Tripartite Names in Denmark and China

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.

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Comments

  1. #1 csrster
    February 5, 2010

    An important subtlety of the Danish system is that the middle name has primacy. Thus Anders Fogh Rasmussen can be shortened to Anders Fogh, but never to Anders Rasmussen.

  2. #2 Daniel Ocampo Daza
    February 5, 2010

    In Latin America we have sort of the same system. It’s confusing to speak of “middle names” since this usually means a second given name and not a family name, but essentially we have one patronymic family name and one matronymic family name. The patronymic always goes first, unless in some cases where you only use the matronymic.

    Take my name: Daniel Ocampo Daza

    Ocampo is my father’s patronymic family name and Daza is my mother’s patronymic family name. So family names can only be inherited for more than one generation if they’re carried by males, as soon as they become matronymic they only get inherited, as the second family name, for one more generation.

    The Danish system seems more confusing, but it introduces more variation and it’s easier to track the lineages.

    Usually when women got married they kept their patronymic but changed their matronymic second family name to their husband’s patronymic preceded by “de”. So my mother would sometimes be known as Daza de Ocampo. But I think this system was abandoned decades ago.

  3. #3 Martin R
    February 5, 2010

    There was an awkward moment around the time when Gabriel Garcia Marquez won the Nobel when one of the Swedish media referred to him with only one of his family names, and he commented that this would indicate that he were born out of wedlock.

  4. #4 andyo
    February 5, 2010

    I’m thinking something must have been lost in the translation, cause it’s commonplace in Latin America to refer to people by just one last name and not their full name. Actually you need to ask explicitly for the person’s “second last-name” for them to say it. Or, it may be something only Colombians do, but I doubt it. Maybe García Márquez was just screwing around with this person.

    Also in Latin America it’s not uncommon to have a “middle” name as well, so one ends up with what in the US is called the “first” and “middle” names, and two last names, as indicated by Daniel.

  5. #5 Sili
    February 5, 2010

    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.

    Sorry, but this is neither a system nor a convention. Nor is it that old. In fact I’d say that it’s only come into play with the increasing equality since the sexes. More women are loath to give up their maiden names, and when children arrives they don’t want them to be named only for their father’s family. In the last coupla decades equality has increased further in that more couples either hyphenate their names upon marrying, or the husband takes his wife’s name if that is more ‘interesting’/characteristic (the wast majority of Danes still have frozen patronymics). In other cases he keeps his name, but the kids are named for the mother.

    The major reason the tripartite names in Danish is the freezing of the familynames in the mid to late 1800s (originally due to Struensee). Until then ordinary people had used genuine patronymics as they still do in Iceland – the son of Hans Jensøn was named Hansøn and the daughter of Jens Hansøn was Jensdatter. This was first discouraged and since stopped by the state in order to keep better track of people.

    When family names were frozen it was done in several ways. Most simply kept the patronymic of their father so all Hans Jensen’s kids were named Jensen. In some cases they kids got a proper patronymic which wasn’t frozen until the next generation (and I have little doubt that some families were forced to switch midway through depending on the whims of the vicar). Some families adopted a nickname as their familyname – in my case we were named for the farm: Beesbog. But we were also given the patronymic of our father at that point, so all the children of Knud Sørensen were baptised Knudsen Beesbog. Some of us have stuck with that. Others have have dropped Knudsen, and some have reädopted Beesbog after it was lost through marriage by one of their intermediary fore-mothers.

    Note that my family is slightly odd in that we went with Patronymic Nickname. Most used Nickname Patronymic hence for instance Fogh Rasmussen and Elleman Jensen.

    Then there are niceties to the system. For instance, double patronymics are avoided, so you won’t see anybody named Svend Nielsen Jensen.

    That’s not entirely true. As I said the freezing was down to the whims of the vicars – that is to say the official directions prolly weren’t all that clear. As a result some baptised the kids with both their father’s and their own patronymic. Hence Hans Jensen’s kids would be Jensen Hansen (or Hansen Jensen – it’s been too long since I read this). This is a feature of some parishes on the island of Langeland.

