IN THE past few years there has been an extremely tight competition between the Finnish surnames Korhonen and Virtanen (the equivalent to Smith and Jones in English). Where Virtanen once led as the most common surname in Finland, recent statistics from the Finnish Population Register Centre announced that Korhonen has taken the lead by only two people. In Finland there are 23,571 Korhonens and 23,569 Virtanens. These are followed by Nieminen, Mäkinen, Mäkelä, Hämäläinen, Koskinen, Heikkinen and Järvinen. Yes, this is the “–nen” country of the “–nen” people.
On average, about 60 per cent of all Finnish surnames have the suffix “–nen”, predominantly from the Eastern surname tradition. The other 40 per cent end with the locative suffix “–la”, “–lä” or the Latin ending “–ius”, or are a name associated to nature or a location. There are also direct translations from Swedish surnames – as part of the Fennicization movement.
The meaning of the Finnish suffix “–nen” indicates both the place of origin and a diminutive. So accordingly Virtanen can mean “someone who lives near a stream,” or simply “a small stream,” and Häkkinen “a person living next to a cage” (and hopefully not in the cage), or “a small cage.” The etymology of Korhonen is found in the word “deaf”. The “–la” and “–lä” ending, traditionally from Western Finland, was often based on the association with a farm or a holding, e.g. Juhani Anttila meaning “Juhani from the farm of Antti.”
Then there are the more unique surnames. Mäyrä (badger), Makkara (sausage), Kiimamaa (land in heat), Rautaparta (iron beard), Hikipää (sweaty head), Patja (mattress) and Kaalinpää (cabbage head). Upon marriage about 80 per cent of Finnish women assume their husband’s surname or then use both maiden name and husband’s surname. So if Miss Orava (squirrel) gets married to Mr Pulska (fat), she might just become Pulska-Orava – a fat squirrel.