What’s in a name? A lot more than you think.

Last week, the Office of National Statistics published the most popular baby names in England & Wales for 2017. This gave me an opportunity to up-date my extensive website essay on naming practices around the world where I have drawn out just how different these practices are from our experience in Britain.

  • It is assumed that the meaning of names is unknown and unimportant – but (virtually) all names have meaning if only we knew it and, in many, many cultures, names are chosen precisely because of their meaning.
  • It is assumed to be respectful to name a child after a parent or grandparent which is commonplace in Western culture – but, in China, it is considered very disrepectful to use even one character from the name of a parent or grandparent.
  • It is assumed that given names are gender-specific – but many African and all Chinese given names can be applied to boys and girls.
  • It is assumed that, when someone has more than one given name, the first is the one used in everyday life – but in Germany it is the second or the given name nearest the family name that is the ‘call name’.
  • It is assumed that people have a single family name – but, in Spain and Portugal, they have two.
  • It is assumed that family names are not gender-specific – but, in most Slavonic countries, family names ending with ‘-ov’ and ‘-in’ add an ‘a’ in their female form and Polish and Lithuanian have their own endings for female last names.
  • It is assumed that given names come first and family names come last – but the reverse is the case in countries like China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam and even Hungary.
  • It is assumed that all countries have family names as well as first names – but Myanmar and large parts of India do not have family names.


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