Danish Names: Why Bent is not bent, and why it’s bad to be Brian


Danish first names are very strongly stratified by age.

Ole and Finn and Knud and Kaj and Jørn and Jørgen and to some extent Poul and Per, are almost always over 50. Their female counterparts, their wives and sisters and secret lovers, are Inger and Karin and Kirsten and Ulla.

Or Bente. A nearly guaranteed old ladies’ name is Bente. There are no young Bentes. Or Bent, the male equivalent. Being named Bent is a problem for Danes who travel, because in many English-speaking countries, ‘bent’ is old-fashioned slang for ‘gay.’

In those countries, if you hold out your hand and say, ‘Hi, I’m Bent,’ you may get an unexpected reaction.

I once knew a Danish executive named Bent who was sent to work in the UK. While he was there, he called himself Ben – no ‘t’. He even had ‘Ben’ put on his business cards.

There’s always a Søren
If you’re in business, it’s good to have these insights about names before you go to a meeting, because you can get an idea who’s going to be on the other side of the table.

If it’s Søren or Mette you’re going to meet with, it’s someone mid-career, maybe in their 40s. When I first got to Denmark, I used to joke that you could get into any party by saying “Yeah, I’m a good friend of Søren and Mette” because there was always a Søren and a Mette. Pia, Rikke, Trine, Pernille, Jesper, Steen, Kim, these are the middle-aged, middle-management names of Denmark today.

But if you’re supposed to meet with Rasmus or Sofie or Maja or Magnus, you’re probably going to be talking to someone young, possibly younger than you, and potentially smarter than you too. These are the names of Danish people in their 20s and 30s.

Heroic baby names
These days the hippest Danish baby names are very old-fashioned, in a Viking kind of way. Valdemar. Gertrude. Holger. Holger Danske is a legendary figure who is supposed to arise from the grave and save Denmark in its difficult moments. The next Holger Danske may be your local day care right now, dribbling organic carrot juice onto his blanket.

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  • Avatar
    Reply Ulla October 13, 2014 at 4:33 am

    Hi Kay – as (nearly) always you’re spot on here too, and being Danish I explore your blog in order to get knowledge re. foreign culture and manners/behaviour outside DK.

    Fx the Cody/Tyrone thing was news for me! As well as I had no idea that Bent means gay – my father is Bent, and because my parents’ first name choice for me, Bente, was too close to Bent (in DK people never get the same or alike first name as their parents) they called me Ulla (and I’m not 50 y-e-o yet – lots of Karins and Ullas are not; although Kirsten and Inger certainly are, tbf).

    But please don’t pronounce Ole as Ulla – at least let him end with his æ instead of the female a, thank you … 🙂
    And pls don’t make Steen’s name sound like the female equivalent Stine (which is pronounced with the English ee, as you did say here) – the Danish e/ee is pronounced as the i in ”live/give”.

    ”because there was always a Søren and a Mette”

    True dat, and the very reason is: ever since the 70s exactly these two names were the characters in our school books – it was impossible to go through education (lessons and grades) without getting to know them even better than oneself. What is/was the equivalent names in American school/English language history?

    ”Pia, Rikke, Trine, Pernille, Jesper, Steen, Kim, these are the middle-aged, middle-management names of Denmark today”

    Also true. But Kim is a female’s name in the US, isn’t it? Friends of my parents have a son named Kim, who went to the states via a college student program, but in the airport no-one picked him up despite previous agreement/arrangement – at the same time and place the American Heather and her family were desperately looking out for the Danish GIRL Kim! After clearing up the misunderstanding they brought him to their home, and today Kim and Heather have been married for 15 years, have two children and a good life together overthere 🙂

    ”If you’re supposed to meet with Rasmus or Sofie or Maja or Magnus, you’re probably going to be talking to someone young. These are the names of Danish people in their 20s.

    You’re right again, in that generation they all bear the names of our grandparents.

    ”These days the hippest Danish baby names are very old-fashioned: Valdemar. Gertrude. Holger.”

    Yes, now our greatgrandparents names are the new black.

    ”in a Viking kind of way”

    Oh, ”don’t mention the war”! (Danes are as proud of the Vikings as Germans are proud of the Nazis … – I NEVER mention WW2 in the presence of a Preussian!)

    Finally, I would like to know the old and new names in USA today – can you perhaps provide me, when you have the time? When I asked an American friend living in Århus, she told me that Edgar and Winnifred are considered old-school, but she finds Kaj (Kay?) extremely cool … 🙂

  • Avatar
    Reply Pete Madsen October 17, 2014 at 5:18 am

    Several years ago when I googled my name (as Peter Madsen) I got more hits from Denmark than the US where I live. That’s no longer the case. I wasn’t terribly surprised since I’m named after my grandfather who was born in Denmark as were my other three grandparents.

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