Haarsager/Horsager and Fenstad Names
Haarsaker/Hårsaker og Fenstad navner

Staværinger Home Page

I suppose the meaning of one's name is not very important in the overall scheme of things, but it has been, to me, a matter of interest most of my life. So I have had quite a bit of fun researching the meanings of the family names Haarsager (also spelled Horsager and Haarsaker in this country and Hårsaker and Haarsaker in Norway) and Fenstad.

Three Haarsager brothers and three Fenstad sisters from Stadsbygd, Norway married in America in 1882, 1884 and 1886. They raised large families and were parents or some variety of grandparents to a large number of people. By the publication time of June Osterberg's family history book in 1979, the descendants of Elias and Kjersten, Ole and Johanna, and Andrew (Andreas) and Anna numbered some 378 people! First cousin Phil Jennings, my siblings Rob Haarsager and Margaret Johnson and I have, with our spouses' help, added seven more third-generation and six more fourth-generation descendants since then. The number must be close to 400.

This is certainly not a definitive study of the meanings of those two names. It is just my conjecture based on available research. Since there is evidence the farm names these personal names derive from could have been as much as one thousand years old when our relatives took over, we can never be sure what the first Stadsbygd settlers had in mind when they named the farms.

The Hårsaker (also spelled Håssåker in dialect and, at least on one official government map, Hårsåker) farm in Norway, from which Haarsager is derived, has been operated by my ancestors since at least 1520 -- the year modern records are available -- except for breaks from 1668-1696 and 1820-1835. The Fenstad farm was operated by my ancestors only from 1854-1880. In Norway before this century, the last name was essentially an address, changing when one moved to a new farm.

I am not, of course, either a linguist or scholar of Norse history, so the following is subject to my own errors of research or interpretation. I have included a list of the references I used, so anyone who wants more information will know where to look in any good library.


The Norwegian/Danish alphabet has three additional vowels not found in English: [Æ/æ, Ø/ø and Å/å (in Swedish, Æ is Ä and Ø is Ö). The letter å has also been written aa in the recent past and á in Old Norse. The aa form, known as "germinated a," was in use during the latter part of the 19th century when our relatives emigrated to America. Norwegian has fewer consonants than English, however--c, q, w, x and z are normally found only in words of foreign origin.

The letter a is pronounced as we pronounce it in father. The pronunciation of æ is like English a in mad or mat except that it is more open. Ø is pronounced like the French eu in coeur or the German ö as in Johann Göethe or Arnold Schönberg, but you can get close to it in English with the u in fur. There is almost a hint of an English r along with the vowel sound. Å is pronounced like English o in horn or horse. There are short and long versions of each, but that refers mostly to length rather than sound.

In Norway, the letter r is not pronounced like it is in American English. Rather, in most parts of the country, it is made with a tap of the tongue (or a slight trill in the case of rr). The tap sounds like the r in the upper class British pronunciation of the word very. An exception in much of Norway is that, when r comes before s, as in Hårsaker, it is mostly silent and the s softens to be like sh in English.

This makes the pronunciation of Hårsaker, according to the authority on Norwegian farm names, Oluf Rygh, "HÅSS-aker," with the å short (in English, it sounds something like "HOESS-ahker" with the final r "tapped").

As in English, some letters in Norwegian are "silent," written but not pronounced. In Norwegian, d is very often silent if it is at the end of a word. "Good morning," for example, is written "God morgen" but pronounced "goh MOR-gehn." One of these words is stad. Also, it sometimes happens that one vowel will take on the sound of another one. According to Rygh, this happens in Fenstad, which he shows as being pronounced "FÆNN-sta," ("FAN-stah" in English).

In Old Norse (circa 1050-1370 A.D.), there were additional letters. The letter å in modern Norwegian is represented by Á/á. The old runic letter Þ/þ (called thorn) was used for th sounds. In the 12th century, the letter Ð/ð (called eth or edh) was borrowed from Old English to differentiate the "voiced" sound of th in then (ð) from the "unvoiced" th in thing (þ). These two consonants were revived in Iceland and the Faeroe Islands are still in use there. Eventually, þ and ð came to be spelled t and d, respectively, in Norwegian (th and d in English).

Another letter we will encounter from the Proto-Scandinavian (to 550 A.D.) and Common Scandinavian (550-1050 A.D.) periods that preceded Old Norse is termed "pre-literary R" and is used to represent the sound of ge in rouge or si in vision. Scholars write it R, even in lower case, though it was written only in the runic alphabet as Y (and called elgr or elk). Over time, the sound and spelling of this letter were merged into Norwegian r.

