What’s in a Name?

Svava introduces Iceland’s quirky naming rules

The Three Svavas - that's me on the left, my grandma Svava and Svava Barker, an english girl whose father was my grandmother's good friend and named his first daughter after my grandma

The Three Svavas - that's me on the left, my grandma Svava and Svava Barker, an english girl whose father was my grandmother's good friend and named his first daughter after my grandma

When I meet new people for the first time, once I have told them my name is from Iceland, the question I get asked most often is, “Does your name mean anything in Icelandic?”

I am named after my Icelandic maternal grandmother, Svava, who was born in 1911. She grew up in Reykjavik before travelling to England in 1937 where she married my English grandfather and settled to raise her family in north London. My Amma (Icelandic for grandma) was a vivacious, energetic lady who enjoyed gymnastics, hiking and horse riding in her youth, but throughout her life and most of all, music and dancing - “It feeds your soul, daaaarling!”.

My grandmother Svava in Iceland. She loved nature and the great outdoors.

My grandmother Svava in Iceland. She loved nature and the great outdoors.

There are strict rules to naming a child in Iceland with a list of accepted first names a parent can choose from. Currently there are about 1,712 boys names and 1,853 girls names. Any other name has to be approved by the Icelandic Naming Committee! Svava is on the list, but you are more likely to come across the male equivalent Svavar.

According to my Mum, Svava means ‘love’ so that’s what I have always told people, who typically respond “How romantic!” or “What a wonderful meaning” and I smile to myself smugly whilst thinking, “Yes, it is really isn't it?”. However I should have known better - many things my Mum says should be taken with a pinch of salt - and the shocking day came when I searched for the meaning of my own name (as you finally do after 45 years) and this is what I found:

Svava - younger form of Svafa
Svafa - Old Norse meaning ‘woman from Swabia’. The name of the Germanic people derives from the Old German swēba meaning ‘free, independent’.

Hmmm, not quite the same ring, I don’t even know where Swabia is or was! No mention of love there. Undaunted, I continue my search, unwilling to shatter the myth quite yet - after all I have spent my entire lifetime believing this myth, I’ll unearth the true romantic meaning some day!! If it’s any conciliation to me, my sister’s name is Lára. Imagine my sister’s disappointment to hear from my Mum that, in Iceland, Lára means ‘great diving bird’. Perhaps Lára needs to do a Google search too! 

A Great Northern Loon (also known as the Great Northern Diver and the Common Loon)

A Great Northern Loon (also known as the Great Northern Diver and the Common Loon)