WNW: The Scandinavian E vs. O (Or: Spell My Name Right!)

I'm combining two topics for today's Word Nerd Wednesday: history (in particular, family history) and word nerdiness in the form of patronymic names.

The history, of course, must come first:

Most people in the United States with European ancestry can point to a specific reason (an "immigration event") that spurred people to leave their motherlands and head to America for a better life, whether it was for economic, religious, or other reasons.

One big example is the Irish potato famine. Lots of Irish people came to the States during that period in hopes of, oh, not dying.

Other countries experienced hard financial times, and we see spikes in immigration during them, including people coming to work in U. S. mines, thinking that they'd strike it rich.

A lot of immigrants came from Scandinavia, Sweden in particular. Some of the more common last names we see from that era are Larson, Peterson, and Jacobson.*

Those are patronymic names, meaning the person's last name simply told who their father was. (So Jacobson is Jacob's son, and so forth.) Last names changed with each generation calling themselves after their father.

Most Scandinavian descendants around the U. S. come from Sweden, Iceland, Norway, or Finland.

Not Denmark. Why? Because Denmark never had an immigration event.

Except that it sort of did. The early LDS Church sent missionaries to Denmark, and lots of newly converted Danes then immigrated to Utah. So Utah has a large population of specifically Danish ancestry, something you won't find in any other area of the country.

Now we're getting to the fun part:

Danish patronymic names use an E instead of an O: Larsen, Petersen, Jacobsen. I learned this early on in my marriage when addressing a Christmas card to my grandfather-in-law.

"Is it Jensen with an E or O?"

The answer was a prompt: "E, not O. Grandpa's big on his Danish heritage."

The prevalence of Scandinavian (but not Danish) ancestry in the U. S. is why most Americans, when faced with a patronymic name, will assume it's spelled with an O.

The O is the normal spelling to them. And, assuming the person is not from Utah, chances are, they're right.

But in Utah, the reverse is true. The vast majority of patronymic names are Danish, and they end with an E.

The E is normal to them.

So, the kicker:

If you're like my high-school choir instructor, Mr. Larson, and have a patronymic name not from Denmark, and you either live in Utah or know people from Utah, and those Utah people are always spelling your last name wrong, now you know why.

*This post was inspired by Melanie Jacobson, a victim of this Utahn, who spelled her name wrong once and never will again.

Edited to add: The O is clearly from Sweden, not Finland, Iceland, or Norway. I'm aware of Icelandic and Finnish immigration, but I don't know much about Norway's. Must investigate!


Sue said…
I've got Johnsons and Petersons in my background. Needless to say, we are Swedes.

T.J. said…
Awesome. You should find other people who get their names misspelled often (Oo, Me!) and the odd reasons for it.
Heffalump said…
All of my Norwegian ancestry (and I have a lot of it) is spelled with an e not an o. So it isn't just Danes. In fact, I usually spell them all with an e rather than an o, and that gets me in trouble.
love it! Feeds my Danish obsession.
Amie said…
I hear ya...people have spelled my first name wrong my entire life (Amie) and once I got married, everyone spelled my last name wrong too (Haroldsen) so I just gave up and stopped worrying about anyone ever spelling my name right. Ha. But I don't think we originate from Utah...more likely Denmark I spose.
Emily Clawson said…
Thanks for the clarification. We've often wondered where our name "Clawson" comes from as we don't see to have any Scandinavian heritage (at least my husband doesn't). My grandparents are from Sanpete County. It's crazy to read the names in the cemeteries. They ALL end in "sen".
Lara said…
Fascinating. I knew that the -on and the -en endings indicated different Scandinavian countries, but I never really realized why I tend to go for the -en before the -on, even though -on does seem to make more logical sense.

This reminds me of a funny story. My husband asked me to look up the phone number of a former missionary companion of his, whose last name is Christensen. While I was looking in the phonebook, I asked him if it was E N or O N. And he kept saying, "It's Cory!" Finally, I realized that he thought I was asking if his first name was Ian or Owen. Anyway. Now I know why it was E N. :)
What's hilarious is that I'm sitting on a sofa this second with a Jacobson, a Peterson, and a Larsen.

(And thank you. I feel somewhat vindicated now, but more importantly, I can be more patient when this happens again in the future.)
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