Icelandic Names: What Makes Them Unique?

An Icelandic woman leaning out of a car window

Carrying an Icelandic name can be quite humorous at times. Especially when you tell it to someone who doesn’t know the language. The names can be long, have letters unique to the Icelandic language and then they change depending on how the person is being talked about.

The name Egill for example, a common male name in Iceland, changes to Agli when put in a sentence like ‘I am with Agli’. This can be confusing even to those native to Iceland. 

I swear it, sometimes I think they made up these rules simply to make it more difficult. 

Icelandic children, autumn

My name, for instance, is one of those names that the Vikings made up after having arrived in Iceland. The isolation then made it so that the name didn’t travel to the rest of Scandinavia. Making it unknown and, frankly, quite bizarre outside the island.

However, the name became popular in Iceland and has not lost its place in the top 10 for centuries. Ragnheiður means ‘as bright as the old pagan gods’ and is a female version of the famous Viking male name Ragnar. But it wasn’t until I started traveling that this name started causing troubles. I remember standing at gate to board a plane in Laos and the administration office workers grouping together to see who, or possible what, would appear when they called out this ridiculous name.

We don’t all have odd names or names that are challenging in spelling and pronunciation. With globalization that we have seen during the last century, Icelanders have begun seeking international names for their children. Names like Andrea (female), Viktoría (female), Leó (male), and Gabríel (male) are now typical names in Iceland. Although, of course, mixed with the traditional Sigurður (male), Guðrún (female), Ingibjörg (female), and Þorsteinn (male).

But now I have gotten ahead of myself. Let‘s go way back to the roots.

Origin of Icelandic names

The names of the first people here in Iceland came mainly from the Nordic countries. However, when those Norse people were sailing to Iceland they would often stop in the Celtic islands, Ireland, and Scotland, to barbarically kidnap women and take them to Iceland. This tragic yet often unmentioned part of history would later prove to have added a twist to the Icelandic naming culture.

Viking boat and moody skies in Iceland

Here are some examples of original names:

  • Flóki (male)
  • Ingólfur (male)
  • Einar (male)
  • Helgi (male)
  • Ketill (male)
  • Auður (female)
  • Arnkatla (female)
  • Hallbera (female)
  • Kaðlín (female)
  • Þuríður (female)
  • Valgerður (female)

After the settlers had arrived new names started popping up. Those were often simply made up from those pre-existing, with slight alterations such as Álfheiður (‘bright like an elf’) or Ásdís (‘divine fairy’). The prefix Álf– was already a circulation and so was Ás-, both in a male and female version. Moreover the suffix -dís was recognized in common names like Herdís.

Fun fact: Icelanders still use this tradition today, simply taking apart and replacing prefixes and extensions.

Then there were other inspirational factors such as the landscape. The name Snælaug (‘snow pool’) didn’t appear until about 1155. Her mother’s name was Geirlaug, so it is obvious where the extension came from and the prefix. Well, that’s also quite overt. There is no shortage of snow or hot pools in Iceland. And, actually, they go together perfectly!

The years went by and Icelanders started experimenting more and more, taking inspiration from anywhere they could get it. Therefore, it might not have been much of a surprise that when religion changed in Iceland, going from Paganism to Christianity, the names changed with them.

This is when Guðleifur (male), Rakel (female), Pétur (male), Guðfinna (female) and other biblical names – or with the prefix Guð – meaning ‘God’ – started taking their place. Many of these names are some of the more popular names in Iceland still to this day.

Other naming influences in Iceland

Another naming influx came when Icelanders started traveling more and getting further influence from abroad. This meant more royal names, like Anna in the mid-15th century, Elísabet (Elisabeth) in the late 16th century, and Kristján (Christian) arrived around the same time.  

An Icelandic turf house

Until the mid-18th century, Icelanders only carried one name, with the addition of their last name. It wasn’t until 2 parents named a pair of siblings each with 2 names that the second name trend took off. This has led to the majority of the population carrying 2 names.

People in Iceland often joke that 2 names make it easier to scold your child. Gives yelling the name more weight!

