Do a lot of Icelanders share the same name?
Q: If a lot of people have the same first name, like Jón, all their children must have the same surname when using the patronymic system, how does this work?
A: In Iceland, most people use a patronymic or matronymic name instead of a family name. Surnames are based on the given name of one of their parents, plus the suffix –son for sons and –dóttir for daughters. It’s true that many people can share the same surname because of this system. If a person has a frequently-used Icelandic surname, like Jónsson, people look at the person’s first name(s) to determine who it is. It’s pretty common in Iceland to be given a first name and a second name, which are important when trying to identify someone.
To give an example, the most popular names in Iceland are Jón, Guðmundur, and Sigurður for men, and Guðrún, Anna, and Kristín for women. If we look at Jón, Statistics Iceland shows that 5,255 people have this name as first name. If we add a second name, say Jón Guðmundur, this number goes down to 17. The same goes for Guðrún with 4,757, and Guðrún Anna with 38. The chance that two people have the same first name(s) and same last name is slim. It does occasionally happen, though, and in that case, you have to look at additional information to identify a person, like home address or occupation.
Even though it might seem confusing at first glance, in practice, the patronymic naming system does not cause any more problems than using family names.
This article appears in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Iceland Review is the longest running English-language magazine, presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature since 1963.