1. September, 2017



– and other places that don’t want to be mistaken.1,2

Rønnebæk-Sibberup is a long name for a little village southeast of Næstved in Denmark. And the name hasn’t always been so long. Before the 1900’s the town was known only as Sibberup, and the short name can still be used to refer to the village. So why would anyone mix in Rønnebæk in the first place?

The name “Sibberup” is thought to consist of the male given name Sibbi, which is short for Sig-bjørn, and the ending torp, which means hamlet or small village (corresponding to English thorp). When naming a hamlet, it is a very common formula to use the ending torp with a man’s name as the first component—that could be the name of the person, who built the first farm there. This fixed formula makes it hard to avoid similar place names, when multiple men bearing the name Sibbi descide to found hamlets all around the country and throughout history. And as it turns out, there are four different villages on the island of Zealand, who call themselves Sibberup.

Two villages near Næstved have both been named Sibberup—since then, they have each been given an addition to the name, based on other place names in the area.

The closest other village named Sibberup is 10 km away in Fensmark parish northeast of Næstved. In one source, this village is also called Holme-Sibberup. So, someone had found out that there was a risk of mistaking one of the villages for the other, and then they added Holme to the name in order to show that they were refering to the Sibberup, which lies close to the manor Holmegård. For the same reason, Rønnebæk has been added to the village, which is in Rønnebæk parish.

Parish towns

The Danish onomastics professor Bent Jørgensen has dubbed this phenomenon reciprocation, and that is the subject of his dissertation from 1977 of the same name (“Reciprokering” in Danish). Here he examines the reciprocations, that have been documented from older times—specifically from before 1688—and there are a lot of them. If a place name contains nørre “northern”, sønder “southern”, øster “eastern”, or vester “western”, it is most likely to differentiate themselves from another place by the same name. The same goes for lille “little”, store, magle, møgel all meaning “big”; ny “new”, gammel “old”; neder “lower”, and over “upper”, and this is far from a complete list.

A crop of the title of an old original map of Holme-Olstrup3. Holme has been added in pencil, and this shows a newer example of reciprocation. It is the same manor—Holmegaard—near Næstved, as mentioned above, that lends its name to this.

A special family of reciprocations use another place name to disambiguate the place. It can be the name of nearby manors, villages or parish towns that are added—as seen in the example Sibberup. Those are usually old, but it can also be the names of islands or regions as in the best-known Danish example: Nykøbing Falster, Nykøbing Mors and Nykøbing Sjælland—three cities, whose names translate to “New Market Town”, in three different parts of the country: Falster, northern Jutland and Zealand, respectively.

The latter kind usually consist of towns that are further apart, and the addition to the name is usually also relatively new, since it has only recently become necessary to differentiate between the towns. And it is probably not random that it happens, after the railway stations have opened in the towns in question.

The railway

The development of the railway from the late 1800’s made it more important to be able to tell similar sounding place names apart. You wouldn’t want to buy a ticket for the wrong end of the country! There are many good examples from that time, and many of them come in pairs, such as Viby Jylland and Viby Sjælland in Jutland and Zealand, or Døstrup Himmerland and Døstrup Sønderjylland in northern and southern Jutland. But not all reciprocations are as clear-cut as these.

The names around the lake of Vandet near Thisted in northern Jutland are an outright reciprocation feast! For example, you could be lead to believe that Øster Vandet and Vester Vandet would lie east and west of the lake Vandet—but both are east of the lake. In stead, they are east and west of each other4.

In northern Jutland there was a station, which has now been closed, by the name Vandet Thy, eventhough no other station bears the name Vandet. In this case, it was a station called Vandel southeast of Billund that caused a risk of confusion.

And at first glance, the station called Svenstrup Jylland looks like it might be the only one of its kind. But it is differentiating itself from a former station near Korsør by the name Svenstrup Sjælland Billetsalgssted. On top of that, we have Svenstrup Als, which was a station of the old railways on the island of Als.

What all of these stations have in common, is that they have a postcode bearing the same name with the same addition of region. That probably comes from the fact that mail delivery was formerly done by train and therefore use the same naming conventions. Among the postcodes we can also find many more examples of reciprokation.


Most postcodes with an added region pair up nicely. Take the pair Højby Sjælland and Højby Fyn. But there are also some that need further explanation.

Jystrup Midtsjælland stands out, because the latter part of the name translates to “mid-Zealand”, but there are no other towns on Zealand by the name Jystrup. However, there are three towns that call themselves Jyderup, so that is probably the cause of confusion. A similar case is Rødvig Stevns. It can potentially be mistaken for Rørvig in Odsherred on Zealand or Rødby on the island Lolland.

Since Denmark shares its postal service with the other countries in the realm—namely Greenland and the Faroe Islands—a name such as Godthåb Jylland has to be explained by potential confusion with Godthåb (also called Nuuk) in Greenland. And Klakring Jylland written quickly could be read as Klaksvig in the Faroe Islands, if you omitted the name of the region, Jutland.

The hardest name to explain is probably Veksø Sjælland. At first glance, you could think that the Swedish town Växjö could be a possible cause of confusion. But on the other hand, this would be confusion across borders and postal services, and they are spelled quite differently. A better option might be Nexø on the island of Bornholm, which rhymes with Veksø. And the difference between a capital N and a capital V lies in one stroke, and in earlier times it was more optional to spell the names with an x or a ks.

Can a V really be taken for an N? Probably not in typed letters, but it is absolutely not impossible in handwriting—as you can see in this example.

Is reciprocation still a thing—and why?

As mentioned, the railway and the postcodes are a newer development, and we see more and more of these reciprocations during the 1900’s. The newer reciprocations are also usually further apart than the old, and therefore, they use the names of regions or islands, where the older reciprocations often use parish names.

On top of that, it looks like some areas are more afraid of being mistaken than others. These areas include Thy and Als, that I have already mentioned shortly, but the islands of Lolland, Mors and Ærø are just as bad. You could theorise that, at first, these areas added their name to some of the place names that shared a name with a place somewhere else in the country, and since then they have become very aware of any potential confusion that a place name could cause. It could also be subconscious branding of their local identity—which could be especially good for the fringe areas.

  1. This post was originally posted as name of the month at navn.ku.dk. Translated into English on 25 February, 2018. 

  2. If you want to read my thesis on the subject (in Danish), you can find it in the appendix

  3. Source: Historical maps online (in Danish). 

  4. You can read the book about Øster and Vester Vandet here (in Danish). 


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