Simanaitis Says

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A RECENT news item got me looking up patronymics, matronymics and related naming around the world. Throughout all this I’ll base my examples on Dennis Doe, son of Algert and Leona Doe. (I’d use Simanaitis, but life is short….)

The news item concerned Iceland, where names are highly regulated by the Icelandic Naming Commission, not just by culture. Ordinarily, the patronymic is used rather than any surname like Doe.

In Iceland, I’d be Dennis Algertsson. If I had a sister, she’d be Björk Algertsdóttir; or, being the feminist I’d assume she’d be, Björk Leonasdóttir.

If Björk married Adam Ólafursson, my nephew would be an Adamsson, my niece, Adamsdóttir. Unless, that is, the kids thought their father was a real heel, in which case they might choose Björksson and Björksdóttir instead.

Adding to the fun, Icelandic phone books and the like are alphabetically by first name then patro- or matronymic. Listing a profession as well alleviates some of the inevitable repetition.

The Icelandic Naming Commission has its oar in the water even with first names. The news item that got me into this concerns a young Icelandic woman who’s suing the country over the right to be named Blaer, “light breeze” in Icelandic. Her mother chose the name because she had a friend named Blaer. This name was legally accepted for females back in 1973, but apparently not now because light breeze as a noun is masculine, and the young woman isn’t.

The Naming Commission has a list of 1712 accepted male names and 1853 for females. (No Algert, Leona or Dennis there; Algeir is close.)

Patronymics play a cultural role in many other countries. In Russia, for instance, I’d be Dennis Algertovich Doe. Björk would be Björk Algertovna Doe. And the kicker is these patronymics are used in just about any social interaction. Even friends would address my sister as Björk Algertovna; in only the most intimate encounters would she be Björkie (or, as my sister would be familiarly known, Swan’ka).

Is this

Is this Ellen DeGeneres in an outfit made famous by Björk, or is it…?

Other familiar patronymics are the Irish O’ and the Scottish Mac and Mc. Another I’ve seen is “Fitz,” as in Fitzwilliam, but I didn’t realize this relates to “fils,” French for son.

In Arabic, I’d be Dennis ibn Algert Doe; Swan’ka would be Björk bint Algert Doe.

I’ve learned that name origins have three basic categories. Many are based on patro- and matronymics. Everybody called Johnson, McDonald, O’Hara or Simanaitis (son of Simon, with misspelling) falls into this category.

A second category is the toponymic, named after place of origin. Think Schoenberg, Belmont and others who thought that mountain nearby was beautiful.

The third category is cognomial, based on occupations, nicknames or personal traits. This accounts for the Smiths, Coopers, Shorts and Longshanks. Or, come to think of it, for Swan’ka too. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013

2 comments on “THE NAME’S THE THING

  1. Fascinating! I’m told Germany has a similar list of “approved” children’s names. A minor point of clarification: Russian use of the patronymic is mostly a sign of formality. People introduce each other using the full name (First, Patronymic, Last), which necessitates use of formal pronouns: formal “you” is “vui”, while informal “you” is “tui”. Often, the person being introduced will dispel with the formal tense and patronymic by saying, essentially, “let’s speak in the ‘tui’ tense”.

    Put another way, students refer to their teachers by First + Patronymic, while they talk to their friends using first name only.

  2. simanaitissays
    January 4, 2013

    Thanks for this update on Russian usage. (I’ve probably been reading too many Dostoyevsky novels). The vui/tui distinction reminds me of the French vous/tu, akin to English you/thou, which we’ve all but given up.
    According to, there are a good number of countries with naming restrictions, typically to avoid offensive or plain goofy names.

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This entry was posted on January 4, 2013 by in I Usta be an Editor Y'Know and tagged , , , .
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