Finally, the letter ß (eszett) was borrowed from German and used in the 16th and 17th centuries to represent what Rygh designates as the ss or sz sound. In English, this sound would be like either the sound of our sh or that of "pre-literary R" as described above (i.e., the sound of si in vision).

The Latin alphabet, with Old Norse adaptations, was used only since Christian times (approximately 1000 A.D.). It came to Norway with English clerics who were sent to Nidaros (Trondheim). But for the next few centuries, it was used primarily by clerics, poets and academics. Ordinary people continued to use runes up until the Reformation (the mid-16th century conversion from Catholicism to Lutheranism). In some parts of Norway, it survived much later than that.


Our immediate family spells the names Haarsager and Fenstad, but, in Norway, the personal name is spelled Hårsaker or Haarsaker and the farm name from which it is derived, Hårsaker or Håssåker. Both uses of Fenstad are spelled as they are in America. It turns out that both these names have had a large number of different spellings throughout the centuries. The original version of the U.S. constitution illustrates how spellings change with time. The word choose, for example, was spelled "chuse."

Although Norwegian spoken dialects have continued to exist, written Norwegian disappeared for 500 years beginning in the latter part of the 15th century, being replaced by Danish. Even the Reformation did not bring about a Norwegian translation of the Bible. With efforts beginning in the 19th century, it took well into this century before the current written forms of Norwegian , bokmål (book language) and nynorsk (new Norwegian), were finally adopted. One of the problems in researching this has been that much of the source material is written in a late 19th century Danish-Norwegian and it was hard to find a dictionary to translate it.

For example, the Norwegian word for field is åker (also aker in bokmål). In modern Danish and in late 19th century Danish-Norwegian, it was spelled ager. Because the aa form of å was also in official use at the same time, we can see how Hårsaker came to be spelled as Haarsager at the time of emigration (and Horsager, based on pronunciation, by some immigrants to the United States). You will see below that Haarsager was used for the farm name on official land records in 1723.

In the latter part of the 19th century, the scholar Oluf Rygh published an 18-volume study of Norwegian farm names. There is one volume for each Norwegian county, including one for what was then called Søndre Trondhjems amt (now called Sør-Trøndelag fylke) where Stadsbygd is located.

Rygh lists an astonishing number of spellings for Stadsbygd and for the farms now spelled Fenstad and Hårsåker (on the official topographic map) which he got from old official land registers:

                1430-40: Finnastadom
                1514-21: Statzbygdhen, Fenstad, Hassagher
                1530: Stadzbygd
                1550: Stadzbiudenn, Findnestedt
                1550: Stadzbyen
                1559: Fennestadt, Hoßacker
                1590: Haassager
                1626: Stadtzbye, Hosßager
                1630: Hoesagger
                1723: Fenstad, Haarsager
                1898: Stadsbygd, Fenstad, Haarsaaker

There are four Norwegian censuses available on the World Wide Web and these too show a variation of spellings:

1666 census: Stadtzbøyden, Horsager
1801 census: Stadsbøygden, Fenstad, Horsager
1865 census: Stadsbygd, Finstad, Haarsager
1886 land tax records: Stadsbygden, Fenstad, Haarsaaker
1900 census: Stadsbygden, Fenstad, Haarsaker
1950 land tax records: Stadsbygd, Fenstad, Hårsaker

Kristoffer Rein's bygdebøker lists two more spellings, from the 17th century, Hosager and Håtzager, and you can find it spelled Horsager and Hårsager in various 19th century records.  You can see from the variety of spellings that constancy has not been one of the hallmarks of the written language of Norway.


Fenstad has proven easier to translate than Hårsaker. The suffix -stad is a common one in Scandinavian farm names, which comes from staðr and staðir in Old Norse and staþiR in the older Common Scandinavian. It means place, spot or dwelling, the same as an obsolete meaning for the English word stead. Fen is identical to the English word, fen, meaning bog or marshy place. Fenstad would therefore mean "boggy place."

Rygh speculates that, because of the early Finnastadom spelling, one should not rule out the possibility that the old personal name of Finni (male) or Finna (female) or the old river names Þin or Þinaross might have been the source of the prefix instead of the obvious one.

My own hunch would be to reject this possibility, because the two Fenstad farms shown on the current official topographic map (one 4 miles north of Hårsåker, the other--that of our relatives--1.5 miles southwest of it) are near boggy terrain. The northerly one is adjacent to Fenstadslettet, which is represented on the map as a myr (marsh or swamp), and our relative's is located near Grønningsmyra, a similar area. Myhr, the family farm name of great-grandmother Fenstad, comes from the Myr farm which is next door.

