The varying use of first and family names
in different countries and cultures
I have a very close Chinese friend called Zhihao who lives in Britain with his wife Hua and son Joshua. We first met Hua on the return flight of our trip to China [click here] and, since they came to Britain, Zhihao and Hua have become as close as family. Each time we meet, we find ourselves comparing and contrasting British and Chinese cultures.
Zhihao became particularly fascinated by the use of personal names in our two societies. He noticed that there are huge differences in how people use names in the two cultures. He pointed out to me :
"In western countries, if we say Tony or George, people will never know whom I am talking about. But, if I say Blair or Bush, they all know I am talking about the top leaders of two developed countries. But in China, if you say Li, Wang, Zhang, Zhao, Sun (very popular surnames with millions of the population sharing each one), people get lost about who you are referring to.
Similarly, in a smaller context, like in a small work unit, we use surnames a lot, but English people by contrast use first names instead. So, we may notice in England that every shop, every company has a Sarah, Jenny, Tom, Elizabeth, or even maybe two.
Usually, for the hundreds of millions of Chinese people, we say there are one hundred common surnames for them to share. So, I believe, in the wider context, they distinguish each other by first names and then English is vice versa.
In the last two years, I have been collecting interesting British surnames to prove that westerners have millions of surnames and plenty of them are quite humorous. In alphabetic order, I have: Armstrong, Barber, Baker, Bell, Bird, Bishop, Burns, Close, Coleman, Coxford, Day, Dearlove, Eagle, Edinburgh, Fox, Fry, Goodman, Goodgame, Grand, Grant, Green, Guest, Hall, Heady, King, Lane, Large, Lean, Littlewood, Longstaff, Lawhead, Lawson, Maiden, Miller, Newman, Newson, North, Paris, Pearson, Pick, Potter, Pound, Price, Prior, Rose, Skipper, Starkey, Stay, Tennant, Trickleman, Underhill, Walker, Wall, Weeks, White, Wilder, Winter, Wolf, Young.
If you carefully read each of these surnames, they mean something to us foreigners. But, certainly, they mean nothing to these people who own them as a surname, nothing much but a surname."
Zhihao is absolutely right. The naming of people is a fascinating subject that varies so much around the world and tells us so much about a country or society. Everywhere names mean something, but often the meaning has been lost or obscured by time. The study of personal names is known as onomastics. Behind this forbidding word lies an utterly absorbing subject that tells us so much about history, geography, tradition and culture.
In some cultures, the relationship between first names and vocabulary words is transparent, that is the names are just special uses of oridinary words. This is not the case for English names (or for those in most Western European languages). English names are mostly opaque, that is the 'meaning' is not obvious and is to be found in languages other than modern English, often ancient languages no longer spoken (such as Latin or Ancient Greek).
Therefore parents choosing an English name for their child rarely do so because of the 'meaning' of the name, but for reasons of polyphony (they like the sound of the the name) or personality (the name reminds them of a relative, close friend or person in the public domain). In spite of this opacity, virtually all English first names do have definite meanings which reflect their origins.
The first source for names used in Britain and throughout the English-speaking world is the Bible - male names like Adam, Benjamin, David, Jacob, Joseph and female names like Deborah, Eve, Rebecca, Ruth, Sarah. In fact, Sarah has given rise to other names - Sadie and Sally both started as pet forms of Sarah and then became names in their own right. The New Testament gave us the names of the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and the apostles, principally Peter, James, Andrew, Thomas, Philip, Bartholomew, John and Simon.
Many English first names (like those of many other European countries) are derived from the names of saints - such as Anthony, Christopher, Francis, George, Gregory, Stephen for men and Catherine, Ann, Bernadette, Mary, Jane, Teresa for women.
Another source of 'English' first names is the Celtic tradition. Barry, Brian, Bridget, Donald, Duncan, Ian, Kenneth, Kevin, Neil and Sheila come from Irish and Scottish Gaelic, while Gareth, Gladys, Gwendolen and Trevor come from Welsh - all these being Anglicisations of the original Celtic names.
Other 'English' names were brought to the country through invasion. Scandinavian exports include Eric, Arnold and Ronald. The Normans of north-west France brought many names to England as a result of the invasion of 1066.
This invasion was the route for many pre-Christian Germanic (usually male) names to reach England - such as Charles, Henry, Robert and William. For example, my first name Roger was brought to England by the Normans - it comes from two Germanic words meaning 'fame' and 'spear'. For my son's name, I used the same source: the name Richard was brought to England by the Normans and comes from two Germanic words meaning 'power' and 'strong'. Incidentally such Germanic names are known as 'dithematic' - that is, they consist of two vocabulary elements. English female names with this Germanic origin are much fewer in number, but include Alice and Emma.
Some first names have been adopted from family names. Take, for instance, the name Digby. This is sometimes used (mainly by middle-class families) as a first name but started as a surname. It refers to Digby in Lincolnshire and comes from Old Norse words 'diki' (meaning 'ditch') and 'byr' (meaning 'settlement').
It is true, as my friend Zhihao says, that although we have a wide variety of first names, the same ones reoccur very frequently. The 10 most common first names of Britons alive today are the following:
Of course, names change in popularity. According to the data compiled annually by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the most popular names for children born in England & Wales during 2011 were as follows:
There are some patterns here. First of all, astonishingly the second most popular boys' name and the second most popular girls' name are essentially the same - what is technically known as cognates - and these names have been in the top two for their gender for the last three years. Is this the case in any other nation? Second, it is striking how traditional most of the names are for both boys and girls, although for the boys it is interesting that the familiar form of names rather than the original version is often preferred - Jack instead of John, Harry instead of Harold, Alfie instead of Alfred, Charlie instead of Charles. Third, in the case of boys, five of the top 20 names begin with the letter 'J' while, in the case of girls, nine of the top 20 names end with the letter 'a', seven of the top 20 names end with the sound 'ee', and nine of the top 20 names contain one or more of the letter 'l'. On the other hand, the name David - which is the second most common name in Britain - slipped out of the top 50 of names chosen for baby boys born in 2004 and has stayed out (it is currently 57th). Similarly Margaret - the most common female name in the population as a whole - does not even appear in the top 100 names chosen for girls these days. These observations underline how much fashion shapes the popularity of different names.
It should be noted that the Office of National Statistics (ONS) produces its ranking of the popularity of names using the exact spelling of the name given at birth registration. If one combines the numbers for names with very similar spellings, a different picture is revealed. For boys, combining the occurrence of Mohammed, Muhammad, Mohammad and Muhammed would put the name in second place - a reflection of the changing ethnicity of the British population. Similarly, if one combines the occurrence of Isabella, Isabelle, Isabel and Isobel, one would find the name top by far of the girls' list.
