Delving into the roots of Norse first names

Today I thought I would try to explain the meaning of some Norse first names that are common here in Orkney. The reason I chose this topic, is that I recently found myself in a Facebook chat with a man named Rognvald. He was so delighted when I was able to tell him what his name means that I thought I might as well provide some more information here in Mimir’s Well.

First I need to say something about how Norse first names work. They are very commonly composed of two parts. We see this in the name Rognvald: It’s “Rogn” plus “vald”. Then you have a pool of elements that typically come first, and another pool of elements that typically come last. Some can be either first or last. In the pool of elements that come last, there are two sub-groups: Male ones and female ones. So male and female names can share the first element, but have a gender specific second element. My new Facebook friend Rognvald had already noticed this when he started the conversation with me, asking if my name Ragnhild is the female equivalent of Rognvald.

So, to list a few examples of name elements which typically come first: Gunn, Sig, Hall, Thor/Tor, Rogn/Ragn. Some examples of male elements which come last are: bjørn, vard, vald, stein, finn. Some examples of female elements which come last are: hild, dis, veig, frid/rid. That way you can mix and match: Male names which are in common use in Norway and composed of these elements are Gunnbjørn, Gunnvald, Gunnstein, Sigbjørn, Sigvard/Sigurd, Sigvald, Hallbjørn, Hallvard, Hallstein, Torbjørn, Torvald, Torstein, Torfinn (with Thor- as an alternative spelling), Ragnvald. Theoretically, you could also call a baby boy Gunnvard, Gunnfinn, Sigstein, Sigfinn, Hallvald, Hallfinn or Torvard. These names are not common, but would be acceptable and recognised as Norwegian names. Out of curiosity I searched the Norwegian statistical database ( for these uncommon names, and found four Sigfinns and nine Sigsteins.

Names for women, which are in common use in Norway and made of these elements, are Gunnhild, Sigrid, Halldis, Hallfrid, Torhild (alternative spelling Toril), Tordis, Ragnhild and Ragnfrid. Similarly, you could theoretically have Gunndis, Gunnveig, Gunnfrid, Sighild, Sigdis, Sigveig ... etc. The statistical database has 183 Gunnveigs, 28 Gunnfrids, 31 Sigdis and 7 Sigveigs.

This practice of mixing and matching is very handy. Since the Viking era it has been common practice in Norway (and other Norse countries) to name children after an ancestor or older relative. But with the mixing and matching system, you don’t need to replicate the name of the ancestor exactly. It’s enough to copy the first element. So somebody may be called Thorvald because he is named after a grandfather called Thorfinn, for instance. Conversion to Christianity did not prevent people from using Thor names, and Thor names are still very common today – I believe the practice of naming children after their ancestors overrode any pagan association to the god Thor. Snorri Sturluson’s saga of the Norwegian kings (13th century) also explains that the Norwegian royal family believed they were descended from Thor and Odin, but by this time they were regarded not as real gods but powerful rulers from the distant past. This also contributed to the acceptability and indeed popularity of “pagan” names.

So what do these names mean, then? I will go through the elements I have just listed first, before proceeding to names that are common in Orkney.

Gunn means conflict. Sig means victory. Hall means either stone or hall. Thor is the god Thor. Ragn (or Rogn as it is spelled in Orkney) means counsel or rule or of the gods. Bjørn means bear, vard means guardian (the –urd in Sigurd comes from vard), vald means ruler, stein means stone, finn means Sámi. Hild means conflict, dis means goddess, veig may mean strength, frid (alternative spelling rid) means beautiful. Some try to extrapolate a combined meaning for the whole name from the two elements, for example “victory’s guardian” for Sigurd, but it is safer just to assume that the two elements have separate meanings and that people didn’t consider combined meanings when they came up with the names – otherwise a name such as Gunnhild (conflict-conflict) would be pretty absurd. Some of these elements can also stand alone: It is possible to be called just Gunn (female), Tor (male), Bjørn (male) and Finn (male).

Now some Norse names that are popular in Orkney: Rognvald, Sigurd, Thorfinn, Hakon, Erlend, Sweyn, Magnus, Ingrid, Inga, Freya, Solveig, Ola. Rognvald, Sigurd and Thorfinn I have already explained. In the name Hakon (or in Norwegian Håkon or Haakon) the “ha” means “high” and the “kon” means son or descendant. Ingrid takes its first element from the god Ing, which is an alternative name for the Norse god Frey. Rid, as I have already noted, means beautiful. Inga is a short form developed from names starting with Ing, such as Ingrid, Ingveig, Inghild, but instead of having a second element carrying separate meaning, it has the general feminine ending “a”. Freya is the goddess Freyja, who is Ing’s (or Frey’s) sister. The meaning of Solveig is somewhat uncertain, but it may mean “house, home” and “strength”. Ola is a special case. If the origin of the name Ola in Orkney is Norse at all, it has been through a sex change. In Norway, the name Ola is male and comes from Óláfr (as in St Olaf). The meaning of the name is a bit odd:  The first element means ancestor and the second means descendant.

Erlend, Sweyn and Magnus are not of the same type as the others. That is, they are not composed of two mix-and-match elements. Erlend is an adjective meaning foreign – from a different land. You may recognise the word “land” in “-lend”.  Sweyn is spelled Sveinn in Old Norse and means boy or young man. Finally, Magnus is actually not Norse at all. It is Latin, and it means “great”. The name probably came to Norway with the name of the great Frankish king and Roman Emperor Charles the Great – Charlemagne or Carolus Magnus. It became a royal name in Norway: St Olaf’s son was called Magnus “the good” Olafsson (1024 – 1047) and several Magnuses later Norway now has Crown Prince Haakon Magnus and his son Prince Sverre Magnus. From the royal family it filtered down to everybody else. Today, according to the statistics, there are 14342 men in Norway by the name of Magnus, and in 2010 it was the fifth most popular baby name in Norway. Nicknames for Magnus are Mons (in Norway) and Mansie (in Orkney). Dr. Berit Sandnes reckons that Magnus/Mansie is the only Norse forename which has been transmitted in an unbroken tradition in Orkney since Norse times, while the others mentioned here have enjoyed a later revival.

Ragnhild Ljosland