What Should You Name Your Child? Icelandic Traditions and Regulations About Names

Icelanders’ naming conventions tend to change with the times. In the past, it was popular to christen children after their ancestors, grandmothers, and grandfathers, but today, it often seems that new parents are scrambling to carve out particular distinction for their children within society with more unusual names than people are, or were, used to. And so several Jasmines, Athenas, Tristans, and Úlfurs have now been added to the national registry. Most people have the same names for their whole lives, which is why naming is such a big decision for parents. A name can, for instance, influence a person’s self-image, and even his or her societal status and job prospects.  

      Ragnheiður Harpa Haraldsdóttir

      Ragnheiður Harpa Haraldsdóttir

Ragnheiður Harpa Haraldsdóttir, an undergraduate student in anthropology, is currently hard at work on her B.A. thesis, which deals with Icelanders’ given names and their influence on individuals’ self-image. Ragnheiður has dubbed herself “a name junkie” due to her unflagging interest in this subject.

Compared to other nations, Iceland’s naming conventions are decidedly unique, and Ragnheiður is researching, among other things, the Icelandic tradition of christening children following dream visitations. She says that in the olden days, it was claimed that a child would come to harm if he or she wasn’t christened according to the wishes of the dream visitors. That’s how the nation’s superstitions entered into its naming choices, and furthermore, Ragnheiður also believes that names have much clearer translations in Iceland than in other countries. “Most Icelanders know, for example, what their name means,” she says. 

Tristan was christened during the boom years, Þorgerður during the recession

Choosing a name for your child can be a difficult task, as she will presumably keep that name for her whole life. Icelanders have a rich tradition of christening their children after family members, but a lot of other things can influence parents’ imaginations. As Guðrún Kvaran points out in her book, Nöfn Íslendinga (The Names of Icelanders), names can be an important reference point regarding the nation’s history and the spirit of each era. 

Ragnheiður says that she herself has noticed the connection with historical eras in Iceland. “After recessions, there is often a sense of solidarity in the country and everyone begins to look to the old. And if you look back in time, there are names that were also in fashion during Iceland’s fight for independence—such as Þór and Freyr, for instance—and it’s happened again now following the 2008 crash. A Tristan was more likely born during the boom years, while a Þorgerður was born during the recession.”

Reviewing Statistics Iceland’s name registry, one can see that people turned to international names more during the boom years before the crash; at the time, names derived from Romance languages were popular. In the same vein, is possible to see a connection with Biblical names at the time of Iceland’s Christianization.

‘Cute’ names are disadvantageous

Having studied and been interested in individuals’ names for a year, Ragnheiður has noticed that prejudice can be hidden in various places, not least in conceptions about people’s names. “What someone is named makes a huge difference for him, and having an awful name can change someone’s life. An employer would perhaps rather hire a person named Margrét Telma than Bláklukka (Bluebell) Esmeralda, and, for example, you would never elect Bambi Máni (Moon) president.” Is this then due to the unusualness of the names and associations with with their origins? 

Would you elect Bambi for president?

Would you elect Bambi for president?

It is often difficult to argue that the Icelandic Naming Committee is an entirely frivolous phenomenon. The Naming Committee’s work concerns naming laws and this includes various provisions, for instance, that parents have a duty to name or christen their child before she is six months old, not to mention that the law focuses on how the child’s name declines in Icelandic. Specific provisions protect the names of people of foreign origin. 

Many people have fiercely objected to the committee and want it to be abolished. Committees of this kind are not, however, a specifically Icelandic phenomenon, and those who support the Naming Committee believe that it protects both the Icelandic language and individuals. Ragnheiður says that she doesn’t particularly have anything against the Naming Committee. “The Naming Committee often rejects different names that make you think ‘What parents in their right minds would want to name their kid that?

Names can definitely have an influence on how people are accepted in society and thereby on their self-image. Trendy ‘cute’ names can age badly and we spend more years of our lives as adults than as children. So Bambi is maybe not as cute a name when you’re older.”

