Danes often have tripartite names, like famous Roman Iron Age scholar Ulla Lund Hansen or NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. And I’ve been wondering how these names are inherited. Specifically, which names get dropped and which ones get passed on to the kids. So I wrote my erudite buddy, osteologist Helene Agerskov Madsen, and asked her to explain.
I learned that the system is not very old (~100 yrs?) and has already started to fall apart. But in its idealised form here’s how it works. The middle name tracks a matrilineage and the last name a patrilineage. When a child is born it inherits its mother’s middle name and its father’s last name. When a woman marries, she keeps her middle name and takes her hubby’s last name. So if the aforementioned Ulla and Anders married, she would change to Ulla Lund Rasmussen, and any children would be named likewise. Yes, Danish children will ideally share both middle and last name with mom and only their last name with dad. His middle name comes down to him from his maternal grandmothers.
Then there are niceties to the system. For instance, double patronymics are avoided, so you won’t see anybody named Svend Nielsen Jensen. And lately it has become common among women to drop the middle name at marriage and instead join their own last name and their hubby’s with a hyphen, e.g. Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the leader of the Danish Social Democrats.
Through my rather intimate Chinese contacts, I’ve learned about another tripartite naming system. Most Chinese have names consisting of three ideograms / syllables: “Mao Ze Dong”. Ideally, the first is the name of the patrilineage, the second is shared within a generation of that lineage, and the third identifies the individual. All first cousins on the male line are thus supposed to have the same first two ideograms. My wife and her three sibs for instance share “Cycle” and “Space”. But in the following generation, the system has been applied patchily, so that our daughter only shares her second ideogram (“Family”) with a few of her cousins. Of course, traditionally her name wouldn’t be expected to fit the Chinese system at all since her mother married out into an illiterate Swedish patrilineage.