Link: top 100 boys and girls names in 2011 click here
For some girls (but, for some reason, not boys), one first name is not enough and they are called names like Ann-Marie or Sally-Ann or Sarah-Jane. An occasional complication is that, since English pronunciation is so irregular, it is possible to have names that are pronounced identically but spelt differently - such as Brian/Bryan, Rachel/Rachael, Ann/Anne, Carol/Carole or Catherine/Katherine/Katharine/Kathryn or (even worse, because of the different genders) Francis (male)/Frances (female) or Robin (male)/Robyn (female) or Leslie (usually male, but can be female!)/Lesley (usually female, but can be male!). Indeed there are a small number of names that can be used for a boy or a girl - such as the aformentioned Leslie plus Hilary, Dale and Carol.
Names are very influenced by fashion. Some names fall out of fashion - a man called Alfred, Arthur, Basil, Percy or Horace or a woman called Bessie, Dorothy, Mavis, Nellie, Ruby or Vera is probably in his/her 60s, 70s or 80s (although Ruby has just jumped back into popularity). Some names come into fashion, typically because of the popularity of a pop, movie or sports star. The Australian soap opera "Neighbours" - in which a young Kylie Minogue played a character called Charlene - led to the temporary popularity of both Kylie and Charlene in both Britain and Australia. Some names come in and out of fashion. A good illustration is Emily: a third of all Emilys are aged over 60, but more than 40% are under 25.
As a general rule, in recent decades British parents have become more selective in chosing names for their children. In 18th century England, roughly a quarter of babies were called either John or Mary but, from the 1960s onwards, parents have been more inclined to chose names that enable their children to stand out rather than fit in.
Importantly, in Britain the choice of names is very influenced by class. A boy called Jason or Wayne or Darren or a girl called Sharon or Tracy or Michelle is almost certainly from a working class family. A boy called Charles, Edward or Nigel or a girl called Felicity or Harriet is almost certainly from a middle-class family. A boy called Jasper, Rufus or Rupert or a girl called Camilla, Davina, Jemima, Lucinda or Petunia is probably from an upper class family.
Another powerful influence on names is immigration. The UK has had successive waves of immigration - from the Caribbean, India, Pakistan, parts of Africa and so on - and this has added to the stock of names in this country. Someone called Winston is probably from a family of West Indian origin, while someone called Lakshmi will be from a family from India.
A final point about first names: the British - and other Anglo-Saxon and European nations - often give their children more than one 'first' name. Upper class families frequently give their children three first names. There is no rule, but it is a powerful convention that such second or third names are family names, such as that of a grandparent or other close relative. Sometimes children find that they prefer the second name to the first name and ask people to use that one instead. In the case of my own son, I only gave him one first name, believing that was sufficient.
Link: Meaning of English first names click here
Turning now to English surnames, these did not exist until medieval times. It was the Norman conquest of 1066 that introduced the practice to England. By 1400, most English families and those from Lowland Scotland had adopted the use of hereditary surnames. However, the Welsh only began to adopt the English system of surnames following the union of the two countries in 1536.
Early English surnames fell into six main categories:
So, if we now look at the English surnames that my Chinese friend Zhihao has been collecting, many of them refer to an occupation (Barber, Baker, Bishop, Miller, Potter, Skipper) or a place (Close, Hall, Lane, Littlewood, Prior, Underhill, Wall) or a characteristic (Dearlove, Goodman, Lean, Maiden, Pink, Young). He is right to point out how many surnames we have compared to the Chinese - in England alone, there are some 45,000 different surnames.
Although there is far more variety in surnames in Britain than in China, nevertheless in Britain we do have some very common surnames, such as Smith (over 500,000 people) and Jones (some 400,000 people). Jones means 'son of John' and it is especially common in Wales (13.5% of the population) because of the Welsh habit of naming themselves after their father. Indeed, in November 2006, a new world record was established for a gathering of the most people with the same surname when 1,224 people called Jones gathered at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff.
In Wales, Williams is a very common surname too. In Scotland, Donald is very common. In Northern Ireland, surnames are so distinctive that local people can usually tell if someone is a Catholic or a Protestant just by knowing their surname. Some names are very likely to be Jewish like Goldstein or Silverman.
People with unusual surnames sometimes like to make contact with others with the same name. For instance, the surname Steggles refers to the countryside stile and there is actually a web site enabling those with this name to share information.
Link: Steggles site click here
One might think that, with increasing mobility, surnames would be randomly mixed throughout the country, but researchers at University Colege, London have found that there is still a geographical clustering of names.
Link: Distribution of British surnames click here
A final point about English surnames: some middle-class and upper-class families combine the surname of the husband and the surname of the wife when they marry to create a new family name and then give their children too this double-barrel surname, such as Camilla Parker-Bowles.
Origin of English last names click here
Modern English surnames click here
Geographical concentrations of British surnames click here
BBC family history site click here
Parts of UK
So far, we have talked about English names, but the United Kingdom consists of four nations: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Names in England have one or two characteristics of their own while, in each of the three non-English nations, there are personal names which are cognates (equivalents) of English names and there are are some distinctly local names. Also family names can show distinct features in the various parts of the UK.
In the case of England, there is a more ethnically diverse population than in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. An illustration of this is that, in the latest list of the most popular names for babies born in England & Wales, Mohammed comes 23rd. The one region of England where there are some distinctly local first names is Cornwall where historically Cornish was spoken. Cornish names include Denzil for a boy and Demelza for a girl.
In the case of Scotland, cognates include Iain (for Ian) for boys and Catriona (for Katherine) for girls. Distinctly local names include Dougal, Ewan, Finlay, Hamilton and Hamish for boys and Aileen, Fenella and Fiona for girls. Currently the most popular names for newly-born boys and girls in Scotland are respectively Lewis and Sophie.
In Gaelic speaking parts of Scotland, it was comon to name a male child in reference to an ancestor by using 'mac' or a female child by using 'nic, so: Angus MacDonald = Angus, son of Donald and Mairi nicUilleam = Mary, daughter of William. Except among Gaeilic speakers, the 'nic' form is not now used, but 'Mac' or 'Mc' is commonly found. Incidentally, a name like McWilliam (for example) can also be found in its alternative form, Williamson.
As for surnames, these were not always in general use. However, we do now have names linked to trades: Fisher, Cooper, Mason and Shepherd are well-known names. The common name Stewart derives from the term 'steward' and was first held by Walter the Steward (Walter fitzalan), the grandson of a Norman knight who was High Steward to David I of Scotland. Maxwell derives from 'Maccus's well' (Maccus was a Saxon lord who obtained a well or fishing pool on the River Tweed in the Scottish Borders). Then one has, for example, names related to (mostly Norman ) invaders such as Bruce (de Brus) and Wallace (de Waleys). Other surnames relate to places such as Murray (Moray), Methven, Fife. Next, of course, one has the Scottish clan system, where clan members simply took their chief's name and eventually, through usage, that became their surname. Finally, one also has names which derive from Gaelic (or other) words for physical characteristics, such as Campbell (caim-beul = crooked-mouthed), Cameron (caim-sron = crooked-nosed), Begg (beag = white) and Meikle (little).
