Tripartite Names in Denmark and China

Danes often have tripartite names, like famous Roman Iron Age scholar Ulla Lund Hansen or NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. And I’ve been wondering how these names are inherited. Specifically, which names get dropped and which ones get passed on to the kids. So I wrote my erudite buddy, osteologist Helene Agerskov Madsen, and asked her to explain.

I learned that the system is not very old (~100 yrs?) and has already started to fall apart. But in its idealised form here’s how it works. The middle name tracks a matrilineage and the last name a patrilineage. When a child is born it inherits its mother’s middle name and its father’s last name. When a woman marries, she keeps her middle name and takes her hubby’s last name. So if the aforementioned Ulla and Anders married, she would change to Ulla Lund Rasmussen, and any children would be named likewise. Yes, Danish children will ideally share both middle and last name with mom and only their last name with dad. His middle name comes down to him from his maternal grandmothers.

Then there are niceties to the system. For instance, double patronymics are avoided, so you won’t see anybody named Svend Nielsen Jensen. And lately it has become common among women to drop the middle name at marriage and instead join their own last name and their hubby’s with a hyphen, e.g. Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the leader of the Danish Social Democrats.

Through my rather intimate Chinese contacts, I’ve learned about another tripartite naming system. Most Chinese have names consisting of three ideograms / syllables: “Mao Ze Dong”. Ideally, the first is the name of the patrilineage, the second is shared within a generation of that lineage, and the third identifies the individual. All first cousins on the male line are thus supposed to have the same first two ideograms. My wife and her three sibs for instance share “Cycle” and “Space”. But in the following generation, the system has been applied patchily, so that our daughter only shares her second ideogram (“Family”) with a few of her cousins. Of course, traditionally her name wouldn’t be expected to fit the Chinese system at all since her mother married out into an illiterate Swedish patrilineage.

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i-5829652f66bd6fa183ab85e0f11b4a54-rutabaga.jpgEverybody knows that English has borrowed the words ombudsman and smorgasbord from Swedish. But did you know that rutabaga is another Swedish loan? And that it was borrowed from a rural Swedish dialect, not standard Swedish?

“Rutabaga” is an American word for the kind of turnip known to Englishmen and Australians as swede. Indeed, the plant hybrid probably once arose in Sweden. In standard Swedish, though, it’s called kÃ¥lrot, “cabbage root” — which is botanically speaking exactly what it is. “Rut-” in “rutabaga” is simply rot, “root”. Bagge (“-baga”) means “ram”, and my speculation is that the big mean turnip was compared affectionately to the bigger meaner kind of sheep. But standard Swedish wouldn’t put that extra -a- between rot and bagge. Unsourced statements around the web suggest that the word rotabagge originated in Västergötland province.

I rarely eat rutabaga. When I do, it’s diced with other veggies in broth soup, or mashed with potatoes to produce the wonderfully sweet and orange rotmos. Or rutamus, as I guess Americans would call it.

I was inspired to write about this by Norm Sherman’s sobering and chilling gangster lyric for his song “Rutabaga“. Their words were all splurred when they sloke!

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Runological Report on the Hogganvik Rune Stone


Runologist James E. Knirk has published a report on the recently found Hogganvik rune stone. His transliteration is


His translation is

Skelba-þewaR’s [“Shaking-servant’s”] stone. (Alphabet magic: aaasrpkf aarpaa). ?Within/From within the ?wheel-nave/?cabin-corner. I NaudigastiR [=”Need-guest”]. I, the Wolverine.

So there isn’t actually an explicit lord-retainer relationship in the text, just a guy whose name includes the word for servant, thewar. It also occurs in two names inscribed on weaponry from Danish war booty finds.

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5th Century Rune Stone Found


Most rune stones are written with the late 16-character futhark and date from the 11th century when the Scandies had largely been Christianised. Their inscriptions tend to be formulaic: “Joe erected the stone after Jim his father who was a very good man”. But by that time, runic writing was already 900 years old. It’s just that inscriptions in the early 24-character futhark are much less common. And when you find them, their messages are usually far less straight-forward.

My buddy Frans Arne Stylegar reports in a series of blog entries [12345] on the discovery, less than two weeks ago, of a 5th century rune stone at Hogganvik in Mandal municipality, Vest-Agder county, Norway. Nothing similar has been found in Norway since WW2. And it’s an exceptionally long inscription — 63 runes!