    That actually led me to think that the local television presenter Sandy Hansen Jensen was from there, but it turns out that she was born Hansen and married a Jensen so they double barrelled their names in slight mockery of the tendency of couples with fancy names doing that (cf. Throatwarbler-Mangrove).

  6. #6 andyo
    February 5, 2010

    Wait, my own subconscious writing of “García Márquez” in my post made me realize that maybe indeed he was joking around, but that’s because he’s famous and he’s always referred to as “García Márquez”. García is one of the most common family names in Spanish.

  7. #7 OriGuy
    February 5, 2010

    Since the Hispanic naming is not familiar to many Norteamericanos, Latin American baseball players usually only use the patronymic when they play pro ball in the USA. An exception is the late Giant shortstop José Uribe, a Dominican. His patronymic was González, but he chose not to use that because González is so common.

    Then there is the Russian system, familiar to anyone who’s read Russian literature.

  8. #8 Maju
    February 5, 2010

    Let me explain the Spanish system (not specifically Latin American but used in Spain and Spanish America, not Haiti nor Brazil). You basically have any number of names (given names, usually one or two) and two surnames: the father’s and the mother’s, though traditionally further generations’ surnames can be stacked in the proper order till one gets bored. The whole genealogical tree is hence preserved in that way, even with a patrilineal priority.

    I know perfectly my first 8 surnames in their correct and, well, I was baptized with four given names, though only two names and two surnames are official, legal, the rest is just traditional.

    For practical and legal purposes, someone called José María Gutiérrez Moreno is Mr. Gutiérrez. José María is his given name (first and middle if you wish but both given), Gutiérrez his father’s first surname and Moreno his mother’s first surname. If he marries María José Pérez Ortega (yah, José María is a man’s name while María José is a woman’s name: Joseph Mary and Mary Joseph, even if it sounds odd in English), their children would be surnamed Gutiérrez Pérez.

    Unlike OriGuy says, there is no patronymic anymore in Spanish. Many surnames, notably those that end in -ez (or -es in Portuguese) were originally patronymics but since many centuries ago (at least the early Modern Age) they exist only as fixed surnames. González, Lopez, etc. are therefore regular surnames just as Johnson or Jackson are in English.

    However, because most of them are so common, many people uses either both surnames or even, colloquially, the second surname. So, for instance Mr. Rodríguez Zapatero, prime minister of Spain, is mostly known as Zapatero in the media, even if that’s his mother’s surname.

    As said before, women don’t lose their surnames upon marriage. So Mr. Kirchner’s wife and current president of Argentina is Cristina González and not Cristina Kirchner, as is often misnamed in the English media. However by tradition she can be adressed as Señora de Kirchner (Mrs. Kirchner) or as Cristina González de Kirchner. The particle “de” (“of”) clearly implies that it’s not her true surname but her husband’s. But this usage has been declining very steeply in the last decades anyhow.

    Families are adressed either by the father’s first surname or the composite of both surnames, i.e. the children’s official surnames.

    In the Portuguese-speaking world the matter is somewhat different: the first surname is the mother’s and the second surname’s is the father’s. But they normally use the father’s surname anyhow when simplifying the name. So Luis Sousa Soares could well be Mr. Soares. A Portuguese speaker corrects me if I’m wrong in any detail.

    Whatever the case, the principle is the same: women don’t lose their surnames upon marriage and transfer it to the children. It is still a patrilineal system, at least the Spanish one.

  9. #9 sg
    February 5, 2010

    I love it. It sounds like a great way to keep track of the family lines. One name to track maternal line, another to track the paternal line.

  10. #10 Daniel
    February 6, 2010

    andyo: With regards to Gabriel García Márquez, I don’t think he was entirely joking. You have to understand it within the context of the culture in the Colombian Caribbean coast which he grew up in. I’m also from Colombia (but now live in Sweden), in fact from the same region as García Márquez, and actually we’re related 3 generations back. Anyway, back in the day when he was growing up and up until not too long ago children born out of wedlock were only given their mother’s first family name, unless the father “recognized” the child (which back before DNA testing was tricky). Nowadays it’s commonplace to refer to someone only by their first family name, but a traditional man like García Márquez would surely remember how it was back in the day. But yeah, he was probably yanking the interviewers chain a little bit.