‘To be smothered by a name’ 

Parents often christen a child after a role model, a famous person, or a favorite literary character. It also sometimes happens that by complete accident, a person has the same name as a well-known Icelander. According to the national registry, 28 men are named Ólafur Ragnar, but only one of these men was born during the presidency of his namesake, President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson. There are also nine men with the name Eiður Smári, like the professional Icelandic football player, Eiður Smári Guðjohnsen. Regardless of whether a person has been intentionally or unintentionally named for a public person, such a name has got to have an effect on the person who bears it.

There are more men named 'Eiður Smári' that one would think

There are more men named 'Eiður Smári' that one would think

According to Ragnheiður Harpa, it’s common for names to simply overwhelm people. “Names can change so much for a person—imagine if you were named Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. There’s even an Icelandic saying about this: Að kafna undan nafni, or, “to be smothered by a name.” It should be noted that Madame Vigdís Finnbogadóttir has only one namesake, and that girl was christened early in her presidency. 

People normally associate names with individuals and it is even common for a person to develop an aversion to a name because someone they dislike bears it. “It’s often totally random: you can always run up against these associations, as I know from the person who shares a name with Karl Vignir Þorsteinsson, a convicted pedophile. If he were to get mixed up, his house might be egged.”  

Icelandic name required

Although Ragnheiður Harpa is only addressing Icelandic names in her thesis, I couldn’t resist asking her about foreign names in Iceland and what it’s like for immigrants with foreign names in Icelandic society. “According to the sources that I’ve looked at, a very high percentage of those who have moved to the country have changed their names, or at any rate, adopted a new name. But for a long time, there were much stricter naming laws. Up until 1998, immigrants were forced to take an Icelandic name.” She refers to an older naming law that demanded that people of foreign origin take an Icelandic name in order to obtain citizenship.

Many of those individuals still bear those names today. A few examples are the Scot Daði Kolbeinsson (originally named Duncan Campbell), who was the principal oboist in the Icelandic symphony orchestra, and a Colombian man, Eilífur Friður Edgarsson (originally named Jorge Ricardo Cabrera Hidalgo). The latter was very opposed to having to take an Icelandic name at the time and considered taking the name Ljótur Bolli (Ugly Cup) in protest. 

Despite revisions to this compulsory law, however, it appears that the nation is definitely not completely free of prejudice against foreign names. Many of those in the country who have foreign names are frequently are addressed in English or quizzed about their language skills. Some simply resort to applying for rental housing under their spouses’ Icelandic names. “To have a name that isn’t Icelandic within the parameters here is a pebble in one’s shoe—it’s difficult,” says Ragnheiður. 

The same is true for Icelanders abroad. Many Icelanders who work in foreign entertainment industries have, for example, adopted foreign versions of their names in order to make pronunciation easier. Ragnheiður Harpa says that she has experience with this herself. She uses the name Heidi when she travels; her parents gave her the name when her family lived abroad. “When I explain my name to foreigners, they think that my middle name, Harpa (meaning ‘harp’), is just as ridiculous as if I were named Ragnheiður Guitar!” she says and laughs. 

It likewise seems as though parents often make conscious decisions about naming based on assumptions about societal attitudes. Ragnheiður Harpa has looked into what is happening in naming research abroad, since few studies exist about this here in Iceland. “The Norwegian study that I looked at for my thesis is very interesting, but it based on interviews with parents in Norway wherein they claim to have given their children names that will give them better options in society.

People are, nevertheless, more accustomed to variety abroad than here in Iceland, and the hope is that eventually, when we have lived longer in a multicultural society and in a society which doesn’t coerce people into adopting new names, this will change.” 

Text: Díana Sjöfn Jóhannsdóttir

Translation from Icelandic: Larissa Kyzer

Photo of Ragnheiður: Håkon Broder Lund