In the north of the country, there was a clan system in the Highlands where all the people in the area would have taken the surname of the clan chief and their descendants will still have these names. For example, in the Black Isle (actually a peninsula, so called because the snow does not lie on it) north of Inverness, a large proportion of the population are Frasers because that was the home area of Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat (the most famous one recently was the leader of the commandos in the Second World War). In some rural areas, when so many people have the same surname, people were often called by the name of their farm. For example, someone I know called Alistair Fraser was Alistair Bellevue and the boy at the next farm was Alistair Balvattie. His family were known collectively to my friend as the Balvatties and they were rarely called the Frasers.
In the case of Wales, cognates include Ieuan (for John) and Huw (for Hugh) for boys and Mari (for Mary) and Megan (for Margaret) for girls. Distinctly local names include Aled, Guto, Llewelyn, Owen, Rhodri and Siôn for boys and Bethan, Bronwen, Glenys, Olwen, Rhiannon and Siân for girls. Many Welsh names are taken from Arthurian legend (such as Merlyn and Gwendolyn) or from place names in Wales (such as Merion meaning 'from Merioneth'). For new born babies in Wales in 2007, the most popular boys' name was Jack and the most popular girls' name was Ruby.
There is a tendency in Wales for people not to use their first personal name but instead their second. Another trend is for the name of the place of birth to be a second name.
At one time, the Welsh used an ancient patronymic naming system whereby the children of a marriage took their father's forename as their surname. As a result, surnames were not fixed and changed from generation to generation. This practice continued up until the early 1800s in some areas, with rural areas clinging to the patronymic system longer than urban areas. Sometimes the word 'ap' (originally 'mab') meaning 'son of' was incorporated into the new surname. A distinctive feature of Wales is the mutation of 'ap' into the following first name to make a family name, so that ap Hywel becomes Powell, ap Huw becomes Pugh, and ap Richard becomes Pritchard. Since the origin of many Welsh surnames is a first name, one finds frequent occurrences of the same surnames in Wales, even when the familes are not related, such as Evans, Thomas and Williams.
In the case of Northern Ireland, the differences from English names tend to come from the Scottish tradition in the case of Protestant (or Unionist) families and from the Irish tradition in the case of Catholic (or Republican) families. Since we have already mentioned Scottish names, it only remains to give a few examples of Irish names: Conall, Fergal, Pearce and Seamus for boys and Maeve and Siobhán for girls. Currently the most popular names for newly-born boys and girls in Northern Ireland are respectively Jack and Katie.
In Northern Ireland, Protestant surnames sometimes begin with 'Mc' or 'Mac', while Catholic surnames sometimes begin with 'O'.
Use of names
We now come to the use of names. In the Anglo-Saxon world (Britain, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand), calling someone by their surname is regarded as formal and respectful, whereas use of a first name or Christian name is regarded as familiar and friendly. Most people - especially young people - would want to move very quickly to a situation where they are using the first name. This is even true in a work situation with a more senior colleague.
Indeed it is usually the case - unlike in China - that even greater friendliness is demonstrated by using a familiar or friendly version or diminutive of that first name (the technical term for this is hypocorism). In fact, almost every English first name has a diminutive - for example, Tony for Anthony, Jim for James, Frank for Francis, Liz for Elizabeth, Sue for Susan or Kate for Katherine. Sometimes the diminutive looks different from the original name - for instance, Bill for William, Bob for Robert, Jack for John or Dick for Richard. Sometimes people take a standard diminutive and give it an original spelling, so that I have come across women called Victoria who have variously called themselves Vicky, Vickie, Vikki, Vickii.
REST OF WESTERN EUROPE
Some first names commonly used in English-speaking countries have equivalents in almost all European nations - notably John and George for boys and Mary and Ann for girls. However, each country has its own rich source for first names.
In neighbouring Ireland, naming sources include the Catholic saints, the Celtic legends and Anglicized versions of Gaelic names. There are also many vocabulary names such as Conor ('strong will') and Kenneth and Kevin (both meaning'handsome') for boys and Bridget and Brigid (both meaning 'strong') and Erin ('peace') for girls. The most common surname in Ireland is Murphy.
In most European countries, over half of the common first names derive from the Christian tradition, usually a reference to a saint or a character in the Bible. In the strongly Catholic Italy, Spain and Portugal, the influence of saints' names is particularly dominant, with local patron saints sometimes affecting the choice of local names.
Indeed, in France, until quite recently the choice of first names was legally restricted by a law of 1803 to names that have been borne by saints or by figures from ancient history. However, in practice, names occuring in the Bible and in classical mythology have long been freely allowed and, over the last hundred years, a much wider variety of names has become officially permissable. Nevertheless, there have been court battles over more exotic names, such as those favoured by some Breton nationalists. As we have seen earlier, in England sometimes two girls' names will be hyphenated but never boys' but, in France, it is common for boys as well as girls to have hyphenated first names - for example, the musician Jean-Michel Jarre.
In Italy (where my mother came from), the influence of the Catholic Church on naming patterns is again very pronounced. However, a particularity of first names in Italy is that they are usually gender-specific. Male names usually end in 'o' - for instance, Augusto, Enrico, Rachello, Ruggero (the Italian version of my first name) - but there are common exceptions such as Giuseppe, and Salvatore. Female names usually end in 'a' - for instance, Anna, Bianca, Maria. It is quite common for the same name to have masculine and feminine versions - for example, Alessandro (my middle name) for a boy and Alessandra for a girl or Silvio (the first name of the former Italian prime minister Berlusconi) and Silvia (my sister's name).
In Italy, by law, a child must take the family name of the father, unless the identity of the father is unknown. Single Italian mothers cannot give their last name to their children. Also Italian women cannot create double-barelled surnames on marriage. There are efforts to change this legal position.
Link: Italian first names click here
In Spain and Portugal, both deeply Catholic countries, many names are taken from saints and religious feast days.
In Spain, there is a particular veneration for the Virgin Mary which gives rises to a specialised series of female first names referring to various titles for 'Our Lady' which include her attributes or to names that are metaphors for her attributes: Consuelo (consolation), Luz (light), Dolores (sorrowful), Mercedes (merciful), Concepción (immaculate conception), Presentación (presentation), Candelaria (Candlemas relating to candle), Pilar (pillar of the Catholic Church), Rosario (rosary). In the case of each of these names, there are diminutives that are used at different stages of the person's life - so someone named Dolores would be called Lolin as a baby and child, Lolita as a teenager and young woman, Lola as an adult, and Dolores as an older person (note the permanence of the letters 'lo' in all versions of the name). Indeed, such is the veneration for the Virgin Mary in Spain, that many men have Maria as their second name.
