Unlike Prince, Björk actually has a last name -Guðmundsdóttir. But she’s not related to the Guðmundsdóttir who sold you your coffee or the one at your hotel desk. It’s just that their dads have the same first name. Get it?
In its strictest form, Iceland’s naming tradition is pretty straightforward. The surname is determined by taking the father’s first name, adding “son” to the end if it’s a boy, ”dóttir” if it’s a girl, and voilá - the kid is legitimate.
This cute little Viking quirk seems uncomplicated, but it means that it is very possible to have a family of four in which nobody bears the same last name. It also causes surnames to become unimportant for things like phone books and reservations, as they aren’t a good way to keep track of people. For this reason, don’t be surprised if you should bump into the President of Iceland and he introduces himself simply as “Ólafur.”
And things can get even more complex. Let’s pretend that the lads above were from Hveragerði instead of Liverpool (although it would have meant their teeth would have been even worse). We might have known them then as George Briem, Paul Jamesson, Ringo Harryson, and John Juliason.
To start off, George’s name doesn’t fit the convention at all. That’s because he is part of a small number of Icelanders that use a surname.
“Now wait a minute!” you protest.
Well, while Iceland was under the rule of the Danish King, some young Icelanders went to Denmark to study. Thinking their old names a bit tacky, they either Danish-ized them or made up new ones. The fact that someone had a surname meant they had travelled all the way to Denmark and that they were educated and probably rich. There is still a bit of snobbery in Iceland about this sort of thing, but it is disappearing as the worldliness breeds out.
Next we have Paul Jamesson. Of the four, he is the poster child for Icelandic naming conventions. However, when he married that Linda Leedóttir she did not adopt his name, since she could never be the son of a man named James. That would have been too perplexing.
Then there is Ringo Harryson. His was born “Richard,” but when he was confirmed he opted to change his first name. He also decided not to be known as the son of his real father, since he never really knew him and his stepfather Harry actually bought him his first drum kit. This is a little unusual, as most kids will keep their biological father’s name, even if that wanker never bothered to call poor mum after her one night of torrid indiscretion. Uh… sorry.
Finally we have John Juliason. Children are seldom named after their mother, but some do change their last name either because they love their mother more or they have never met their father. Or they simply want to be cool, like John. People are, however, a bit sceptical about those named after their mothers. It kind of shouts of a troubled youth and broken home.
So you see, things are not quite as tidy as they have been made out to be in your guidebook. We would feel obligated to tell you that every child’s name has to be approved by a government Naming Committee, but we’re afraid that this might cause your head to explode. The good news, however, is that if you still can’t remember your date’s last name by the third night out, there isn’t much cause for concern.