Decipher the Meaning Behind a Danish Surname

By David A. Fryxell

Question: A 1799 birth record for my Danish ancestor gives the father’s name as Jens Hansen Bødker, but I can’t find this person anywhere else. What am I doing wrong?

A: It’s possible that whoever transcribed that church record mistakenly added the occupation to the name. Much as in English, some Scandinavians took occupational terms as surnames. But in the period you’re researching, patronymic surnames (the father’s first name plus –sen or –datter) were much more common. Bødker is Danish for a cooper, or barrel maker, and the original church record could certainly have noted this occupation. Try searching with just Jens Hansen and see if you have better luck. To differentiate among the zillions of Danes with that name (even today, Hansen is the third most common Danish surname) try to include a place, such as the parish from the birth record, and Jens’ child or wife, if known. Check out this handy list translating occupations and other words commonly found in Danish records.

A version of this article appeared in the December 2018 issue of Family Tree Magazine.