Facts about Icelandic names, laws, and naming etiquette

  • There are only about 3 names that are used both for girls and boys, the rest is gender-based.
  • All Icelandic names have a meaning. Just try asking the locals you’ll meet in Iceland.
  • Icelanders do not have family names with just a handful of exceptions.
  • Icelanders have special words for when someone carries the same name. When two women carry the same they are nöfnur and when two men carry the same they are nafnar. Furthermore, when two women carry the exact name from start to finish (for example both called María Kristín Þorkelsdóttir) they are what is called alnöfnur, which basically means the-whole-same-name. The male version is alnafnar!
  • Icelanders do not change their last names when they get married. A system that simplifies things especially in modern times where divorce is so common.
  • Most families have a few last names for their members.
  • There is an ancient tradition in Iceland to name after those who come to the mother in her dreams whilst pregnant. This is done out of fear that the unborn child will be harmed if you don’t follow this request of the dream visitor. This was believed to be especially true if the person visiting was deceased. This is actually how my grandmother got both her names!
  • Icelanders used to, and some still today believe that names have powers. This would, for example, mean that parents of a baby boy that was sickly at birth would often name him Ófeigur which basically means ‘immortal’.
  • Some names are only allowed as first names and others only as middle names.

How do Icelanders choose names for their children?

There is no doubt that there is still a very strong tradition of naming after your parents or grandparents. Although tradition is nowhere close to where it used to be, people often talk about the want to name after their loved ones sneaking up on them once the young ones are born.

This might also have to do with the small community feeling and therefore closeness of most families. Grandparents more often play a very big role in the life of their grandchildren. One could even go as far as calling them, back-up parents. 

Grandparents with their grandchildren in Iceland

Nonetheless, Icelanders choose their names just like many other nations. However, if we are making a point about the difference the dream tradition mentioned before and then, of course, the omnipotent naming committee would be the winners!

Icelandic Naming Committee

Iceland has a naming committee that approves or denies names that have never been used before. No, this is not a joke.

The government simply made a committee of lawyers, professors in the Icelandic language, and other qualified scholars to interpret the laws that the parliament had passed. They gather once a month and go through all the applications. Some of them pass and others don’t.

The newly accepted names always make the news along with those denied. The comment section often goes quite active at this time as people seem to have very strong opinions about what to and what not to name a child.

The naming laws that they follow basically state 3 things:

  1. The name can not cause the named harm or difficulty.
  2. Boys must be named male names and girls must be named female names.
  3. The name must be able to follow Icelandic grammar rules and adjustments.

Perhaps not much of a surprise, but the very existence of this committee has been criticized in recent years. Some have even gone as far as saying that it goes against basic human rights. Those that want to keep the committee mostly argue for the sake of our language and grammar. 

Here are some from late 2019 that were approved:

  • Sólúlfur (male)
  • Maríón (male)
  • Systa (female)
  • Lynd (female)

And these have been rejected:

  • Kona (female)
  • Theo (male)
  • Zelda (female)
  • Zion (male)
  • Alex (female)
  • Sukki (male)
  • Thurid (female)

Most common Icelandic names

Iceland, like most other countries, sees a rise in certain given names when pop stars, characters, celebrities, or other achievers rise in their fame.

This became evident a few years back when the Icelandic actor/director Baltasar Kormákur started directing movies abroad like Contraband and Everest. People started hearing about him and his success and all of a sudden every other boy was called Baltasar. 

Many don’t know this but Baltasar Kormákur was actually just the second one to receive the name but the first was his father Baltasar Samper. The name, like his father, comes from Spain. Third to receive the name was Baltasar Kormákur’s son Baltasar Breki, but it wasn’t until much later that the name caught on.

Baltasar Kormakur

But even with the popularity of special names through fame or trends, the fact of the matter is that most of the more common names stay the same in Iceland. This is probably due to the strong tradition of naming after your parents/grandparents.

About 35% of young Icelanders carry their grandparents’ names. And, if you look into the older generation the numbers are even higher.

