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The Most Common Norwegian Surnames

Common Norwegian family names

Here is the story of Norway’s most common family names and how they have evolved through recent centuries.

If you have a passing interest in Norway or Scandinavia then you have probably wondered about their distinctive surnames. In recent centuries, these family names have carved out an interesting story in the world of etymology.

Norwegian surnames often comprise of place names or a geographical features of the landscape, while others were a direct result of their father's first name. As a result of this, surnames like Larsen, Hansen and Gundersen are now commonplace in modern day Norway.

An old Norwegian family portrait
Family portrait from 1910. Photo: Fylkesarkivet i Sogn og Fjordane (CC 2.0)

Terminology of family names

But before we get in into the history of the naming rituals and traditions, let’s take a look at some key words in this field.

Etymology: the study of a word’s origin and a word's changeable state trough history.

Occupational: names derived from the occupation or job of an ancestor.

Patronymic: a name passed down from either the father or ancestor.

Toponymic: a place name, often taken from a geographical feature.

A little history

Tracing your family ancestry in Norway is a relatively straightforward affair, that is until you get to the pivotal year of 1923. This was the year a law was introduced stating that families should have just one surname.

Before 1923, family names were often formed from place names, toponyms, and were also commonly derived from farm names.

Read more: Popular Baby Names in Norway

Names also included names comprised of geographical features. The most common of these surnames were Bakke/Bakken – which means hill or rise, Berg/Berge – meaning Mountain or hill, Dahl/Dal – which translates as valley, Haugen\Haugan – hill or mound and Moen – meadow/pasture.

The Meland family of Oppstryn, Norway, circa 1910
The Meland family of Oppstryn, Norway, circa 1910

Family names in Norway

Before 1923, the country’s most common male surnames were those that ended in “–son“ or “–sen” meaning “son of”. This is where tracing your family roots gets a little difficult. For instance, if you go back more than two or three generations, problems quickly arise.

This is one reason why outlining my family tree stalled somewhat a number of years ago. That is not to say it isn’t possible to build your Norwegian branch of your family tree, only that it can be more time consuming because of such difficulties.

My surname is Gundersen, which literally means “son of Gunder”. Taking your father’s first name opens up a much broader pool of names, those that cahnged with each generation.

Female family names operate in the same way: “–dotter” or “–datter” meaning “daughter of”. For example, if your father was called “Johan” then your surname might become “Johansdotter” – “Johan’s daughter”.

The statistics: Most popular Norwegian surnames

In a recent survey published by Statistics Norway, 22.4% of Norway’s population had a name ending “–sen”. But new children born in the same year only 18.4% of them had “–sen” as a suffix.

There are rarely sudden shifts in the lists compiled, generally then fluctuate steadily. The 20 most common surnames in that list from 2015, are mostly ending in “–sen”, patronymic names. Only the toponymic names Berg, Dahl, Haugen and Hagen, derived from the landscape, buck the trend.

1.  Hansen (53,011)
2.  Johansen (50,088)
3.  Olsen (49,303)
4.  Larsen (37,869)
5.  Andersen (37,025)
6.  Pedersen (35,145)
7.  Nilsen (34,734)
8.  Kristiansen (23,397)
9.  Jensen (22,879)
10. Karlsen (21,234)
11. Johnsen (20,650)
12. Pettersen (20,101)
13. Eriksen (19,136)
14. Berg (18,080)
15. Haugen (14 346)
16. Hagen (14,073)
17.  Johannessen (13,286)
18. Andreassen (12,100)
19. Jacobsen (11,906)
20. Dahl (11,503)

————-

21. Jørgensen (11,426)

————-

28. Gundersen (10,232)

The name Jørgensen was the first name in the list to contain one of the three special characters – Æ, Ø and Å – from the Norwegian alphabet. And out of personal interest, I discovered that Gundersen—my own surname—came in at number 28 in the list. That surprised me a little, as I had expected it to be higher.

