Exploring a Viking Legacy: a Dive into the Most Common Norwegian Surnames

30 May 2023
by Ancestry® Team

With an extensive coastline bordering the North Atlantic Ocean, long polar nights and dramatic landscapes, Norway is also known for being part of the Scandinavian region that produced Vikings.

As with other Scandinavian countries, Norwegian surnames have a long and interesting history. A unique naming convention, followed for generations, has resulted in an obvious similarity between the most common Norwegian surnames and meanings

This also means that if your surname is one of Norway’s most common, you might find it challenging to discover more about your ancestors.

How Do Norwegian Surnames Work?

Norwegian surnames today are very different from a century ago. This is mainly because of the Norwegian Names Act of 1923 which stated a family should have a single surname. 

From the mid-1800s until 1923, surnames in Norway were derived from the first name of the father followed by a suffix based on gender. For example, “son” and “sen” mean “son of,” and “dotter” and “datter” mean “daughter of.”  While it was the norm,  it made tracing family lineage beyond two or three generations challenging because a surname can end with every new generation. 

1923’s Names Act outlawed this practice and children would take their father’s last name while women adopted their husband’s last name. Some families adopted the generational patronymic surname as their last name while others adopted a farm name. 

Norwegian Royal Family-July 17, 1913

What Is a Patronymic Surname?

A patronymic surname is a last name composed of the father’s, grandfather’s, or another male ancestor’s given name and the aforementioned suffix. Together, they create a personalized last name for the individual and their siblings meaning either daughter of [father’s name] or son of [father’s name]. 

Why Do Some Norwegians Have Two Last Names? 

At one time, many Norwegians lived in rural areas on large farms. Since this was so common, the families residing on the farm were often referred to by the name of the farm in lieu of a surname. 

In some cases, the name of the farm would be added to the individual’s full name as a second surname. When this happened, the naming convention for a person would be [First Name] [Patronymic Surname] [Farm Name], meaning [First Name] Son/Daughter of [Father’s Name] from [Farm Name].

In this way, the person’s full name provided a significant amount of information about who they were and where they lived. This is also the reason why some people in Norway still have three names. 

Common Norwegian Surnames

According to Statistics Norway, these were the 10 most common Norwegian surnames in Norway in 2020:

  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)

What Common Norwegian Surnames Mean 

Common Norwegian surnames are more easily identified today due to the 1923 Norwegian Names Act which standardized last names. These are the most common Norwegian surnames and their meanings:

  1. Hansen literally means the son of Hans, but it can also mean son of a nobleman.
  2. Johansen translates directly to Johan’s son or son of Johan. However, the Hebrew variation of this name, Yochanan, means, “He who Jehovah has favored with a son.”
  3. Olsen is the third most common surname in Norway and means Ole’s son or son of Ole. Ole can be a short form for the name Olaf. 
  4. Larsen means son of Lars or Lars’ son. Lars is a form of the name Lawrence. 
  5. Andersen means son of Anders. In Swedish, there is a similar surname, Andersson, which literally combines the two words. 
  6. Pedersen means son of Peder. The name Peder has Greek origins and means rock. 
  7. Nilsen means son of Nils. Nils is a masculine Norwegian name that’s inspired by the name Nicholas and is given to noble people.  
  8. Kristiansen means son of Kristian. The name Kristian is pronounced the same as its other form, Christian, and means follower of Christ. 
  9. Jensen, meaning son of Jens, is also an extremely common surname in Denmark. Jens is a traditional Scandinavian name that means, “God is gracious.”
  10. Karlsen means son of Karl. Karl is closely tied to the names Carl and Charles. Karl refers to a free man. 

Set Sail and Explore Your Norwegian Heritage

Do you think your ancestors sailed cold Norwegian fjords? Dive into the extensive collection of Norwegian records on Ancestry® , which include census and church records. Or take it further with AncestryDNA®, which could help you discover connections with Norwegian communities.

Start mapping out your Norwegian family story today with a free trial of Ancestry