Hårsaker proved more difficult because I was misled by our own mispronunciation of Haarsager. We divide it Haar-sager, while Rygh and the topographic map clearly show it should have been divided Haars-ager. Because both hår and saker have had many meanings over the centuries, narrowing these down to a satisfactory farm name proved frustrating.

Getting the name divided properly eliminated a lot of these possibilities. The suffix -aker now can only be the word for cultivated field -- the same as the original meaning of the English word acre. More specifically, in Viking times (800-1050 A.D.) and before, it generally meant grainfield. Rygh and Magnus Olsen show that -aker and related spellings were, like -stad, commonly used to form Scandinavian farm names.

Rygh lists the farm name, Haarsaaker, as one of the names which might derive from the old personal name, Hárekr. According to Cleasby and Vigfusson, Hárekr, in turn, is derived from a contraction of hár, meaning high, and rekr. In Old Norse, rekr can mean drives, as in "he drives cattle" or "he drives back the enemy." It can also mean jetsam, parts of a shipwreck (a related English word) washed ashore. Cleasby and Vigfusson do not give guidance on this, but my guess is that it is a contraction of rekkr, which means man or warrior (more specifically, a free man who ranks just below the gentry; in English law, a franklin).

Another possiblity seems more likely, however:

Hårs is the possessive form of the word hår. In modern Norwegian, hår means hair, but in Old Norse and Common Scandinavian it had additional meanings. These included dogfish or shark, oarlock or thole, and high, lofty or tall. As an adverb, the latter was also used to mean loud or loudly. But in possessive form, we have to look for a meaning that can be used as a proper name. "High" is such a meaning.

Hár, the Old Norse spelling for hår, is used as a proper name in two places in ancient Norse literature. In the Gylfaginning saga (Deceiving of Gylfi) and elsewhere, it was given as a name for the god Oðinn (the Anglo-Saxon name for Oðinn, Woden, was immortalized in our name for Wednesday). Hár as a name for Oðinn may have been used well into the Christian era (post-1000 A.D.). In Sigrid Undset's trilogy of 14th century Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter, one of the characters calls on Hátt (a variant spelling of Hár), in a moment of stress (incidentally, much of the trilogy is set at Husaby, 16 miles south of Stadsbygd across Trondheimsfjorden and it ends at Reinskloster, a convent an even shorter distance to the west in the next parish, Rissa).

Hár inn Harðgreipi (High the hard of grip) is mentioned in the saga, Þormóð at the Battle of Stiklastaðir (Stiklestad is east of Stadsbygd at the end of the Trondheimsfjord). This Hár was of one of the champions of Danish king Hrólfr Kraki (Ralph Pole-Stick, believe it or not). Hrólfr ruled in the 6th century and is probably the Hrothulf in the famous Old English tale, Beowulf. He was neither pagan nor Christian, and because he was at least not the former, he was favored by the early Christian kings of Scandinavia.

So, my conclusion is that Hårsåker means High's acre or, more specifically, High's grainfield. Now, whether the original Hár was Oðinn (it is quite common for farm names to have -aker combined with the name of a pagan god, and Hårsåker's location would have been a logical spot for a memorial to him), someone whose personal name was Hár, or, as the best scholar of Norwegian farm names offers, someone named Hárekr, we will never know for sure.


The age of the farm names Hårsåker and Fenstad can never be exactly determined, but they can be estimated. The best guidance comes from Olsen, who states that historians analyze farm names to determine the duration of settlement in a particular area.

Olsen states that names which are the oldest--sometimes predating both the Common Scandinavian (550-1050 A.D.) and Proto-Scandinavian (before 550 A.D.) periods--are uncompounded farm names. In Stadsbygd, Myr, Rein and Lein are examples of these. Names with -vin or -heimr components are also very old, being among the first settled areas. -Land and -setr names are next, followed by -staðir. The youngest are -ruð names, which date from the Old Norse period.

Trøndelag, where Stadsbygd is located, is among the oldest settled areas in Norway. In Stadsbygd, the topographic map reveals many uncompounded farm names, such as Myr, Tunge, Lein, Foss and Skei. There are also a number of -heim names: Fagerheim, Solheim, Askheim, Askjem and Nyheim, for example. There are a few -set and -land names, and a number of -stad names. I could find no -rud names at all. The area must have been settled at the start of the Common Scandinavian period (6th century), if not before. My best guess is that the names date from about that time.


Perhaps the most meaningful thing I have gained from this research into the meanings of my grandparents' names is not so much the actual meanings, but the sense of history and context it and our trip to Scandinavia have imparted. It is the history of ordinary people, which is, of course, the most meaningful history of all.