Spanish first names are often the subject of many affectionate versions. So the male name Franscisco can become Paco, Paquito, Pancho, Panchito and the male name Jose becomes Pepe, Pepito, Joselito, while the female name Giraciela becomes Gracielita, Chelite, Chela.
The most common surname in Spain is García.
In Spain and Portugal, the basic rule of naming is that on birth a child is given a first name followed by two surnames, the first being the father's family name (or, more precisely, the surname he gained from his father) followed by the mother's family name (or, again more precisely, the surname she gained from her father). However, there has always been a certain flexibility about which of their two surnames Spaniards and Portuguese chose to give most prominence. For example, the painter Pablo Picasso chose his second surname, as does the actor Antonio Banderas. When women marry, they do not change their surnames.
Take as an example the Spanish name of Teresa García Ramírez. Teresa is the name given at birth, García is the family name from her father, and Ramírez is the family name from her mother. If Teresa García Ramírez marries Elí Arroyo López, she doesn't change her name, but it would be extremely common for her to add 'de Arroyo' (literally, 'of Arroyo'), making her name Teresa García Ramírez de Arroyo.
Links: Spanish first names click here and click here
In Greece, names tend to come from persons in history (such as Pericles or Amalia), mythology (such as Theseus or Demetra) and religion (such as Emmanouel or Anna). Many Greek names have both male and female versions: Alexandros/Alexandra, Christophoros/Christina, Georgos/Georgia, Kostantinos/Kostantina, Paulos/Paulena.Male first names usually end in -os, -as or -is - for instance, Pavlos, Andreas, Haris. Female first names usually end in -a, or -i (pronounced like ee in 'tree') - for instance, Maria, Eleni. There is a tradition that firstborn sons are given the name of the father's father, and firstborn daughters are given the name of the mother's mother. Younger sons/daughters are given either the rest of the grandparents names, or simply names that parents like. In Greece, one given name is the norm and therefore middle names are rare. Generally, surnames of men end in -os, while surnames of women end in -ou (pronounced like the oo in 'wood'). The ending for women means 'of'; for example Papadopoulou would literally mean "of Papadopoulos". Less common, irregular endings, still drop the -s for females. For example, a woman whose father is called Nikos Makis might be called Maria Maki, without the -s. When women get married, they change to their husband's surname. However, they can also keep their family name if they wish, adding it to their full name (first name + family surname + husband's surname). The most common surname in Greece is Papadopoulos.
Link: Greek first names click here
The German-speaking countries of Europe - Germany, Austria and Switzerland - share many naming influences of other countries but have some first names for which there are no cognates (equivalents) in other countries, such as Helmut and Berthold. Of course, as everywhere, there are local influences: in Germany, the names of former kings, such as Friedrich, Wilhelm, and Ludwig, have a special popularity; in Austria, former royal names like Franz, Josef and Ferdinand are common; and, in Switzerland, several names of local saints (Regula, Reto, Pirmin) are scarely used outside the country. Some influences are even more local. For instance, in the parts of Germany which were formerly under communist control, there was enthusiasm for Western names like Jennifer, Peggy, and Mandy while, in the Friesland part of Germany next to the Dutch border, the boys' names Onno and Wim are popular. Perhaps the most popular naming trend in Germany today is for girls to be given a name ending in 'a', such as Anna, Emma, Johanna, Julia, Lea.
The most popular names for German children born in 2011 were as follows:
Note for boys the popularity of names beginning with 'L' (especially variants of Luca) and for girls the popularity of names ending on 'a' (especially variants of Sophia and Anna).
Germany has strict rules governing the naming of children. Parents have to choose from a list of court-approved names to prevent a child from becoming a victim of ridicule or confusion. The names Hitler and Stalin are banned for instance. In 2002, a Turkish couple living in Germany were denied permission to name their child Osama bin Laden. However, in 2006, the Berlin authorities allowed an Islamic couple to name their child Jihad.
Traditionally, in Germany, two names were usually given to a child at birth or baptism. The first name - what we often refer to as a given name - was a spiritual name, usually to honour a favorite saint. The spiritual name was often used repeatedly in families. The second name - what we now would refer to as a middle name - was a secular or call name, and was the name by which the person was known. So, whereas in most countries when someone has more than one given name, the first name is the important one (for example, David Michael Smith), in Germany the name nearest the surname is the most important one (for example, Johann Wolfgang Schmidt).
The most common surname in Germany is Muller.
Belgium has both French (southern half) and Flemish (northern half) naming traditions. There is a tradition that a child's middle names come from the godparents regardless of gender. The 10 most common surnames in the country are Peeters, Janssens, Maes, Jacobs, Mertens, Willems, Claes, Goossens, Wouters, en De Smet.
The Netherlands has more or less the same naming traditions as other Northern European countries, especially neighbouring Germany and Belgium, but there is more of a mix of names because The Netherlands is an small country with a trading tradition and several Christian religions which, in fairly recent times, has been occupied by Spain, France and German. Today it has become the home of many immigrants and there is also the effect of global mass-communication introducing English and American first names. The top 10 family names in The Netherlands are De Jong, De Vries, Jansen, van de Berg, Bakker, Van Dijk, Visser, Janssen, Smit, en Meijer/Meyer. Dutch surnames commonly contain the words 'van' or 'de' which simply means 'from' in a geographical sense. So my Dutch friend Oskar van Rijswijk has a surname which means 'comes from the village of Rijswijk'.
Link: current most popular Dutch children's names click here
Scandinavia (outside Finland) is a part of Europe where the preponderance of names of Christian origin is rivalled by names deriving from Old Norse. Many of these latter names go back to the characters in Norse legends and sagas (Balder, Sigurd, Gunnar, Thor, Torsten, Gudrun, Frøya or Freya). Generally these Old Norse names are dithematic - that is, comprised of two parts, using such elements are 'arn' (eagle), 'björn' (bear), 'úlfr' (wolf), 'sigr' (victory), 'gunr' (strife) and 'rún' (secret lore).
There are many common names in Swedish, Norwegian and Danish, but not all Scandinavian names have cognate forms in all three languages: Birger and Göran are typical names in Sweden; Gro and Terje are found only in Norway; and Abelone and Jytte are particular to Denmark. Common names in Sweden include Bo ('the domiciled') for boys and Åsa ('goddess') for girls. Common names in Norway include Lars ('crown') for boys and Ingrid ('hero's daughter') for girls. In both Sweden and Norway, the authorities have lists of approve names, parents must ontain permission to use a name not on the list, and there are laws prohibiting names that are offensive or might cause the child embarrassment.
