Iceland is a country with a rich cultural heritage and a fascinating history. But beyond the volcanoes and glaciers is one other interesting fact: Icelandic last names follow a completely different practice than what you see in other countries.
As you’ll see, it’s tricky to give a list of the most common surnames in Iceland as, in brief, they change in each generation. That said, you can tend to pick the most common ones based on the most popular first names throughout the country.
Confused yet? You shouldn’t be, as the system of how Icelandic last names work actually makes perfect sense once you understand it!
Keep reading to see just how this practice operates, including why it’s completely incorrect for some people to say that Icelanders don’t have last names – they do, just maybe not like yours!
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How do Icelandic last names work?
Icelandic last names use a combination of the bearer’s given name and usually their father’s given name, with the suffix “-dóttir” or “-sson” added to indicate the bearer’s gender. For example, a woman called Anna with a father called Jón would be named “Anna Jónsdóttir” (Anna, daughter of Jón).
Similarly, if a man’s given name is Sigurður and his father’s given name is Guðmundur, his last name would be “Sigurður Guðmundsson” (Sigurður, son of Guðmundur).
Do all Icelandic names end in dóttir or -son?
Some Icelandic people are now choosing to have the suffix “-bur” as a gender neutral alternative that will still follow patronymic and matronymic naming trends. For instance, someone named Helga with a father named Aron who doesn’t want to be identified as his daughter may be called “Helga Aronbur”.
However, this is only available if the person is officially registered with the relevant Icelandic authorities as neither male nor female.
Why do Icelanders not have last names?
Icelanders do have last names. However, the use of last names in Iceland is somewhat different from other countries in that they are not consistent throughout the family. Instead, they change based on the bearer’s given name and their father’s given name.
In many cultures, a person’s last name is a fixed inherited family name, passed down from generation to generation. In contrast, Icelandic last names are not fixed and can change over time.
This means that an Icelandic person’s last name may be different from their father’s last name, and may even be different from their siblings’ last names. This flexible system is a reflection of Iceland’s small, closely-knit society, where family connections are an important part of a person’s identity.
However, in recent years, the Icelandic language has introduced gender-neutral personal pronouns, and some people have begun using these in their names.
It should be noted that this is a relatively new development in Icelandic naming practices, and it is not yet clear how widely adopted this practice will become.
What is the Icelandic Naming Committee?
The Icelandic Naming Committee (Mannanafnanefnd) is a government agency in Iceland that is responsible for regulating the use of personal names in the country. The committee was established in 1991, and its main function is to ensure that all personal names used in Iceland conform to the country’s naming laws and traditions.
The Icelandic Naming Committee has the authority to approve or reject proposed names, and it maintains a list of approved names that can be used by parents when naming their children. The committee also has the power to change a person’s name if it is deemed inappropriate or contrary to Icelandic naming laws.
The Icelandic Naming Committee is composed of five members, who are appointed by the Minister of Justice for a term of four years. The members are experts in Icelandic language and culture, and they are responsible for making decisions on individual name applications, as well as providing guidance on naming practices in Iceland.
Want to see the most popular names in Iceland – all of which are approved by this Committee? The most popular Icelandic boy names for last year can be seen at that link, while you can check out the most popular Icelandic girl names and their meanings here.
What are some names that were rejected by the Icelandic Naming Committee?
The Icelandic Naming Committee maintains a list of approved names that can be used by parents when naming their children, and it has the authority to reject proposed names that do not conform to Icelandic naming laws or traditions.
You can find out more information here but this has led to some outcomes that the rest of us may find pretty odd. For example, the former mayor of Reykjavik wasn’t allowed to name his daughter “Camilla” as C is not part of the Icelandic alphabet. Because of this, she had to be called “Kamilla”.
There are also other interesting examples at that link, like the Committee being challenged in court (and losing) by a parent who wanted to name their baby daughter a traditionally male name. There’s another case of two kids with very standard names from an English perspective, Duncan and Harriet, being called Drengur (boy) and Stúlka (girl) in their passports due to their actual names not being approved.