Copenhagen canal in Denmark
Copenhagen, Denmark

Denmark

Norway is not alone in their patronymic naming history, two Scandinavian neighbours, Denmark and Sweden, also use this type of naming. Denmark’s surnames are mostly patronymic.

Just like Norway, Denmark also use a suffix “–sen” in family names. So a Danish family name like Christensen translates as “son of Christen”. Other forms include surnames that are occupational – names taken from the job roles of ancestors in villages or farmsteads. For example, “Schmidt” – smith or “Fisker” – fisher.

Looking at the 20 most common surnames in Denmark in 2012, all but one is a patronymic name. The odd one out in the list is the occupational name “Møller” meaning miller. The top five most common family names are listed below:

No.  Surname  Count
1. Nielsen (255,138)
2. Jensen (254,675)
3. Hansen (213,339)
4. Pedersen (161,074)
5. Andersen (157,753)

<2016. Source: dst.nk>

Sweden

The most common surnames in Sweden are also patronymic. Norway’s next door neighbour abolished this type of practice a little earlier, in 1901. The change in the law ensured a single family name was passed from generation to generation, just like Norway.

Sweden flag map

Swedish names also use suffix son – “sson”. A recent list of the most common surnames in Sweden reveals only one name that is not patronymic in the top 20. The name Lindberg came in at the 17th most popular family name, a name derived from landscape and translates as lime tree – mountain in English.

The top five most common family names are listed below:

No.  Surname  Count
1.  Andersson (251,621)
2.  Johansson (251,495)
3.  Karlsson (223,151)
4.  Nilsson (171,360)
5.  Eriksson (147,514)

<2012. Source: scb.se>

Ibsen

The great Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, has a surname that is instantly recognisable. But, did you know that it is actually a name of Danish origin? Again, it is a surname with a suffix “–sen” and with the addition of “Ib–“ it means “son of Ib”.

The playwright’s literary exploits have ensured his surname’s recognisability. The name Ib is derived from the name Jacob, just a shortened version. So next time you read an Ibsen text or watch an Ibsen play just think – son of Jacob.

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About the Author: Mathew Paul Gundersen

Mathew is a British – 12.5% Norwegian – guy living in Stavanger, Norway. He is a writer, a literature student and a keen runner (amongst other things).

86 Comments

  1. I am related to Berit Kullander on my mother’s side. Barth is also on my mother’s side. Christophersen on my father’s side. So the further back I go the more Nowegian I am. Must do that DNA test …lol

  2. I was wondering if you would know what my last name means in English, I’ve seen it in Sweden as well it’s Frøsaker.

    1. My father in law 100% Norwegian with name Mollerud shortened to Ruud here. Comes from Sigdal Norway- a valley northwest of Oslo.

    2. Mølle=mill, rud=clearing. So a clearing where there is a mill – probably a grinding mill making flour out of grain, driven by a brook or creek.

  3. I really enjoyed your article here! Great reading! Thanks! Hope to pursue more concerning my last name. It could either be Patronymic or Toponymic, suspect the latter as I’ve been to Kristiansand to see the steps of my 5th grandfather’s farm house. Thanks again for the great article!

  4. How does the last name Saltvick ( Saltwick) play into these parameters. It seems to be fairly rare. Other than direct family members, I do not find it anywhere. . Thank you

  5. What about Sorensen my grand Parents we’re both from Norway one was upper Norway and one was bottom Norway Tromso and Christian sorry about the spelling and my married name is Anderson and his parents were from Oslo

  6. So disappointed neither family name is on the list! The names are Melberg, which we believe to be from a farm in the Stavanger area, and Lund, which I thought was like Smith or Jones … but I guess it isn’t!!!

  7. I believe my grandfather’s name was Ole Knutson, but when he came to America, there were so many with that name, he changed the last name to Gjerde.