I would encourage those of you who are interested in this to spend some time with Magnus Olsen's 1928 book, Farms and Fanes of Ancient Norway, E. O. G. Turville-Petre's Myth and Religion of the North, Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter, Einar Haugen's somewhat technical but interesting The Scandinavian Languages, or, lastly, with some of Snorri Sturluson's marvelous sagas, collectively called the Edda. If you know, or can learn, some Norwegian, Kristoffer Rein's four-volume history of Stadsbygd is a treasure.

Having done this research, I feel I know both the modern and ancient cultures of Scandinavia a little better . . . and maybe the one I grew up in, too.


Berlitz staff, English-Danish Danish-English Dictionary. Lausanne, Switzerland: Editions Berlitz, 1981.

Berlitz staff, English-Norwegian Norwegian-English Dictionary. Lausanne, Switzerland: Editions Berlitz, 1981.

Berlitz staff, English-Swedish Swedish-English Dictionary. Lausanne, Switzerland: Editions Berlitz, 1981.

B. Berulfsen and H. Scavenius, McKay's Modern Norwegian-English English-Norwegian Dictionary. New York: David McKay Co., 5th edition.

Richard Cleasby and Gubrand Vigfusson, An Icelandic-English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2nd edition, 1957.

J. R. Ainsworth Davis, Burt's Danish-Norwegian-English Dictionary. New York: A. L. Burt Co., 1900.

Georges Dumezil, Gods of the Ancient Northmen. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

Robert J. Glendinning and Haraldur Bessason, eds., Edda: A Collection of Essays. Winnepeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1983.

E. V. Gordon, An Introduction to Old Norse. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2nd edition, 1957.

Einar Haugen, ed., Norwegian English Dictionary. Oslo and Madison: Universitetsforlaget and University of Wisconsin Press, 1965.

Einar Haugen, Scandinavian Language Structures: A Comparative Historical Survey. Tubingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1982

Einar Haugen, The Scandinavian Languages: An Introduction to Their History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Einar Haugen and Kenneth G. Chapman, Spoken Norwegian. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2nd edition, 1964.

Vilh. Ludvigsen, Engelsk-Dansk og Dansk-Engelsk Handelsordbog. Kristiania (Oslo): Scheteligs Bokhandel, 1918.

John Arnott MacCulloch, The Mythlogy of All Races, Vol. II: Eddic. Boston: Archeological Institute of America, 1943.

Peter Andreas Munch, Norse Mythology: Legends of Gods and Heroes. New York: The American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1942.

J. Meyer Myklestad and H. Søraas, Damms Lommeordbøker: Engelsk-Norsk Norsk-Engelsk. Oslo: N. W. Damm & Son, 1970.

Norges Geografiske Oppmåling, Orkanger Topografisk Kart, 1985.

Norges Geografiske Oppmåling, Rissa Topografisk Kart, 1971.

Magnus Olsen, Farms and Fanes of Ancient Norway. Oslo: H. Aschehoug & Co., 1928.

June A. Osterberg, A Haarsager Family Album 1879-1979. Valley City, ND: 1979.

Kristoffer Rein, Stadsbygd, Ei bok om bygda og folket fra fjern fortid og fram til 1980-åra (four volumes). Trondheim: Nidaros Trykkeri for Stadsbygd Sparebanken.

Oluf Rygh, Gamle Personnavne i Norske Stedsnavne. Kristiania (Oslo): W. C. Fabritius & Sønner, 1901.

Oluf Rygh, Norske Gaardnavne: Forord og Indledning. Kristiania (Oslo): W. C. Fabritius & Sønner, 1901.

Oluf Rygh, Norske Gaardnavne, Vol. XIV: Gaardnavne i Søndre Trondhjems Amt. Kristiania (Oslo): W. C. Fabritius & Sønner, 1901.

H. Scavenius, Gyldendals Ordbøker Norsk-Engelsk. Oslo: Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, 1949.

Snorri Sturluson, Edda: Prologue and Gylfaginning. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982 (Anthony Faulkes, ed.).

Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson: Tales from Norse Mythology. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1954 (Jean I. Young, transl.).

Telefonkatalog 1985/86: Sør-Trndelag og Nord-Trøndelag. Trondheim: Teleadministrasjonen, 1985.

E. O. G. Terville-Petre, Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964.

Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter: Vol. I, The Bridal Wreath; Vol. II, The Mistress of Husaby, and Vol. III, The Cross. New York: Bantam Books, 1980 (originally published in 1920-1922 as Kransen, Husfrue and Korset by H. Aschehoug & Co., Oslo).

Geir T. Zöega. A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Dennis L. Haarsager
December 1987
Updated May 1997, December 1997, January 2001, April 2001 and July 2003

Staværinger Home Page