It should be noted that the Icelandic Naming Committee may reject a name for a variety of reasons, and not all rejections are due to the name not being traditionally Icelandic. For example, a name may be rejected if it is deemed too similar to an existing name, if it is offensive or contrary to Icelandic culture, or if it is difficult to pronounce or spell.
Developments in the Icelandic Naming Committee’s rules
A significant case was in 2013, when the Icelandic Naming Committee rejected a request from a parent to give their child the name “Blaer”. The committee argued that the name was not traditionally Icelandic, and that it did not conform to the rules for female names in Icelandic.
The parent appealed the decision to the Icelandic Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the parent and allowed the child to be given the name “Blaer”. Nevertheless, the case received widespread media attention, and it sparked a debate on the role of the Icelandic Naming Committee and the use of gender-specific names in Icelandic society.
Some people argued that the committee should be more flexible and allow parents to choose non-traditional names for their children. Others argued that the committee should continue to uphold Icelandic naming traditions and reject names that do not conform to the rules.
In response to the “Blaer” case, the Icelandic Naming Committee has relaxed its rules on gender-specific names, and it now allows parents to choose a name from the “boy” or “girl” list for their child, regardless of their gender.
This change was made in order to recognize the growing use of gender-neutral personal pronouns in the Icelandic language, and to reflect the increasing recognition of non-binary and transgender individuals in Icelandic society.
While the change has been welcomed by many, it has also been met with some resistance, as some people argue that it goes against Icelandic naming traditions and could lead to confusion. However, the Icelandic Naming Committee has defended the change, stating that it is important to recognize and respect the rights of non-binary and transgender individuals in Icelandic society.
Do women in Iceland change their names when they get married?
In Iceland, it is not common for women to change their names when they get married. Unlike in some other countries, where a woman may take her husband’s last name or combine her maiden name with her husband’s last name, Icelandic women generally do not change their names when they get married.
This is because Icelandic last names are constructed using the bearer’s given name and their father’s given name, and are not inherited from the father’s family line. This means that a woman’s last name does not change when she gets married, as it is based on her own given name and her father’s given name, rather than her husband’s last name.
While some women may choose to use their husband’s last name informally, for example on social media or in informal settings, their legal name remains the same. In Iceland, a person’s legal name is determined at birth, and it cannot be changed without the approval of the Icelandic Naming Committee.
How do parents choose which name to use for their children’s surnames?
While, traditionally, children tend to be given their father’s name (so Emil, son of Viktor, would be Emil Viktorsson), it has become more common recently for children to bear their mother’s name in their surname. This is completely up to the parents to choose.
A well known example of this is Heiðar Helguson, an Icelandic soccer player whose mother is called Helga. Based on this, his surname is Helguson or “son of Helga”. This is despite the fact that the more common way to name him would be to use his father’s name.
Whichever way parents choose to go, they have six months to submit their choice of both the first and last names. If you don’t submit this in time, you can get a fine.
Most common Icelandic last names
As mentioned earlier, as Icelandic last names don’t pass down from one generation to the next similar to how they do in other Scandinavian countries (and possibly your country too), it’s not so straightforward to identify the most common Icelandic surnames.
At the same time, there are definitely first names in Iceland that are more popular than others. Based on this, you can then create the list of the more common last names, as you’ll see below.
Jónsdóttir and Jónsson are the two most common surnames in Iceland. The name Jón is derived from the Hebrew name “Yohanan,” which means “God is gracious.” The suffix “-dóttir” indicates that the bearer of the name is a daughter, while the suffix “-sson” indicates that the bearer is a son.
The name Jón has been popular in Iceland for centuries, and there are many notable figures with this name in Icelandic history. For example, Jón Arason was a 16th century Icelandic bishop and poet who is known for his efforts to defend Icelandic culture and language against foreign influence.
Sigurðardóttir and Sigurðsson are also common surnames in Iceland. The name Sigurður is derived from the Old Norse name Sigurðr, which means “victory guard.” Like Jón, the suffixes “-dóttir” and “-sson” indicate the gender of the bearer.
The name Sigurður has a long and storied history in Iceland. One of the most famous figures with this name is Sigurður Nordal, a 20th century Icelandic scholar and poet who played a key role in the revival of Icelandic language and literature.