  8. My salvation in researching my Norwegian genealogy was a remembered remark from my cousin that our great grandfather Embret Olson was also known as Embret Overby. Overby was the farm where he was born. It led to generations of church records for ancestors. My grandfather and his siblings adopted the family name of his father (Olson) when they emigrated but my grandfather returned to his Norwegian name to avoid confusion with other Ole Olsons in his neighborhood in Minnesota. His paternal grandfather’s name was Ole Amundson Bergerud, his maternal grandfather was Ole Amundson Rinden. Thank goodness for those farm names!

    1. The same for us. Overbye was the farm name in Norderhov, Ringerike. The spelling varied a bit over the years, but we found census and church records back to about 1750. Prior to 1805 it was all patronymic. We know it was steeper terrain since my grandfather always talked about how the cows had shorter legs on one side so they could stand on the hillside. So upper village makes sense.

      1. David, did your grandfather also mention that the farmers easily caught the cows by chasing them in the opposite direction so that they tripped and fell over 😉

  9. My grandma had Antonson and Andreassen. Her birth father (Anders) died and her mother remarried to Anton. Or it was the other way round. In any case, she never had a matronymic name. She had brothers named both Hanson and Johnsrud. Her mom’s name was Margarethe Estendatter (daughter of Esten) Beskeland (the farm where she was born).

    Do you have an inkling of how many churches were around Trondheim? You try to look through them with their unreadable handwritten scrawls.

    I’ll just say they were all descendants of Harald Fairhair and let it go at that.

  10. My grandfather’s name was Melhuse…although I believe the e was added when he arrived here from Oslo, Norway…as a young man. So, is there another spelling for his name?

  11. Interesting. I’m an Eriksen in Norway and Linder in Sweden. I knew Linder had to do with a lime tree but found it an odd name for Swedish. Course all my ancestors prior were sons and daughters of.

    1. “Linde” translates limetree in english but is not linked to the lime fruit but to “linden”. I think linden tree is another name for it. Those trees are common in Northern Europe, whereas lime trees of course are not

      1. Uglem seems to be a construction, like my middle name Nordem, which was my mother’s maiden name. My grandmother used the capitals of the family members: N for Nils, O for Otto, R for Runi, D for Darald, E for Erna and M for Marinius…

  12. My Great Grandfather Andrew Olson Kneastang came to the U.S. from Ringerike in the 1860’s
    . When he arrived in the U.S. he used Olson as his last name. Does anyone know what Kneastang means?

  13. My wife and I are going up the west coast of Norway this summer by ship. We went to Norway about 15 years ago and found the landscape to be beautiful. At that time we went to the village of Orness where there is a beautiful church. If I can find the photograph I can send a copy next time I’m on this site.

  14. My husband’s family name is Lenhartzen and his parents were both born in Oslo. What is the origin of the suffix – zen?I assume it is some form of a patronymic name….son of Lenhart?

    1. Wiik, Wik or Vik is the same topographical name, meaning inlet or bay. The different spellings are due to the non-consistent spelling rules in Norway in the 1700s and 1800s. Often the vicars who wrote names in church registers would spell differently, and they would also – at least in the 1700s – be Danish or at least be educated there.

  15. Very interesting! My GGGrandparents Bakke from Hemsedal, Norway. Danish ancestors Andersen. I have been to the family farm in Norway. Amazing!

  16. My surname is Moen, grandparents were olsens, andersen s I thought Moen meant from a town called mo or a paradeground, but I somewhere it might mean pasture or farmer. any ideas which it is. Article was very interesting.

    1. Both is correct… this is from norwegian Wikipedia:
      The name comes from a particular form singular of the noun mo, a flat area, often a dry and sandy plain. Moen, often in the form “mo’n”, is also a common nickname for Norwegian excursion sites and military camps.

  17. I found I am very Norwegian, up to 93 percent according to Ancestry. My family name is Jacobson. S. o. n and Shotwell, Ayres, Pike and Fletcher. I was curious about the s.o.n ending. Does anyone have any ideas? I wonder if they switched it. They came from southern norway all the way up to the Lofoten and further north. Even to Iceland.