When it comes to surnames, Sweden abounds in names ending in '-son' because of an old Nordic practice of using the father's first name and the suffix '-son'. Ineed, of the 100 most common family names, 42 end in '-son'.
Names in Finland differ from those in other Scandinavian countries because the language is so different. Although one does have many names borrowed from Scandinavian, German and even English sources, such as Hannes, Janne, Johan, Juhana, Juhani, Juha, Juho, Jussi (all forms of John), Ole, Claes and Eugen (all Swedish names), other names are uniquely Finnish in nature, such as Paavo (a form of Paul), Pekka, Esko and Risto (a short form of Christopher). To British eyes, Finnish names seem to make a lot of use if the letters 'k' and 'i' - for instance, Erkki, Heikki, Kerkko, Markku, Mikko, Niilo, Pekka, Pirkka (boys' names) and Aliisa, Annikki, Liisa, Pirkko, Riitta, Siiri, Sirkka, Sirkku, Viivi (girls' names) - but this is because in Finnish vowels and consonants are made long by being repeated.
In 2005, the most popular boys names were (respectively): Juhani, Johannes, Matias, Mikael, Oskari, Olavi, Aleksi, Valtteri, Kristian, Elias. The most popular girls names were (respectively): Maria, Emilia, Sofia, Olivia, Aino, Katariina, Julia, Johanna, Aurora, Helmi. Most Finnish childen are given two given names and three is not uncommon. As in Sweden and Norway, Finland has a law prohibiting names judged to be offensive.
When it comes to surnames, it is very common in Finland for them to be double-barrelled as a result of marriage. Unlike in Britain, this is not a trend more associated with the upper classes but a classless characteristic and, again unlike Britain, double-barrleled names very rarely transfer to children who usually take the father's name.
In Iceland, there are very strict laws on names which must fit Icelandic grammar and pronunciation rules. So given names should not use letters which are not in the Icelandic alphabet and cannot be unisex.
There is a most distinctive system for last names. Very few Icelanders have surnames as understood in the remainder of Europe. Instead here most people follow the ancient tradition of deriving their last name from the first name of their father (the patronymic system). If a man is called Leifur Eiriksson, his proper or given name is Leifur, and his patronymic is Eiriksson (the son of a man named Eirikur). A woman called Margret Jonsdóttir has the proper name Margret and her patronymic is Jonsdóttir, that is, the daughter of Jon. Women do not change their name after marriage. In a family of four, a couple with a boy and a girl, all four will therefore usually have different last names. Icelanders address each other by their first name. The last name (patronymic) is never used alone. Indeed Icelanders are listed by their first name in the telephone book (so it is good thing that the population is only around 300,000).
Although all European nations have strong Christian naming traditions, as we have seen many languages have some non-Christian and even pre-Christian names which are specific to that country. Whereas Ancient Roman names have not survived (because they were surpressed by the Catholic church), some Ancient Greek names have remained in use in modern day Greece - names like Aristotle, Socrates, Sophocles and Thucydides. In Greece, there is a tradition that the first-born son is named after the father's father.
I have a special interest in names in the Czech Republic because my wife is half Czech and it is the country that I have visited the most often. Here the majority of first names are either saints' names (such as Antonín or Ondřej) or dithematic Slavonic names, that is made up of two vocabulary words (such as Bohumíl or Dobroslav). Two names of special importance to Czechs are Ludmila, the name of a 10th century Bohemian saint, and Václav, the name borne by five rulers of Bohemia including the man known to the English as 'Good King Wencelas' (who was in fact not a king but a prince).
A whole category of Czech names of Slavic origin honour celebration, love and peace. The Czech verb 'slavit' means 'to celebrate' and this gives rise to male names like Jaroslav (the celebration of spring), Vladislav (the celebration of power) and Vítězslav (the celebration of power) and the female name Květoslava (the celebration of flowers). The suffix '-mil' refers to 'love' and this gives rise to male names like Bohumil (love of God) , Jaromil (love of spring) and Vlastimil (love of country). The suffix '-mir' refers to 'peace' and gives rise to male names like Bohumir (peace with God), Jaromir (peace with spring) and Vladimir (peace with country)
The most popular names for Czech children born in 2009 were as follows:
Compared to the situation in the Anglo-Saxon countries, there is much more fluidity in the choice of names in the Czech Republic, perhaps as a result of the 'modernisation' of the country following the collapse of communism. While Tereza has been the most popular girls name for 11 years now, Jakub has only been the top boys name for two years. Two major (contradictory) changes are the return of some old traditional names and the adoption of names from other European countries.
In fact, first names in the Czech Republic - like those in other Slavonic countries - are almost invariably turned into affectionate diminutives, often ending in '-ek' or '-ík' for boys and '-ka' and '-enka' for girls. So Miroslav becomes Mirek, Svatopluck becomes Svatek and Václav becomes Vaek, while Pavel becomes Pavlík, and Věra (my wife's name) becomes Veruka, Petra becomes Petruka, Kateřina becomes Kacenka (or Káca or Katya). Sometimes the diminutive looks rather different from the original name - for example, Josef becomes Pepík and Dagmar (an unusual case of a female name not ending in 'a') becomes Daa. In fact, most Czech first names have several dimunitives, so Jan can become Jeník, Jenda, Honza or Honzík and Josef can become Jozífek, Joka, Pepea, Pepíček, or Pepánek.
Czech surnames are among the oldest, most numerous, and most peculiar in Europe. Most of the approximately 40,000 surnames currently in use originated in the period between the 14th and 18th centuries. In 1780, the Hapsburg Emperor Josef II issued a decree demanding that all his subjects have a family name.
The largest group of surnames used by Czechs today have their origins in different occupations and crafts - for instance, Bubeník (drummer), Havír (miner), Kovár (smith), Kramár (shopkeeper), Krejcár (tailor), Malír (painter), Mizikant (musician), Mlynár (miller), Rezník (butcher), Soustužík (turner), Truhlár (carpenter), umpa (sewer). However, in the 19th century, so many people moved to the cities that these names became too commonplace and therefore, to distinguish between people, names were introduced refering to the product they made or the tools they used in their crafts - for instance, bakers became Chlebícek (sandwich) or Rohlík (croissant), blacksmiths became Palice (sledgehammer), carpenters became Kladivo (hammer) or Sekyra (axe), innkeepers became Vomácka (sauce), Kae (gruel), Voda (water) or Pivko (beer), tailors became Jehla (needle) or Náprstek (thimble).
