A glimpse at Sweden’s most popular baby names

January 25, 2016 § Leave a comment


Even though I haven’t been writing, I’ve never turned off the Google alerts for this blog’s research. I love when it sends me overseas, to a world of names I’ve never thought much about from my corner of the planet. Sometimes one link turns into several links, until I can’t believe how many open tabs I’ve got reading about names. Today it sent me to Sweden, where Statistics Sweden has recently released their list of top baby names from children born last year, and, knowing little about Swedish names, of course I needed to know more.

Naturally, my instinct was to compare the list to English-language choices, and I found that even modern Swedes are opting for Anglicized variations of many Scandinavian names. The top three boys names are William (equivalent Ville is 71st), Lucas (2014’s number one), and Liam, fastest risers are Kian (which might actually be the result of Middle Eastern immigration, as Muhammad also makes the list) and Henry (not Henrik). The girls top ten features Ella, Lilly, and Olivia, which are just as popular in the English-speaking world. Elias, which Michael Buble and wife Luisana just picked for their second son, born January 22, is number seven on the boy’s list, and trendy Axel knocked traditional Alexander from the Top 10 (seeing them paired together, I really like the nickname potential of Axel to Alexander, and I’m not sure why it didn’t dawn on me before now!) Still, that’s not to say the list is dominated by non-Swedish names. On the contrary, while these names stood out as being commonplace here at home, many others stood out because they’re not.

Names like Sága, Ebba, Hedvig, Lo, My, and Tindra, or Algot, Folke, Sixten, Hjalmar, Melker, and Ture.

The most popular girl’s name in Sweden is Elsa for the second year in a row (a Germanic diminutive of Elisabeth, it means “pledged to God”). It’s believed to be bolstered by the popularity of Disney’s Frozen, though it was already a top three name in Sweden when the movie was released. Fictional Queen Elsa, though, has had a big impact on the name’s popularity in the U.S., too, with the number of Elsa’s born in 2014 (jeez, I’ve been gone a while) more than doubling from the year before, from roughly 500 to over 1000 girls born with the name. Elsa shot into the US Top 250 for the first time in close to 100 years, and it’s not the first time Disney had an affect on names like this. While not a perfect science, the popularity of Ariel (The Little Mermaid) and Jasmine (Aladdin) skyrocketed – and peaked – in the ’90s, but the effect on Belle (Beauty and the Breast) was negligible.

A more significant Swedish popularity swing occurred a few spots down the list, with Saga (also Sága) jumping from 21st to 4th in a single year. It’s thought this might come on the heels of a popular new crime drama in the country, The Bridge (Bron), about a female detective named Saga Norén whose beat is the Öresund Bridge between Sweden and Denmark. It’s kind of a beautiful name with a history at least as old as the 13th Century (Saga, probably also known as Frigg, was said to be the Norse goddess of history and poetry). Saga’s exact origin is unclear, but it either comes from the Old Norse sja (“to see”) or segja (“to say/tell”) and means, roughly, “fable/story” – which makes sense to me since storytellers pass down fables and legends that someone generally once claimed to have seen. The word saga means the same over here, though a saga is additionally expected to be very long, either in it’s telling or the amount of time the story covers, and not specifically in reference to the age of the story.

Along with Saga, Lo was the fastest rising name for girls in Sweden, and along with My these two-letter names stood out. Remarkably uncommon in the English world (except as a nickname, a la The Hills Lauren “Lo” Bosworth), the simplicity of these names is almost refreshing. Sure, My probably won’t catch on here since the word is a possessive pronoun and babies aren’t named Her, Your, or His here, either, but in Sweden it’s just known as a Scandinavian form of Mary. Meanwhile, Lo is another diminutive taking it’s place on its own, a nickname for Spanish Dolores (which means “sorrow”). Not knowing the ultimate popularity of the name Dolores to Swedes, I can’t say with certainty whether this is in fact the root of the name’s growing popularity there, or if it has more to do with the name’s simplicity. Perhaps it’s just seeing a similar popularity bump like the one Lo Bosworth gave the name in the US (the name really jumped in popularity around the late 2000s, The Hills heyday), though I don’t know enough about local pop culture to imagine why it’s happening now.

Ebba is another girl’s name in the Top 10, a feminine form of German name Eberhard, meaning “strength/bravery of a boar,” from eber (boar) + hard (“strong”), but it, and names like Hedvig (Scandinavian variation of German Hedwig, which means “war”) and Tindra (it’s a name that originated only in the 1980s in Sweden, but it’s popular, and it means “to twinkle” or “to sparkle” which is sort of divine) are also almost entirely absent from name lists in North America. Some are familiar through pop culture, like film/musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but is Tindra’s similarity to the name of hook-up app Tinder a positive or a negative for its growth potential?

I’m a bit of a genealogy buff, and royal genealogy is fascinating if you’re into that sort of thing, so right away I recognized the name Folke as a notable one from the Swedish royal family, though unheard of overseas (and potentially unheard outside Sweden, period). It comes from the Ancient Germanic fulca (“army of people”), and is the Old Swedish derivation of Old Norse folki. In English, the word has come to be folk, as in people, but isn’t used as a name. Count Folke Bernadotte, nephew to King Gustav V and grandson of King Oscar II, was a beloved diplomat who negotiated the release of about 31,000 prisoners from German concentration camps, including 450 Danish Jews from the Theresienstadt camp, during WWII, and was the mediator in truce negotiations that halted the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. His equally well-liked American-born wife, Estelle Manville, was the namesake for Crown Princess Victoria’s daughter Estelle. With such a beloved legacy in Sweden, it’s unsurprising that the name remains popular – as do a few other historical royal names, from Oscar (in 4th place) to Carl.

Algot is a surname name, derived from the given name Algautr, which could either derive from adal (“noble”) or alf (“elf”), but the suffix gaut implies the name is “from Gotland.” Sixten is a name that I could actually see catching on with some English-speaking parents, maybe more as a middle name but potentially as a first. It just sounds cool, and its meaning – “victory stone” from Old Norse sig (victory) + stein (stone) – is hardly a turn off. Hjalmar essentially means “armor” from Old Norse hjalm (“protection”) + her (“army”), while Melker is a modernization of Melcher, the Scandinavian variation of Ancient Greek name Melchior, which originated in the Middle East (exact origin unknown) and probably refers to a king, and might even be a reference to God. It’s meaning may have been constructed specifically as a name for one of the Three Kings, or Magi. In biblical history, they followed the Star of Bethlehem to the birth of Jesus Christ, as the generally accepted transliteration appears to be “city of the (God) king” or possibly “light.” Ture is another modernization from the Old Norse and Icelandic Þorr, the personification of the Norse God of thunder (yep, it’s a variation on Thor, possibly bumped by the popularity of the recent Hollywood films involving Chris Hemsworth’s mighty superhero).

Check out the full Top 100 lists here. “Pojkar” is the boy’s list, and “Flickor” the girls if you’d rather not turn on a translation tool and change half the names to English.

For more on Nordic Names, this site is also crazy informative. (But you non-sleeping name addicts probably know that already!)

What’s your take on Swedish name tastes? Would you use any of these for your kids?


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