Most common Icelandic girl names

  1. Guðrún
  2. Anna
  3. Kristín
  4. Sigríður
  5. Margrét
  6. Helga
  7. Sigrún
  8. Ingibjörg
  9. María
  10. Jóhanna

Most common Icelandic boy names 

  1. Jón
  2. Sigurður
  3. Guðmundur
  4. Gunnar
  5. Ólafur
  6. Einar
  7. Kristján
  8. Magnús
  9. Stefán
  10. Jóhann

How do Icelandic last names work?

Icelandic last names have gained a lot of attention in recent times. This has mainly been due to the sport achievements of those carrying them. Whether it has been all the -sons playing FIFA World Cup, UFC fighters or all the -dóttirs coming out on top at the Crossfit games, their names have not gone unnoticed. 

The naming system in Iceland is the old Scandinavian system which all the countries once used. It is a paternal system where the father gives his children his first name as their last name adding -son if the child is a boy and -dóttir if the child is a girl. This might seem confusing at first, but really it is not. Let’s try some examples.

Diagram of the Icelandic naming system

Another fun fact about Icelandic last names: only 4% of the Icelandic nation carries a family name. But by naming law family names are very hard to keep in Iceland as they can only be passed on through the father.

So, if a father has 3 daughters and no sons, the name should die with the daughters. Having said that, these very daughters have often applied and got accepted to name their children using the family name giving it a new chance.

Until, of course, someone again only has daughters. As you can see the system is quite old and outdated in many ways.

Children running in the Icelandic countryside

Nowadays we see a slight change in the system. People are starting to put a question mark on the fact that only the father’s name becomes the last name of the child. And, like with many things questioned in Iceland, this has resulted in a rapid change.

Now some use both parents’ names before adding -son or -dóttir, but back in the day using the mother’s name meant that the father had abandoned the family. This could cause shame, so mothers would often apply for exceptions to have their child get the name from their grandfather.

Today, you don’t see this. People proudly carry their last name, be it from the father, mother, two mothers, or two fathers.

Icelandic name meanings

As I stated in the facts above, Icelandic names all have meanings. This is said to be one of the factors the Naming Committee members look for when choosing whether or not to accept it. 

The meanings range a lot, some are very adventurous and fun but others will simply say ‘male version of X’. If you want to look up meanings of specific Icelandic names you will have a hard time finding them in any other language besides Icelandic, but with Google Translate by your side, you might just get somewhere. 

Examples of Icelandic names and their meanings

Table of Icelandic name meanings

Icelandic names you could possibly use

Many of the Icelandic names have letters that only exist in the Icelandic alphabet. We are talking letters like Æ, Ð, Ý, Á, and Ú. Even so, we see an increased interest in people wanting to use Icelandic names when it comes to naming their children.

The parents might have met here, fell in love here, got engaged here, married here or maybe even possibly made the baby here. Whatever the inspiration might be, this has often proven quite tricky once they start looking for a usable name.

Therefore I am hoping to use this last part to help a little bit if you are finding yourself in this position.

Close up shot of baby feet

Internationally friendly Icelandic names for boys (and their meaning):

  • Alvar, rich
  • Ari, eagle
  • Darri, spear
  • Elmar, ship
  • Emil, friendly
  • Flosi, happy man
  • Funi, fire
  • Hilmir, king
  • Logi, flame
  • Nói, he who lives long
  • Orri, a bird’s name
  • Salvar, home protecteor
  • Sigmar, famous in battle
  • Uni, carer
  • Vilmar, great warrior

Internationally friendly Icelandic names for girls (and their meaning):

  • Freyja, pagan goddess of love and fertility
  • Edda, ancestress
  • Harpa, instrument or the old month (spring)
  • Hekla, an Icelandic volcano
  • Katla, an Icelandic volcano
  • Hilda, battle
  • Hrefna, raven
  • Karitas, love, endearment
  • Lind, pond
  • Lukka, luck or happiness
  • Saga, saga
  • Sunna, sun
  • Von, hope


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About the author

Ragnheiður is a nature lover first and foremost, having studied anthropology and media at university. She also loves sharing her passion about her home country, Iceland, with everyone she meets. You’ll often find her traveling the Icelandic countryside, especially the Westfjords and south coast, although her hometown is Reykjavík. Her interests include Icelandic food and drink, plants and wildlife, and cultural traditions.

View more posts by Ragnheiður Harpa

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