Many everyday objects have become surnames: examples include Kabát (coat), Kaftan (kaftan), Kalhoty (trousers). Lots of animals have inspired surnames: examples include Ježek (hedgehog), Zajíc (hare), Žába (frog). Other vocabulary words have led to surnames: examples include Válka (war), Láska (love), Svatba (wedding). Some of the most distinctive Czech names are those derived from verbs: examples include Dupal (stamped his feet), Skočdopole (jump in the field), Stejskal (he who grumbled), Stojespal (he who slept standing on his feet).
As in other Slavonic countries, all women in the Czech Republic have surnames ending in '-ova'.A major complication with Czech names arises from the fact that Czech, like all Slavonic languages, declines its nouns which includes names of people (and places) so that, depending on the function of the name in the sentence, the spelling and pronounction may well vary from the nominative case. Indeed Czech - unlike some other Slavonic languages (like Slovak) - has a case called the vocative which is used when one addresses or calls out to a person (or object) and requires that the name be declined into the vocative case. For instance, if I call to Pavel, I call out Pavle; if I call to Barbora, I call out Barboro.
REST OF EASTERN EUROPE
In Eastern European countries, it is much more common than in Western European countries for children to have the same first name as the parent of the same gender.
In the Slavonic countries of Central and Eastern European, such as Russia, Poland, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, as in Western Europe a great many names have a Christian origin. Indeed, in Russia, the Orthodox Church forbade the use of Slavonic names and insisted on names that had been borne by saints of the Eastern Church. In such countries, each day of the year in the calendar is allocated to a particular saint and many people take their first name after one of these saints. In fact, in such countries, celebration of one's saint day is often an occasion of more significance than celebration of one's birthday.
Besides the names of saints, many Slavonic names derive from terms of endearment or affection. Take, as an example, first names in Serbia. The word 'drag' meaning 'dear' gives rise to Dragan, Predrag, Dragana, Dragoslav, Dragoslava. The terms 'mio' (masculine) and 'mila' (feminine) meaning 'darling' give rise to Milijana, Milija, Milan, Milana, Milorad, Radmila. The term 'ljuba' meaning 'love' gives rise to Ljuba, Ljubica. The term 'nad' meaning 'hope' gives rise to Nadezda, Nadica. The term 'radost' meaning brightness gives rise to Radmilo, Radoslav, Radoslava, Rade.
In these countries, the standard form of the first name is usually only used in a formal context because every first name has at least one diminutive and family, friends and colleagues will invariably use one of these diminutives. In Russia especially, there is a very large number of pet names of first names, many of them differing markedly from the base form - consider Dunya and Dunyasha from Avdotya or Sasha and Sashura from Aleksandr. There are more than twenty forms of Maria in Russian. The full form - Mariya - is used in official papers, in formal relationships and with unfamiliar people. The shortened form Masha is neutral and used in relationships with friends, while there is a form of affection Mashenka and intimate, tender forms such as Mashunechka, Mashunya and Marusya. The unceremonious/vulgar form - Mashka - is quite impolite but acceptable within the family or between children or adult friends.
In the Slavonic countries, a woman's first name usually ends with the letter 'a' and a woman's surname always ends with '-ova', so that a person's gender is always absolutely clear from the full name (which is not always the case with English names such as Leslie Thomas or Pat Fisher). Surnames of Slavonic nations can be roughly divided into three main groups: those derived from original nicknames, such as names of animals, trees, things, professions; those derived from the Christian name or profession of the father (patronymics); and those derived from names of towns, villages, regions (toponymics).
The naming practice in Poland is similar to that in other Slavonic countries and, since Poland is so Catholic, the use of saints' names for first names is extremely common. Polish royal names are popular too - Kazimierz, Mieczysław, Władysław, Zygmunt. All except the last of these royal names are dithematic Slavonic names, that is made up of two vocabulary words. For instance, Kazimierz comes from 'kazić' (to destroy) and 'meri' (famous). Many Polish family names end in '-ski', '-cki', '-orocki', '-owicz', '-yk' or '-iak' all which mean 'son of'.
Common Polish first names click here
Common Polish last names click here
In Albania, popular male names include Arben, Ilir, Gjergji, Taulant, Arber, Genti, Alban, Skerdi, Erion, Ermal, Drini, Agron, Sajmir, Bardhyl, Bledar, Ermir, Ergys, Dritan, Artan, Fatjon, Shkelzen, while common female names include Etleva, Aulona, Teuta, Blerta, Blerina, Enkeleida, Elona, Ermira, Nevila, Arta, Albana, Valbona, Donika, Edlira. Over the last few generations, naming practices have changed considerably as communism has come and now gone. So old people tend to have classic religious names but the names of younger people are drawn from a wide range of sources.
In adjoining Kosovo, common sources of first names are deceased and loved relatives, historic heroes, and terms from nature. One interesting particularity occurs when a family keeps having daughters and really wants a son. The family may name the latest girl Shkurtesa which means 'short' in the hope that this will stop the line of females. In Kosovo, as well as a surname, people have a clan name (there are around ten main clans). So, for example, my Kosovan friend Astrit Maliqi also uses the clan name Gashi.
Two Eastern European countries stand out from the others in terms of the form and structure of names.
Romania has first names that are quite similar to Italy and Spain because Romanian is a Romance language not a Slavonic one.
Hungary has totally different looking names from the rest of Europe because Hungarian is not an Indo-European language but one distantly related to Finnish. Therefore, even when the name has a Latin, German or Slavonic origin, it has a very different form from the original - consider István from the Latin Stephanus, Imre from the German Heinrich, and László from the Slavonic Vladislav. As in other Eastern European countries, every given name has several affectionate versions - consider Erzsébet (Elizabeth) which can be rendered as Erzsi, Bözsi, Erzsike or Bözsike. As in China and Japan, in Hungary in any official context, the family name is always placed before the given name - a practice unique in Europe. The most common surname in Hungary is Nagy (which means 'large').
Link: Hungarian first names click here
In Ukraine - like most of the countries of Europe - names have been greatly influenced by Christianity but, since the acceptance of Greek Orthodoxy as the state religion at the end of the 10th century, many Greek names have entered the local language to be added to genuine Slavic names. Since Ukraine and Russia are linguistic and geographic neighbours, they often have similar names with only one letter differing them when written - such as Dmitro (Ukrainian) and Dmitri (Russuan).
In Russia, naming practices have been very influenced by political developments. Until the October revolution of 1917, Russian names were limited to those sanctioned by the Orthodox Church. After the revolution, the communists encouraged parents to give their children names reflecting the new political order - sometimes with quite startling results. Examples include Mels (an acronym of Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin), Rem (an acronym for revolution, Engels and Marx) and Vladlen (from Vladimir Lenin) plus - more prosaically - Traktor ('tractor') and Elektrifikatsiya ('electrification'). Since the 1980s, Russian nationalist and Orthodox religous feelings have been revived and many parents are choosing traditional Church-sanctioned names, especially older ones not commonly heard for a century. Some of the most popular boy's names now are Nikita ('to be victorious'), Daniil ('divine judge'), and Grigori ('alert'), while popular girls' names include Darya or Dasha ('owning'), Anastasia ('resurrection') and Ksenya ('guest').
