Guest columnist: The American Emigrant

Editors note: Lisa Werner (now Lisa Carr) wrote a series of articles in the Swedish-American newspaper Nordstjernan in 1990 and 1991, describing the complexities, great and small, of living in Sweden. We are happy to reprint her articles, and we will include one with every update of kulturCHOCK! (until they run out, at which time Lisa will simply have to move back to Malmö and write some more).

By Lisa Carr
Originally published January 17, 1991.

There was an article in Sydsvenska Dagbladet before Christmas about a couple in Lund who were prohibited by a judge from naming their daughter Buppy. It would have been the child's third given name: Love Petra Buppy. The last name, which I will keep to myself, was a common Swedish surname. I think the decision was unfair, really, given that another Skåne couple were permitted to christen their daughter Adolfina Stalina. But both families were heading in a positive direction - giving their kids distinctive (if unfortunately embarrassing) names.

Both "Lisa" and "Werner" are relatively common names in Sweden. There's a swimmer here named Tommy Werner who just won the silver medal in the 100m at the world championships in Australia. There's a comedy team called Werner & Werner. So my name draws little notice, except for joking references to the chief of the communist - I mean left-wing - party here, Lars Werner. On the other hand, it is different enough that I don't get mistaken for anyone else. I've never met another Lisa Werner. But some Swedes don't have it so easy.

Previously I talked about the personnummer - the 10-digit thing that distinguishes Swedes from one another and follows them to the grave. You'd think that with a population of only 8.5 million people, roughly equal to that of New York City, Sweden wouldn't need to number its people; they could just use their names. Not so.

This is my theory: There aren't enough names to go around in Sweden, so people have to share them.

After all, more than 5 persent of the people here are named Andersson. My ancestors, like yours, were named Ericsson and Jansson and Andersson and Mattsson, et. We took the unusual Swedish name of Dudero for that reason when we emigrated to America. The US system, at least at that time, depended on names. Johan Andersson was not considered a distinctive one.

I watched a fotboll (that's soccer for us Americans) game on TV one night, and there were two guys named Patrik Andersson on one team, and two guys named Magunus Pettersson or something on the other. Patrik and Patrik and Magnus and Magnus more than likely have their own special names for each other, nicknames we probably don't want to know the origins of, but the fact is, we don't know them, and neither did the announcer. He had to keep calling them "Patrik Andersson number 5" and Patrik Andersson number 7" because, keep in mind, he couldn't just say Andersson - there was also a Mats Andersson and an Torbjörn Andersson, etc. Maybe a team roster with all of the personal numbers would have been more useful. ("Nice header there by 620104-5491!").

I'm not picking on people named Magnus or Andersson or anyone else here. They're nice names. There are a lot of other common first names and plenty of typical last names that don't end in "son". But to me it's interesting. To the Swedes, it doesn't seem to be a big deal. A friend of mine in Stockholm, Robert Johansson, once asked me to call him at his office. And, of course, he's not the only Robert Johansson in that office. "How do I indicate which Robert I'm calling?" I asked. "Just ask for 'Bianco,' the blond one," he said.

The problem, however, is that I think Sweden may actually be losing names, certainly a dangerous trend. There are lots of names on my name-day calendar here that I've never heard in public: Torkel, Brynolf, Germund, Baltsar, Algot, Tyko, Hilding, Desideria. I would never forget a guy named Torket Algotsson. Or a girl named Love Petra Buppy Eriksson.

On the positive side, the phone book is a fascinating read here because of the same-name phenomenon. When the same name appears more than once, people often give their occupations. Thaty way you know if it's Ingvar Carlsson the prime minister you're calling up or Ingvar Carlsson the shoe salesman. If you can't tell the difference otherwise.

There is no Lisa Werner in the Malmö phone book, or any other Swedish phone book I've consulted. But theoretically there could be another one out there. My friends say that one is enough.

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