    I kinda like being called both my family names, and since it does cause some confusion here in Sweden I usually hyphenate.

    Maju: Patronymic in this case means a family name inherited from the father, not that it’s based on the father’s given name. I think there’s a confusion about the terms. But you’re absolutely right, set family names were once based on the father’s given name, Gonzalo had children that got the patronymic Gonzales. It used to be the same here in Sweden, Sven had sons that got the patronymic Svensson, but now they’re set family names and not patronymic in the strict definition of the word.

    Place names and descriptions were also a rich source of family names, not just patronymics. My family name Ocampo hails from the Galician language and means “the field”.

  11. #11 chris y
    February 7, 2010

    Maju,

    Out of idle curiosity, what are Sr Zapatero’s children known as? I’m thinking that after Pablo Ruiz Picasso chose to be known by his mother’s surname, his daughter became famous in her own right as Paloma Picasso, not Paloma Ruiz. Would she legally be Paloma Picasso Gilot or Paloma Ruiz Gilot (trading as Picasso because it’s cool)?

  12. #12 Ben
    February 7, 2010

    At least in my own family in the US (mostly British Isles ancestry with some German), middle names begin appearing in the first half of the 19th century. Among my ancestors from the southern US, middle names for children of both sexes are very commonly the maiden names of either the mother, grandmothers, or sometimes more distant ancestors. In my family this has persisted up to my own generation. (My ancestors from the northern US seem to have been more prone to choose middle names for their euphony, although even here there are some exceptions.)

    This wasn’t a hard and fast rule — some middle names among my ancestors are essentially double first names (Mary Elizabeth, Joseph Reuben, and Maggie May all appear on my family tree, although even here the middle names are often ancestors’ first names). And as far as I know, there was no hard and fast rule for whose maiden name was used — mother’s, grandmother’s, or other — in contrast to the Spanish system. But in any case, some parts of the US do or did have a custom of tripartite names.

  13. #13 codero
    February 8, 2010

    Here in Germany, multiple first names are common, though less so in my generation (1971). In the past, middle names were often given in honour of grandparents, but now there is generally no system to it. Some combinations are so common they are spelled as a single word (e.g. Karlheinz).

    Hyphenated double surnames used to be popular with some married women, but they may now choose to keep the maiden name (the husband may even take it on, too!)
    A recent court ruling made triple surnames an impossibility.

  14. #14 Martin R
    February 8, 2010

    Swedes often have loads of given names. I’ve got three, and for reasons of euphony my parents made the name they were actually going to use number two. Pretty impractical.

  15. #15 Maju
    February 8, 2010

    “Maju: Patronymic in this case means a family name inherited from the father, not that it’s based on the father’s given name”.

    Well, Patronymic is usually said to the father’s first name derived name, often used as middle name, as happens in Russia, like Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, where Vladimirovich means son of Vladimir, his father’s name. And that’s how Wikipedia describes it, both in English and Spanish, regardless that nowadays this usage has ceased in most Western countries, remaining only in the form of fixed surnames.

    Maju,

    Out of idle curiosity, what are Sr Zapatero’s children known as?.

    Probably Rodríguez whatever. I’m not sure because family life is not really important in Spanish politics and I personally have not the slightest idea of who are the relatives of the PM, not even who’s his wife (I presume he’s heterosexual and married but in truth I don’t know).

    Recent modifications to Spanish law allow for parents to choose the order of surnames for their children, so the mother’s name can now go first. Children can also alter the order when they reach 18 years of age. Other older provisions allow for people to change their names if they can prove they are normally known that way but there is no legal freedom to change name and much less surname arbitrarily as happens in the USA, some sort of justification must be provided.

    The case of Paloma Picasso is surely different because she is a French citizen (different tradition and different laws too). Also the laws of the different Spanish-speaking countries surely vary in these aspects, I only state the “traditional” usage (i.e. since the late Middle Ages or early Modernity, when surnames became a standard) and I can’t assess the legal aspects in all Latin America. Whatever the case what I described is the normal situation and does not include all possible exceptions.