Link: Russian first names click here
In Russia, everyone has a second name which is a patronymic, that is a reference to the name of one's father. For a man, this takes the form of the suffix '-ovich', so someone whose father is called Ivan would have the second name Ivanovich. For a woman, it takes the form of the suffix '-ovna', so someone whose father is called Vladimir would have the second name Vladimirovna. When addressing someone politely in Russia, one would use the first name and the patronymic which is the equivalent to saying 'Mr' or 'Mrs' in English.
The most common surname in Russia is Ivanov.
In Latvia, there is a trend to give names to children after many popular television soap operas, both Mexican and American, so you could meet Rids (Ridge), Rebeka (Rebecca), Dons (John), Dulija (Julie, Julia). However, these names with letter 'J' in English, which is written Dž in Latvian, sound very strange and awkward together with Latvian surnames such as Kocinš ('a little tree') or Berzinš ('a little birch tree'). In Latvian, first names tend to have gender-specific endings, for example, men's names end with 's' in most cases and sometimes in 'o'(if this word has originated from other country), while all women's names end with 'a' or 'e'. Since the Second World War, all last names for women have ended with 'a' or 'e'. So the female version of Kalns would be Kalna, while the femalwe version of Bondars wwould be Bondare. Latvian law even requires a woman to have last letter added in case of foreign last names such as through marriage.
Each Mother's Day in the United States, the Commissioner of Social Security publishes the most popular baby names based on all social security card applications for children born the previous year. The latest available lists of the top ten boys' and girls' names, relating to the year 2011, are as follows:
Link: Most popular baby names in the USA click here
Several points can be made about these lists. Firstly, it is a stable pair of lists. Jacob has been top of the male list since 1999, while Emily has only just fallen a little after having been in the top three female name from 1996-2008. Secondly, for all the ethnic diversity of the USA, both these lists are remarkably Anglo-Saxon. None of the boys' names except Jayden and Mason would be out of place in the UK and, of the girls' names, only Madison would look odd in Britain. Thirdly, there some distinct similarities between the most popular names in the USA and the UK. Five of the top ten American boys' names and six of the top ten American girls' names are in the top 20 for UK names of the appropriate gender. In the United States, two of the top four boys' names begin with 'J', while this is the case for four of the top ten boys' names in Britain. Emily is the sixth most popular girls' name in the USA and it is the fifth most popular girls' name in Britain.
As in many countries (and possibly even more so), in the USA names come in to and fall out of fashion very rapidly. Take Jacob which has topped the boys' names list for more than a decade; the name was hardly used at all until the 1960s when it suddenly exploded into popularity. Or consider the girls' name Emily; this was a modestly-used name in gentle decline until, again in the 1960s, it became incredibly popular.
Link: Trends in popularity of baby names in the USA click here
Most of what has been written in this essay about the use of English first names in England applies to the use of 'English' names in the United States. However, the United States was built on immigrants, so one sees a fantastic range of names there, drawn from a wide variety of European traditions, as is evident if one looks at the credit list of any American television programme or movie.
Furthermore Americans have a wonderful facility for invention of first names:
Link: Duggar family site click here
Not all children are thrilled with their parents' inventiveness when they grow up. Spare a thought for the actors River, Rain, Liberty and Summer Phoenix. On the other hand, the actress Barbara Hershey was not content with her original name and, for a couple of years, adopted the name Seagull.
Link: Think! Baby Names click here
As in Britain, in most cases people in the USA have two first names but, whereas in Britain the second name is rarely used or even alluded to, in the States it often features, usually in the form of an initial - as in George W Bush. A common form of familiarity is to use simply the initials of the first two names rather than the names themselves - as in the character 'J.R.' (John Ross Ewing) in the television series "Dallas" or the Press Secretary 'C.J.' (Claudia Jean Cregg) in the television series "The West Wing" or the superhero's girlfriend 'M.J.' (Mary Jane Watson) in the film "Spiderman".
American men are much given to naming their sons identically to themselves. The father and son are then distinguished by suffixing the former's name with Senior (abbreviated to Sr) and suffixing the son's name with Junior (abbreviated to Jr) - so my American pen friend is Charles B Urnick Jr. This same naming can go on for several generations - so we had the philanthropist John D Rockefeller III or we even have Thomas Cruise Mapother IV (the full name of the actor Tom Cruise). An American friend of mine told me about a boy who lived in her street whom they called Brack Grantham. His full name was Braxton Bragg Grantham V which would suggest that his family had been naming sons after the Confederate Civil War general since about the end of that war.
In the USA, the top ten surnames are all clearly of British origin: Smith, Johnson, Williams, Jones, Brown, Davis, Miller, Wilson, Moore, Taylor (respectively). However, the top 40 names include a number of Spanish family names: Garcia, Martinez, Rodriguez, Hernandez, Lopez, Gonzalez (again respectively).
African-Americans tend to choose different first names from their white compatriots and have developed a wide choice of colourful appellations. Someone called Leroy, for instance, is almost certainly black (although the name is rarely chosen these days). However, for most African-Americans, their surnames are a permanent reminder of the slavery which disfigured the United States for so long. They have last names which bear no relation to the family's origin on the African continent and instead have been taken from a white slave owner or some other local source.
Male African-American names click here
Female African-American names click here
Native American people can call upon names of around 250 original languages. Many Native American names have traditionally been taken from nature and from the perspective of being part of nature, such as Achachak (Algonquian for 'spirit'), Gomda (meaning 'wind' in Kiowa), and Tawa (meaning 'sun' in Hopi).
Other names, like those in Africa, come from events or conditions at the time of the child's birth, such as Ahanu (meaning 'he laughs' in the Massachusett language), Palliton (meaning 'he has spoiled it' from the Delaware), Ahyoka (meaning 'she bought happiness' in Cherokee), and Winona (meaning 'first born daughter' in Santee Sioux). Other names are vocabulary names, such as Atepa (meaning 'tent' in Choctaw), Iiniwa (meaning 'bison' from the Blackfoot), Mina (meaning 'knife' in Lakota), and Yansa (meaning 'buffalo' in Cherokee). Still other names are beautifully illustrative, such as Lise (meaning 'salmon's head coming out of the water' in Miwok), Nindakando (meaning 'I watch and lie in ambush' from the Ojibwa), and Teluhci (meaning 'bear making dust as it runs' from Moquelumnan).