The message hasn’t received detailed philological treatment yet, but so much is clear that the stone was erected by one Naudigastir in memory of a man who may have been his proto-feudal lord (or was it the other way around?). It is thus the same genre of memorial text as the 11th century rune stones that are so common in the Stockholm and Uppsala area. And it’s going to give the runologists a lot to think about.

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Copulation Music

Musical styles can have really weird names. There’s sauce music (salsa), meringue music (merengue), juvenile delinquent music (punk), record collection music (disco), LSD warehouse music (acid house), popular music (pop), you name it. But some of the most intensely loved musical styles have names that mean “copulation music”.

“Jazz” was once a verb meaning “to fuck”. Jazz music was originally played in the better class of New Orleans brothel, where men would listen to music before, well, getting down to some actual jazzing and jizzing.

Likewise with “swing”. A verb meaning “to fuck”. (Here the etymology is less clear as “swing” could denote pretty much anything that moved to and fro rhythmically.)

And, famously, “rock and roll” meant “to fuck” long before it became the name of a musical style. As Little Richard asked Miss Molly in 1956, “While you’re rockin’ and a-rollin’, can’t you hear your mama call?”.

My friend Pär used to live in the apartment under an amorous couple who would jazz, swing, rock and roll loudly with the window open. They clearly wouldn’t have heard anybody, mama or not, calling for them. He once went out onto his balcony, recorded their expostulations and used them as vocals for a techno song.

Anybody here like to listen to swingin’ jazz rock in the bedroom?

Marsh Meringue

Here are two pieces of convoluted Scandy and English etymology that converge in my head.

“Marshmallow” was originally the common name of a plant, Althaea officinalis (Sw. läkemalva), from which a thickening agent was made. This agent was added to meringue foam to produce the toastable sweet pillows we all know and love. And so the sweet took over the name of the marsh-dwelling mallow plant.

On GÃ¥lö, the peninsula where I helped with excavations yesterday, is a place called Kärrmaräng. This means “Marsh Lagoon Meadow”, but the Swedish word for meringue is maräng, so “Kärrmaräng” looks like it should be read “Marsh Meringue”.

I wonder if Althaea officinalis grows at Kärrmaräng. It sounds like good place to light a camp fire and toast marshmallows.

Current Archaeology 232

i-d6f246fd71dd13c2ee91235202320dda-001_COVER232.jpgCurrent Archaeology’s July issue offers a lot of good reading, of which I particularly like the stories on human origins (see below) and garden archaeology at Kenilworth Castle. But I have two complaints.

First point of criticism. The editors of CA have this weird habit of doing “media tie-ins” without any clear indication of authorship. In the past three issues were excerpts from a forthcoming book by Barry Cunliffe. They weren’t billed as written by Cunliffe. Instead you got the impression that a nameless writer had read his book manuscript and paraphrased it for the magazine. “Cunliffe believes this”, “Cunliffe says that”.

In the current issue this gets taken even further. Here’s a really interesting eight-page feature on the predecessors and origin of Homo sapiens. It has no by-line, but its intro hints that it’s got something to do with a BBC documentary hosted by University of Bristol anthropologist Alice Roberts. The piece is illustrated i.a. with three pictures of Roberts. But she isn’t the author of the piece, nor is one Chris Stringer who is mentioned in a box at the end as advisor to the series. Roberts hardly gets to say a word in the text, and Stringer isn’t quoted at all. To learn who is talking in this magazine article, you have to flip to the table of contents where we finally learn that CA features editor Neil Faulkner wrote it. But whose opinions is he relaying? His own? Alice Roberts’s? Chris Stringer’s? Other people’s mentioned in the piece?

Dear CA editors, it would strengthen the credibility of your excellent work if every piece in the mag had a clear indication of authorship.

Second point of criticism. On p. 26 editor Lisa Westcott gives a garbled (folk?) etymology of the word “bereaved”. In modern English it means “recently struck by the death of a loved one”. Westcott traces the origin of the word to Early Modern raiders on the Scottish border, “reavers”, suggesting that “bereaved” entered the English language as meaning “having been attacked by reavers”. This is a case where correlation does not entail causation. Both “reaver” and “bereaved” instead hark back to a common ancestor, the ancient verb “to reave” (cognate with Sw. röva), meaning “to rob”. The entry of “bereaved” into English thus has nothing to do with Early Modern Scottish robbers in particular.

Ancient Power Nodes

Anglophones find it really funny that one of Sweden’s oldest towns is named Sick Tuna — spelled Sigtuna. However, -tuna has nothing to do with fish, being instead a cognate of Eng. town and Ge. Zaun. It has something to do with enclosed areas. As a reply to a question from my friend Per Vikstrand, here’s a snippet about these place names from the Migration Period chapter of my book manuscript about political geography in 1st Millennium Östergötland.

