Names are strange things. They hold certain power over us, an idea which many ancient cultures have used in magic practices. If I called your name, you would turn around and come, even if we had never met. This power is why the Hebrews always abbreviated God’s name as YHWH, so that nobody would hold power over Him. Pagan magicians used names as part of spells, and believed that a person had a hidden, true name that could, if invoked, let the invoker hold complete power over the person.
For most of European history, people didn’t have last names. They had a first name and were distinguished from another who shared their name by specifying their father. Others had a first name and were identified by their trade. In medieval England and France, the first name would be followed by where they came from, usually for nobles, since the names of poor people didn’t matter. Nowadays, people in Christian (or post-christian) countries tend to have three names:
The first name- usually given to honor a Catholic saint. In non-catholic families in the Western world, the first name is often also to honor an ancestor, or simply a common name is picked, which often ends up being a saint’s name anyway due to the Catholic history of Protestant countries. In America, children are increasingly being named whatever the parents think is a nice name, even if it isn’t a name. The names of flowers and virtues are common for little girls born in the 2000s. Also, due to the multicultural mix of the United States, naming traditions differ. Black Americans choose names that “sound African” for their children.
The middle name- Not everybody is given a middle name. When a saint’s name is chosen for the first name, often the middle name is given to honor a deceased family member, or simply a name that the parents like.
The surname- This is the name of the family in the Western world, as well as some other cultures, passed down through the male line. In other cultures, it is given by family occupation.
Europe has a diverse naming tradition. In England, the source of first names is the Bible, due to the country’s Protestant history. Protestants take the Bible literally, and don’t believe in saints like the Catholics do, which explains their choices for names. However in England, names are chosen because the parents like the name. Another source is Celtic traditional names, for those Brits with Scottish, Welsh, or Irish heritage. Names in England tend to reflect the social class of the family as well. In most of the rest of Europe, the first name is after a saint, especially in the predominantly Catholic countries of Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. In Italy, names aren’t even gender-specific, and most saints tend to have both a masculine and a feminine version of their names (ex: Maria and Mario). In Spain, it is common to choose names for girls after the various attributes of the Virgin Mary, from the many titles of “Our Lady of ___”. In Greece, names tend to come from history. In German-speaking countries, names are often of historical figures and famous kings, and there are some which have no equivalent in other languages. In Germany, a name has to be approved by the government, to prevent what I call “celebrity baby names” from being given to children, to their eternal shame. Scandinavian names are often rooted in Old Norse as well as saint names. Finland’s language is so different from any other country in Europe (except Hungary), that the Finns find it difficult to adapt names, and instead just borrow them, using a lot of “k”s and “i”s in the process. Iceland has strict laws on names, and derive their names from their fathers (what is called the patronymic, meaning if your name is John and your father was Fredrick, your name would be John Fredrickson, instead of John Smith). In Slavic countries, all women add “-ova” to their surname. In Eastern Europe, most names are Slavonic versions of saint names, or are only after saints in the local Orthodox Christian tradition (like in Russia, where there is a law). It is very common in Eastern Europe for a patronymic to be used instead of a last name.
In America and Canada, names are often chosen by popularity, and are usually the same as British first names, because of the British heritage, but not always, due to the cultural diversity. Also, pet names and nicknames sometimes are converted into real, legal names, and other names are purely invented, or new spellings are made. Everybody wants their child to either have a popular name, or a unique name. Unlike Europe, in the United States, it is legal to name your child whatever you wish (within reason, which leads to lawsuits when people choose copyrighted names, like names of companies). Male children are often named after their father, especially if their own fathers shared the name of their fathers. I myself have an uncle and cousin who are either have the suffixes III and IV, or IV and V. In Latin America, the naming practices are adopted from Spain and Portugal, although in some countries, both the father’s and the mother’s surname is used.
In the Arab world, most names are derived from vocabulary words (similar to the origins of Biblical names, since in the footnotes of the Bible, all the names are given as being Hebrew for an appropriate word or phrase). Almost every other name in Muslim countries is a variant of “Muhammad”, from the same root, or is a name of the Prophet’s immediate family. Arabic surnames are often patronymics, or sometimes the opposite, taking the name of a son as part of the name (teknonymy), but normal surnames are used as well.
In India, names vary incredibly, due to the many different cultures in the country. Most name their children after a deceased ancestor, because Hinduism and Buddhism both promote the belief in reincarnation. Some names follow certain caste rules, while others are after various Hindu gods. The Chinese have a very small number of surnames, but a large number of first names, due to the monoculturalism of China. Common names mean virtues or qualities that the parents want the children to have. The Vietnamese have similar rules to the Chinese, but will name their children using the Vietnamese words for almost anything: flowers, colors, even other countries! The middle name is used to denote gender. Japanese names, like Chinese names, are incredibly complicated. The Thai people, being mostly uninfluenced by colonization, have incredibly long and elaborate names. This is unsurprising, as Thai people apparently like long names, as we can see by the name of their capital, what we call “Bangkok”: “Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit”.
In non-Muslim Africa, people often have multiple first or last names, because of the cultural variety within regions, as well as the colonial influence from France, England, Portugal, and the Netherlands. Some children are given European names in school, but I suppose this was more common in the immediate post-colonial days rather than now. Common names have to do with the timing or circumstances of the baby’s birth, or to reflect the joy of the parents.
As we can see, there is a wide variety of naming practices all around the world. Names are picked to mark the individual. Some are rare, others are common. They’re very strange and mysterious things. Sometimes you get the oddest coincidences with them, like finding another person in your country that shares your very rare first name and incredibly rare last name! Sometimes people change their names, for various reasons, often because their name isn’t unique (actors cannot have the same name as any other actor, living or dead, so those with common names legally change them). As always, thank you for reading my blog, and I do hope you enjoy my posts.