Guðmundsdóttir and Guðmundsson are also common last names in Iceland. The name Guðmundur is derived from the Old Norse name Guðmundr, which means “battle protection.”
One of the most notable figures with the name Guðmundur is Guðmundur Kamban, a 19th century Icelandic poet and playwright who is known for his contributions to Icelandic literature.
Gunnarsdóttir and Gunnarsson are from “Gunnar”, which is itself derived from the Old Norse name Gunnarr, which means “warrior.”
Gunnar is a popular name in Icelandic culture and history, and there are many notable figures with this name. For example, Gunnar Thoroddsen was a 20th century Icelandic geologist and geophysicist who made significant contributions to the study of the Earth’s crust.
The name Gunnar is actually highly popular in the rest of Scandinavia as well. Check out the most popular Scandinavian boy names here to see who else made the list.
Ólafsdóttir and Ólafsson are also common Icelandic last names. The name Ólafur is derived from the Old Norse name Óláfr, which means “ancestor’s descendant”.
(This is actually the Icelandic version of the name “Olaf”, which is similarly popular in other Nordic countries. For example, the Finnish version, Olavi, was the second most popular boys name in Finland last year!)
One of the most famous figures with the name Ólafur is Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, an Icelandic actor who has appeared in a number of films and television shows.
Magnúsdóttir and Magnússon are from Magnús. This Latin name means “great” and remains very popular throughout Scandinavia. In Norway, for example, it was solidly in the top 20 Norwegian boys names for last year and it was almost as popular in Denmark as well.
A well known person with the name Magnús in Iceland is Magnús Scheving, an Icelandic athlete, actor, and entrepreneur, who is perhaps best known for creating the children’s television series “LazyTown”.
Einarsdóttir and Einarsson are also common Icelandic last names. The name Einar is derived from the Old Norse name “Einarr,” which means “lone warrior.”
Someone well known with the name Einar is Einar Jónsson, a 20th century Icelandic sculptor who is known for his distinctive style and his contributions to Icelandic art.
Kristjánsdóttir and Kristjánsson are from the name Kristján, which is derived from the Greek name “Christos,” which means “anointed one”.
You can find the name Kristján all over Iceland, with one such person being Kristján Eldjárn, a 20th century Icelandic politician who served as President of Iceland from 1980 to 1996.
Björnsdóttir and Björnsson, from the name Björn, is derived from the identical Old Norse name which means “bear”.
Björn sounds exotic, yet is incredibly common among Icelandic parents. You may even recognize Björn from the popular baby brand “Baby Bjorn”, which essentially means “Baby Bear”. Such a cute name!
Stefánsdóttir and Stefánsson come from the name Stefán. That, in turn, comes from the Greek name “Stephen,” which means “crown.”
One of the most famous figures with the name Stefán is Stefán Karl Stefánsson, a contemporary Icelandic actor who is best known for his role as Robbie Rotten on the children’s television series “LazyTown” – yes, the same one created by the Magnús mentioned earlier!
Jóhannsdóttir and Jóhannsson are similarly common surnames in Iceland. The name Jóhann is derived from the Hebrew name “Johanan,” which means “God is gracious”. This means it has the same root as Jón, as per the most popular Icelandic last names at the start of this list.
You can see Jóhann in plenty of Icelandic fields, including in the case of Jóhann Jóhannsson (a name so good they used it twice?), an Icelandic composer and musician who has achieved international recognition for his work in film and television.
Bjarnadóttir and Bjarnason come from Bjarna. It’s derived from the Old Norse name “Bjarni,” which means “bear” and so has the same root as “Bjorn”.
Bjarni Tryggvason, an Icelandic astronaut who flew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1997, is one of the most well-known individuals with a name that’s pretty close to Bjarna.
Árnadóttir and Árnason are taken from the name Árni. It’s evolved from the Old Norse name “Árngeirr,” which means “eagle spear.”
One of the most famous figures with the name Árni is Árni Þórarinsson, a 20th century Icelandic geologist who is known for his contributions to the study of volcanology and geothermal energy.
An Icelandic geologist who made significant contributions to the study of volcanology and geothermal energy in the 20th century, Árni Þórarinsson, is one of the most well-known people with this name.