Of the place-name categories in Östergötland suggested as indicating a status above the ordinary, only one is likely to have been productive as early as the Migration Period: the -tuna names. There are eight of them, and when juxtaposed with the Migration Period’s elite indicators they do not correlate well. Only one is inside a Migration Period elite cluster, coinciding with one of the period’s three best candidates for an elite settlement site: Sättuna in Kaga. Surprisingly, the -tuna names correlate better (but overall not very strongly) with Late Roman Period elite indicators, coinciding closely at Tuna in Heda, Luntan/Luntuna in Viby and Tuna in Östra Husby. As we shall see in the next chapter, in the context of political geography the -tuna farmsteads of Östergötland as a group are mainly relevant to the Vendel Period, when four of them coincide closely with elite indicators. But regardless of their later fate, it appears that four of the eight were already important places before the end of the Migration Period. I would suggest that at least these four were named Tuna at the time, and that the name type was productive over several centuries.

In the Viking Period, all eight appear unimportant. We should note that three of them do not coincide closely with any elite indicators whatsoever from the period AD 150-1000. But five out of eight over a period of 650 years does support the long-established notion that there is something unusual about Tuna.

Ola Wikander and Fictional Beings

i-f1aac554ca5cc93e309ff78d053f9f82-ola_wikander.jpgOn Saturday night I attended a talk by bright young philology and religion studies comet Ola Wikander. In 2003, at age 22, he published a Swedish translation of the Baal cycle and other Canaanite mythological matter for the lay reader. In the five years since then, he’s done the Enuma Elish, the Chaldaean oracles, an essay collection on ancient languages, a popular introduction to Indo-europan studies and a historical mystery novel co-written with his dad. His PhD thesis on the relationship between certain themes in Ugaritic and Old Testament mythology is due in 2011. In his spare time he blogs in Swedish and English (Ola, I can’t find a blog in Ugaritic!) and translates manga for his girlfriend. We’re dealing with a hugely talented young scholar with a keen interest in popularisation.

Wikander’s talk at the Classical Society’s annual meeting was lively, interesting and entertaining. He spoke on the subject of his thesis, looking at the fascinating relationship between texts about Jahwe in the Old Testament and others about Baal from several centuries before. Essentially, within the context of mythology they’re the same guy: a storm god called “the Lord” who kicks the Sea Monster’s ass. Yet much of the Old Testament chronicles the struggle between Jahwe’s and Baal’s priesthoods.

This all brought some old thoughts of mine back to the fore. How do we know if two fictional characters are separate or identical? Me and Ola Wikander are not the same person. He’s younger, shorter, has different eye and hair colours, and tens of people saw us talking to each other the other night. But nobody ever sees Jahwe and Baal chatting. In fact, all we have about them is mythological reports on what they are like. And these reports are uncannily similar, as they recycle a lot of generic mythological tropes about storm gods that were knocking about promiscuously in the Near East in the Bronze Age.

In Norse mythology, Odinn shows up under a load of different identities. Snorri lists many names for this character, one of them being “The Masked One”. Scholars of religion will quite happily say about a character in a text that “this is most likely Odinn in disguise”. What do they mean by that? Sometimes they mean that the author of the text intends us to identify the mysterious stranger as Odinn the Masked One. But in other cases, they mean that there was once a group of people who believed that it was Odinn, but that by the time the myth in question was codified, this knowledge had been lost. Likewise with the heroes of the Mabinogion: textual notes inform the reader that “this guy is probably the god Lugh though the writer of the text is not aware of it”. And conversely, famously, with the many avatars of the Hindu gods.

This ambiguity of “ontological status” really bothers me when I read about mythology. I understand that it’s a convenient shorthand to speak of gods being this and doing that just in the same way that Ola Wikander is a talented philologist and does give good lectures. But I’d like the verb “to be” to mean the same thing throughout a text. Saturday, when I suggested that the distinction between Jahwe and Baal is redundant, Wikander replied that “No, they are two gods competing for the same mythological material”. I don’t agree. Jahwe and Baal exist only as mythological material, and if the two sets of writings are closely similar, then the two are indistinguishable, comparable to two entries on Snorri’s list of Odinn’s names.

I am however willing to concede that Jahwe/Baal is not identical to Mickey Mouse, because I met him once at Disney World and he was nothing like the god of the Old Testament.