Technically, Knutsen isn’t my real ancestral name. When my great grandfather emigrated from Norway, his surname was Sorensen but when he saw how many Sorensens had settled in Iowa and Minnesota already he changed it to Knutsen. There are far fewer Knutsens than Sorensens and the gap is widening. In 1990, there were 11,300 fewer Knutsens; in 2000, there were 12,500 more Sorensens.
Knutsen wasn’t an easy name for most Californians to pronounce (it came naturally to people in the Midwest). Most assumed the K was silent, not hard, and referred to us as the Nutsens, Newtsens or Knudsens because it looked a lot like that name on dairy containers.
The Knutsen name’s claim to fame in film appears late in the Big Lebowski and even there – for better or worse – it has the Swedish “son” ending instead of the Danish/Norwegian “sen” like our name. Here’s a still from the movie with the memorable line.
When I married and changed my last name to Rowell, I assumed my days of hearing my name mispronounced were over. Not so fast! It turns out Rowell is as tricky for most tongues as Knutsen. (But, like Sorensen, it’s rising in popularity. In 2000 it was approximately 11,400 surnames ahead of Knutsen in the US). A surprising number of people pronounce it as “Raoul”, like the French first name for boys. Row (rhymes with blow) – ELL (accent on the ELL) is the other common error but there are many more weird variations between the two. I learned to blurt “Rowell, said and spelled exactly like Powell, except with an R” when introduced to someone new. It didn’t help that our first house was on Lowell Avenue – in print, it looks so close to Rowell yet in speech it sounds so different.
I’ve gone by Rowell now for longer than I went by Knutsen. Even so, Knutsen will always feel like my true name (I still use it as a middle name). If I had it to do over again, I’d probably go by Kathleen (Kathy, Kate) Knutsen today. But, as Gertrude Stein so famously said, “What’s in a name?”