Today’s trivia question: Which European royal family was founded by the son of a French tax collector?
A Frenchman born Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte became king of Sweden 195 years ago today. Bernadotte joined the French army in 1780, rising through the ranks to become one of Napoleon’s best generals. He even married Désirée Clary, Napoleon’s former fiancee.
In 1810, King Karl XIII of Sweden was elderly and childless. The Swedish parliament, worried about possible wars, decided to offer the throne to a general. Bernadotte accepted, becoming Crown Prince Karl Johan, and then King Karl XIV in 1818.
Bernadotte adopted a new Swedish name along with his new job. What makes a name “Swedish,” though, has changed over the centuries.
Ancient Swedes, like other Germanic peoples, often combined two words to create names. Popular name elements included arn (“eagle”), borg (“fortress”), frid (“beauty”), hild (“battle”), mar (“famous”), sig (“victory”) and vid (“tree”), found in names like Borghild, Arnvid (modern Arvid) and Sigfrid (modern Sigrid).
Inge, a fertility god believed to have founded Sweden, was honored in names such as Ingeborg and Ingemar.
Christian missionaries began arriving in Sweden in 830, bringing Biblical names and the names of saints. Ironically, one of the first Christian kings of Sweden, Inge the Elder, was named after the ancient god. He named his own daughters Kristina, Margareta and Katarina after Christian saints.
By 1500, saints’ names like Laurens, Petrus and Helena developed short Swedish forms like Lars, Per and Elin.
Medieval Swedes also adopted German names, such as Fredrik and Valter. Karl may have been another. Though the Germanic word “karl” (“free man”) was found in ancient Sweden — in fact, modern Swedes use “karl” like Americans use “guy” — there’s no evidence it was a name before nobles began naming sons after Charlemagne (“Karl den store” in Swedish.) The first Swedish King Karl reigned 1161-1167.
Royal prestige made Karl hugely popular. Roland Otterbjörk’s “Svenska förnamn” says that in 1875, 18.4 percent of Swedish men were named Karl. Johan, Gustaf, August and Erik rounded out the top five.
Anna, Maria, Kristina, Matilda and Sofia were the most common women’s names in 1875.
In the early 1900s, a “Nordic renaissance” made ancient Viking names fashionable. Gunnar, Sven, Einar and Arvid rose for boys, while Ingeborg, Signe and Sigrid boomed for girls. In 1910, even King Gustav VI named his daughter Ingrid, “Ing plus beauty.”
In 1915, Justus and Friedel Bergman of Stockholm named their daughter after the princess. When Ingrid Bergman became an international star in the 1940s, babies were named after her throughout Europe, the United States and Latin America, making Ingrid the most widely used ancient Swedish name.
By 1950, Nordic names were receding. The top fives that year were Margareta, Elisabet, Kristina, Eva and Birgitta for girls and Lars, Erik, Anders, Karl and Gunnar for boys. (Hollywood often calls comic Swedish-American characters Lars, from Phyllis Lindstrom’s unseen husband on the old “Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970-77) to a guy in love with a inflatable doll in the 2007 film “Lars and the Real Girl.”)
On Jan. 21, Statistics Sweden published the top 100 names for babies born in 2012. For boys, the top 10 were William, Oscar, Hugo, Lucas, Elias, Alexander, Liam, Charlie, Oliver and Filip. The fastest rising names for boys on the list were Ebbe, Henry, Elvin, Charlie and Julian.
The top 10 for girls was Alice, Elsa, Julia, Ella, Maja, Ebba, Emma, Linnea, Molly and Alva. The fast risers were Sigrid, Majken, Elise, Alicia and Lykke.
English names for boys are trendy in Sweden. William replaced Wilhelm more than 20 years ago; Henry has been more common than Henrik since 2005. In addition to Liam, Charlie and Elvin, many Swedish boys are named Aston, Dexter, Dylan, Elmer, Elton, Harry, Lennox, Otis, Troy and Winston.
Ella and Emma now are fashionable in all English-speaking countries. The fact that Elsa, Ebba and Alva also are in the Swedish top 10 shows that Swedes, like Americans, tend to go for new fashions with similar sounds.
Sigrid’s boom in Sweden shows that Sweden’s Nordic revival names are ripe for revival, since it’s about a century since their previous peak. Signe, Ingrid, Astrid and Idun for girls and Algot, Arvid, Folke, Hjalmar, Holger, Ingemar and Tage for boys are other ancient Norse names on the rise in Sweden.
Every culture has new names that some parents love and others hate. Sweden’s recent example is Tindra. This girl’s name is the Swedish word for “sparkle,” as in the phrase “stjärnorna har börjat tindra,” “the stars have begun to sparkle.” Many Swedes hate it, complaining about both the meaning and the idea of creating a name from a verb. (It doesn’t help that “Tindra” is a brand name for candles sold at IKEA.) But others love it; more than 3,000 Tindras have been born since 2000.
Less controversial are names created by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002), best known in America for the “Pippi Longstocking” series. Lindgren wrote many other fantasies that Swedish children love. Her 1981 adventure “Ronja the Robber’s Daughter” and her 1954 “Mio, My Son,” in which a Swedish orphan finds out he’s king of a magical country, were made into popular Swedish films. Since 2000, 2,385 Ronjas and 1,036 Mios have been born in Sweden, bringing Lindgren’s beloved characters to real life.