  18. My father’s family name is Fagerholt. He was from Bergen. Would anyone know the origin or meaning of Fagerholt? Sometime in the 1800’s, the family name became Hansen.

  19. My name, Eiken, did not appear on the list, the family come from Ulsteinvik, and can be traced back to a very small island, Eikoya where my great grandfather lived in the late 1800s early 1900s, before moving to Ulstienvik. My father escaped to the UK, Englands Farten during WW2

  20. My great grandfather and grandmother came from Sweden there last name is Erickson can you help with what area that might be Thank you. Sincerely yours Paul Charles Erickson.

  21. ThNk you for this article! It was quite interesting.
    Wondering about the name Akervold, I assume it was spelled differently way back when…. maybe from the town Aker?

  22. Very interesting site. I seem to be descended from a mariner named William Clemsted. What does sted or stead mean, it was changed after 1800 in Maryland, USA to Clemsen and Clemson

  23. My family is Husom. I believe there’s a town and farm named Husom. Per research, I’ve found ancestors named Schiette as well as a shield with that name, circa 1500s. I am not sure if the two are the same, or how that comes into play. On my Mother’s side, they changed Stueland (SP?) to Larson after emigrating. Fascinating reading! Do you have suggestions/ideas about these and/or meanings? We always thought my Great Grandma Otterdahl’s family came from Germany, but DNA testing puts my family at 94%-96% Scandinavian-Norwegian and Swedish and can’t find much on the Otterdahls. Could Otterdahl be Scandinavian?

  24. I love this page, very helpful, my maiden name was Sunde and this has proved to be very difficult. I have learned that their are approximately 19 different Sunde farms. The a lot of people took the name Sunde from the Village of Sunde, a boating community SW of Norway. Ahhh so much to learn so little time lol.

  25. I am curious if you can tell me anything about my family names – Tangen, Asleson, Bothun, Topness? These are the Norwegian branches of my family. Thank you! Soooooo interesting!

  26. My grandfather’s name was Erick Olsen Gjengedal. I know that Gjengedal was the farm name, but I haven’t found anyone who knows what the name means, other than “dal” probably means valley.

  27. I did not see our surname on the list either. My grandfather is Faltin Kalsheim, from Rogaland Norway. any info about the Kalsem or Kalsheim Family Farm would be greatly appreciated/

    1. My triple great grandfather was Kolstad. Does that mean he was from the city of Kol? And in a writeup from Holt, it says
      Peder O. Kolstad og Gurine Marie Sorensdtr.s barn

      I take it the s means married, and barn then lists the children born to them. Is that correct?

    1. It would probably be Sæteren or Seteren, which is a norwegian word for a small farm in the mountains where one would take the livestock to graze in the summer. They would walk the animals from the main farm in the lowlands up there to exploit the grazing resources in the mountais. That way the grass/feed from the main farm could be harvested and kept as winter feed.

  28. Is the last name Umsted related in any way? I’ve never seen the name anywhere else but was told -sted is Scandinavian

  29. Hi our grandmothers maiden name was norvock her father was from Norway Fredrick Norvock is this the correct spelling

  30. My 4th great grandmother’s surname was Lyse which I took to be a variation of the English ‘Lees’. However, on checking it I found that there was no such family in the vicinity with either spelling and also that there was a Lyse abbey in Norway.

    As my DNA shows that I’m 4.6% Scandinavian, and the perimeter of the dates fits exactly, I’m hoping that this is the connection. Any comments very welcome!

  31. My grandfather was from Bergen Norway,his name was Trygve Granmo. I don’t know the meaning. Would love to find our some things about his name.

  32. It would probably be Sæteren or Seteren, which is a norwegian word for a small farm in the mountains where one would take the livestock to graze in the summer. They would walk the animals from the main farm in the lowlands up there to exploit the grazing resources in the mountais. That way the grass/feed from the main farm could be harvested and kept as winter feed.

