say this name refers to the weights used for weighing produce in olden days. 

2. Blöndal

This is an Icelandic surname growing in popularity lately. Though the meanings and origins of the name are unclear, some people believe the title first came from Russia. 

3. Nguyen

Another unusual Icelandic surname which exists outside of typical Icelandic traditions, Nguyen is an interesting name referring to a specific kind of musical instrument. This could be a family name chosen from people with connections to Vietnam. 

4. Möller

The name Möller appears frequently in Iceland, though it seems to originally come from elsewhere, in Norway. This title is a career-based one, referring to the profession of being a mill operator, or Miller. This title regularly spreads around Scandinavia. 

5. Briem 

Briem is an interesting Icelandic last name, referred to as being “pseudo-foreign” in nature. This fantastic title comes from Germany and Denmark, and refers to a specific location in the Westfjords, where the first Briem family originated. 

6. Hall

Hall is an Icelandic surname which sounds like it could belong anywhere in the world. The name is actually a common component of various last names throughout Scandinavia. Hall stands for the Old Norse noun, Hallur, which means big rock or stone. 

7. Schram

As mentioned above, when Icelandic locals do take their own last names, they tend to be related to the natural environments across the country. The word “Schram” refers to a cleft in a rock, or someone dwelling nearby a rock. 

8. Beck

A common surname throughout Germany, the Netherlands, and various other regions of the world, Beck is a geographic title referring to a brook or a small stream. A “beck” would be a common natural appearance throughout Iceland. 

9. Gröndal

Gröndal is a name which seems to originally come from Sweden, though it’s quite common throughout Iceland at this time. The name seems to mean “a green dale”, but it could also refer to a specific municipality in Sweden. 

10. Gray 

More of a typical name in other parts of Scandinavia like Norway and Denmark, Gray is a simple title with a lot of appeal for people who want to step away from the traditional trends of Icelandic naming. Gray doesn’t have a specific meaning. 

11. Strom

Strom or “Ström” is quite a common name throughout the Nordic countries and Scandinavia. It refers to storms, and remains a popular choice because of its connections to Nordic gods like Thor, who was the god of thunder and lightning. 

12. Bui

An interesting Nordic name taken from Old Norse, the word Bui simply means “dweller”. This could be a good choice for Icelandic families who moved to Iceland and didn’t want to use the standard Icelandic surname practices. 

13. Almr

Another reference to the beautiful surroundings and nature of Iceland, Almr refers to “elm trees”, which are common throughout Iceland and the rest of the Scandinavian region. This title is sometimes used for a first name too. 

14. Araujo

Araújo is actually an Icelandic surname which originally came from both Portuguese and Galician. The title is a toponymic name that derives from a specific province. Once again, this title may be one used by people who moved to Iceland and want to maintain their origins. 

15. Moreno

Very uncommon throughout Iceland, but still evident in certain parts of the country, the name Moreno refers to a dark-skinned person, or someone from far away. This might be another example of a product brought with someone from far afield to Iceland. 

Discovering Icelandic surnames

All Icelandic names have a unique mystery to them, just like the Scandinvian titles we’ve covered elsewhere throughout our naming series. However, the surnames in Iceland are perhaps some of the most unusual in the world. 

Driven by strange laws which seem to be extremely traditional and a little outdated, Icelandic surname can be tough to understand. 

The lack of a common family name among most families in Iceland also means it’s very difficult to trace your lineage unless you have a good family tree maintained by your ancestors. 

Most of the time, Icelandic people prefer to forget about surnames entirely, referring to their loved ones and friends by their first names only. 

Today, however, certain changes are beginning to take place in Icelandic naming laws, and the country is gradually beginning to modernize its naming practices.

Scandification: Discovering Scandinavia.

Now read these:
The most popular names in Iceland
Amazing Icelandic female names
Popular Icelandic boy names
Scandinavian names and their meanings
Viking and Norse names, and their origin
Your guide to Scandinavian people traits
Popular Scandinavian female names
Popular Scandinavian men’s names

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