Halldórsdóttir and Halldórsson are also common surnames in Iceland. The name Halldór is derived from the Old Norse name “Hallr-Dórr,” which means “rock-door”.
(For any Game of Thrones fans, this may ring a bell for you!)
Halldór Laxness, an Icelandic novelist and Nobel laureate who is renowned for his contributions to Icelandic literature, is one of the most well-known individuals with the name Halldór.
Helgadóttir and Helgason come from Helgi, which was an Old Norse name that means “holy”.
Helgi Hrafn Gunnarsson, a contemporary Icelandic film director recognized for his particular style and his contributions to Icelandic cinema, is one of the most well-known personalities with the name Helgi.
Gísladóttir and Gíslason are derived from the name Gísli, which is from the Old Norse name “Gísl,” meaning “pledge”.
Gsli Pálmi, an Icelandic comedian and television host who is known for his contributions to the Icelandic entertainment business, is one of the more renowned figures with the name Gsli.
Sveinsdóttir and Sveinsson are common surnames in Iceland. The name Sveinn is derived from the Old Norse name “Sveinn,” which means “boy.” The suffixes “-dóttir” and “-sson” indicate the gender of the bearer.
Sveinn Björnsson, the first President of Iceland, is one of the most well-known individuals with the name Sveinn. He presided over the country from 1944 to 1952.
Ragnarsdóttir and Ragnarsson are also common Icelandic last names, with the name Ragnar – which you may have heard of if you’re a fan of the show, Vikings – being from the Old Norse name “Ragnarr,” which means “warrior.”
And yes, the person in the show is actually based on a real person: Ragnar Lothbrok, a legendary Norse hero who is featured in many Icelandic sagas.
Kristinsdóttir and Kristinsson are also on the list of popular Icelandic last names. The name Kristin is derived from the Greek name “Christos,” which means “anointed one.”
One of the most prominent individuals with the name Kristin is the 20th-century Icelandic author Kristin Marja Baldursdóttir, whose book “Independent People” is regarded as a classic of Icelandic literature.
From Pétur comes Pétursdóttir and Pétursson, more common last names in Iceland. The name is derived from the Greek name “Peter,” which means “rock.”
The most familiar person with the name Pétur is Pétur Gumundsson, an Icelandic politician from the 20th century who presided over Iceland from 1952 until 1968.
The Icelandic last names Pálsdóttir and Pálsson come from the name Páll, which is from the Greek name “Paul” and means “small”.
Páll Sklason, a contemporary Icelandic artist noted for his paintings and sculptures that incorporate traditional Icelandic motifs with cutting-edge artistic techniques, is one of the most well-known persons with the name Páll.
The name Guðjón is derived from the Old Norse name “Guðrún,” which means “God’s secret”. This relatively common name in Iceland gives rise to the Icelandic surnames Guðjónsdóttir and Guðjónsson.
Guðjón Samúelsson, an Icelandic architect best recognized for his contributions to Icelandic architecture, particularly the design of the Hallgrmskirkja, a Lutheran church in Reykjavik, is one of the more prominent individuals with the name Guðrún.
Karlsdóttir and Karlsson are also common surnames in Iceland. The name Karl is derived from the Germanic name “Karl,” which means “free man”.
Karl Arason, an Icelandic bishop and poet renowned for his attempts to preserve Icelandic culture and language, is one of the most well-known people with the name Karl.
The Old Norse name “Þorsteinn” means “Thor’s stone” (yes, that Thor!), with the Icelandic last names Þorsteinsdóttir and Þorsteinsson being derived from this.
Þorsteinn Víglundsson, an Icelandic politician and diplomat who served as Prime Minister of Iceland from 1959 to 1963, is a prominent example of someone in the public sphere having the name Þorsteinn.
Another popular first name in Iceland is Óskar, which comes from the Old Norse name “Óskarr”, which means “God-spear.” Óskarsdóttir and Óskarsson are thus the Icelandic surnames that come from this.
The name remains hugely popular in Denmark as well, where it was the favorite Danish boys name for new baby Danes last year.
Óskar Jónasson, a modern Icelandic author who is well known for his “Viking” series of crime novels, is a good example of someone famous in the creative sphere with this name.