  33. I know my Grandfather (Magnus) emigrated to the US from Norway, but he changed his name to Talgo (I believe there is a slash through the ø) upon arrival in America. It is said that the name comes from a farm and a river in Norway, Is there such a place? I know there is a furniture factory/manufacturer by the name, TALGØ. We have a wall unit and I have a scrap of the box it came to America in. He met his wife, my Grandmother Anna on the boat coming over and they were married. They settled in West Hempstead, Long Island, New York. I think his original name was Peterson or Petersen or Pederson or Pedersen. I am Half-Norwegian. Any help would be appreciated, tia. Mark Talgo

  34. Years ago Alistair Cooke the broadcaster reported on the history of Ellis Island and an instance of a Norwegian immigrant to the USA, he said the immigration staff were not bi-lingual and some names were not recorded in the USA documents correctly. He quoted one Norwegian immigrant who said the immigration office couldnt get his accent and mistook his name with his Norwegian home town and said “is this your family name?” The Norwegian said he quickly thought ok new country new name so he accepted what the immigration official put down which was Roebeck, (The town he came from in Norway was Drobak on the Oslo fjord)

  35. Maternal Grandfather on one side is Shellum.
    Maternal Grandmother is a Hagen.
    Paternal grandfather is Rodby? Topogenic?
    Paternal grandmother is Svensen Eglun. Came to America in 1858. Name changed to Swenson at some point. Settled near Madison, WI.

    Ancestors has me at 98% Western coast Norwegian and 2% Swedish.

    I am curious about Rodby and Svensen Eglun.

    Thank you.

  36. This is very interesting. I wonder if you could tell me anything about my maiden name. My father’s name was Selmer Elvin SUNDBO. His father’s name was Daniel Smith Sundbo – born in Norway and moved to Canada in early 1900’s. And his father’s name was Osmund Danielson Sundbo. I see there is a town/city called Sundbo in the Telemark region. I would sure appreciate anything you could tell me. I’m in Canada. Thank You So Much!

  37. Names really do get quite confusing when you are dealing with hereditary: As a 93 year old born in New Zealand which has quite a large Scandinavian population of immigrants from the late 1800s. My grandfather’s parents on my Mother’s side were as follows:
    My Great Grandmother: Family name at birth: Thorstensen (Martha Marie)
    My Great Grandfather: Family name at birth: Guttormsen (Hans)

    My Mother’s Father’s Surname was taken as Hansen; hence the son of Hans (interesting).
    My DNA report indicated a strong Norwegian as well as a Finland and Ukrainian count.
    Would it have been possible that the two above surnames have had its derivation also in those two latter countries? I would be interested in your response. Kind regards Joseph Lyons.

  38. I would like to make contact with my bloodline in Norway. My Dad told me we are originally from Norway. When they came to SA they changed our surname from Forster to Vorster and lost their inheritance many years ago. My hra d dad’s names were Petrus Benjamin Theodorus Vorster. .My Dad was Jakobus Daniel Vorster.
    If there is any chance I could make it will be a honour for me.

  39. I was adopted at birth. My daughter found my birth family in about 2010. Mom was from Greenville, SC and my dad (they never married) was from Milwaukee, WI. I took my DNA test and it shows that I am 48% Norwegian. I was shocked, as from being from South Carolina, I never even considered that. I found out that my birth dad’s family was mostly German and some came from the Netherlands. The 1910 Census did show on my dad’s side, that my great grandmother, Mary Julia Peterson was born in 1871/1872 in Wisconsin. But, it also showed on the same 1910 Census, where her parents were born in Norway, so that is where my Norwegian comes from, I assume. I have not had any luck finding her parents. I have looked all over the internet and family trees, etc, but no luck. I am missing something, but don’t know what and where else to look. I am thinking, after reading your page, that the spelling changed, but again, I don’t where or what to look for. I sure hope you can help me, as this is so important to me. Thanking you in advance. Susan

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