Native American names (1) click here
Native American names (2) click here
Hawaii is part of the United States, but the naming practices on the islands are totally different from that of the mainland USA. Most names are not particular to one gender and often one name is added to another to create long, polysyllabic names. Most Hawaiian names come from objects of beauty, such as Mamo (yellow flower) and Wainani (beautiful water), and many start with the letter 'K', such as Kamakani (the wind) and Kalei (the garland).
Link: Hawaiian first names click here
Over the border in Canada, the most popular names tend to be similar to those in the UK and the USA - for boys, Matthew, Jacob, Ethan; for girls, Emma, Emily, Sarah. However, Canadians, like Americans, love to play with the spelling of names to create variations - for example, Mathew/Mathieu/Matthew/Matthieu, Michael/Michaël/Micheal/Mickael/Mikael and Zack/Zachary/Zachery/Zackary/Zackery/Zakary/Zakery for boys and Emily/Emilee/Emilie/Émilie, Madison/Maddison/Madisen/ Madisyn/Madyson and Abbigail/Abbigale/Abbygail/Abigail/Abigale/Abigayle for girls.
Link: most popular names in Canada click here
In much of Latin America, the use of family names has been influenced historically by the colonial powers Spain and Portugal. In Andean countries, slaves were obliged to use their master's surname as their own patronimic: Juan Blanco de Almeida or Pedro Martin de Betancourt. This ordinance was abolished with the termination of slavery. In most Latin American countries, especially Middle and Northern South America, the use of both father´s and mother´s surnames after the common name (for instance, Teresa Pérez Camacho) had been a standard arrangement (but not a formal requirement) in the former times of conquest and colonisation (1500-1800) in order to differentiate from the few family names (surnames/apellidos) of a relatively small immigrant population (until 1650, mostly from Spain and Portugal).
People in Argentina love giving family and friends nicknames. Take the most famous Argentinian of them all, the revolutionary 'Che' Guevara. His real name was Ernesto Rafael Guevara de la Serna. In early manhood, he was called 'Fuser' which comes from 'furibundo Serna' ('furious Serna') due his enraged way of playing rugby. Later he was called 'Che' which is a commonly used word in Argentina meaning something like 'buddy', 'dude' or 'man'.
The Arab world covers a band of North Africa and the Middle East where 20 countries have Arabic as the main language. Overwhelmingly Arabic names are vocabulary words whose meaning is obvious and clear. Although some names are taken from the pre-Islamic tradition, the most common Arabic names are derived from Islam which has been the dominant religion since the 7th century.
Pre-Islamic names include a few male names like Adnan (possibly from the word 'to settle down') and many female names such as Abla (meaning 'having a full, fine figure'), Azza (probably a derivative of the word for 'pride' or 'power'), Layla (meaning 'wine') and Lubna (from the word for 'storax' - a tree with a sweet, honey-like sap). Some names from pre-Islamic times relate to animals, ferocious ones for male names and tamer ones for female names - such as Fahd (panther) and Haytham (young eagle) for boys and Arwa (young goat) and Rim (white antelope) for girls.
The hot, dry weather of the Arabic world has inspired a series of names, both male and female - examples include Ghayth (rain) and Mazin (rain clouds) for boys and Nada (dew) and Nihal (sated with drink) for girls. One more vocabulary word which has led to many names - all male - is the sword which is a symbol of power and decisiveness. Examples include Husam, Muhannad, Faruq, Faysal, Hasim, Hatim.
By far the richest source of given names in the Arab world, however, is the religion of Islam. The name of the founder and prophet of Islam Muhammad (literally 'praiseworthy') is the most popular male name in the whole of the Islamic world. Names from the same root - 'hamida' (to praise) - include Ahmad, Hamid, Hamdi and Mahmud. Also popular for boys are Abd-Allah (servant of Allah) and other compound names consisting of 'Abd' (servant of) plus one of the 99 attributes of Allah, such as Abd-al-Aziz ('aziz' means powerful) and Abd-al-Rahim ('rahim' means merciful). Names refering to the divine are called theophoric names.
Another group of popular names are those associated with the Prophet's immediate family and his close companions - such as Hasan, Husayn, 'Ali and 'Umar for boys and Fatima, Khadija, 'A'isha and Zaynab for girls. One more influence for boys comes from the names of famous Muslim military and political leaders such as 'Amr, Khalid, Sa'd and Tariq.
Finally, since Islam recognises both Judaism and Christianity, many of the stories in the Old and New Testaments appear in the Koran and some of the most common Arabic names are direct derivatives from the Koran with counterparts in the Bible. Examples are Ibrahim (Abraham), Isma'il (Ishmael), Maryam (Mary) and Yusuf (Joseph).
Male Arabic names click here
Female Arabic names click here
Arabic first names click here
Arab/Muslim names click here
Traditionally Arabs have not used family names in the Western manner and many still do not. Instead, in many cases, they simply add their father's first name and possibly grandfather's first name and maybe even great-grandfather's first name to their own first name. Hence the name Saddam Hussain. The additional names might be preceded by the use of the optional word 'bin', sometimes spelled 'ben', which means 'son of'. Hence the name Osama bin-Laden. The female equivalent is 'bint' which means 'daughter of'.
As we have seen, in countries like Russia and Iceland children take a name from their parent - a system known as patronymics. In the Arab word, the opposite - a parent taking a name from a child (or teknonymy) is quite common. So a parent is often called 'abu' which means 'father of' or 'umm' which means 'mother of', followed by the name of the eldest son.
These genealogical names `can be combined with names indicating where someone came from or what they did for a living. So Ali al-Hijazi would be Ali from Hijaz, while Ali al-Tajir would be Ali the Merchant. Another common suffix is 'Abn' meaning 'servant of' which is often followed by one of the 99 names of God. So the full name of the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was in fact Saddam Hussein [his father's first name] Abd al-Majid [this was his father's 'family' name] al-Tikriti [he was born in a village outide the town of Tikrit].
Turning to more conventional Arabic surnames, again we find a relatively small number of frequently occurring names. The top ten surnames are (in order of popularity): Ali, Ahmed, Ahmad, Haddad, Mahmood, Mansoor, Rahman, Abdel, Naser, Hanna (the first three of these occur more than 5 million times and the others occur more than 2 million times). Arabic surnames may begin with the following articles: al, el, ad, ag, ak, an, ar, as, and az.
For instance, when I was on a holiday in Jordan, my guide went by two different surnames: Nawafleh which was his clan name and Mouammar which was his grandfather's first name.
So, in a country like Oman, a man will have his own first name followed by his father's first name (possibly followed by his grandfather's first name) and then a tribal name.
Or take the Yemen. There everybody in a village belongs to the same clan and so has the same surname. So surnames are never used but instead the men have three first names their own first name, their fathers first name and their grandfathers first name. However, since they use only a very small selection of Islamic names, names like Ahmed Ali Ahmed are very common. The delightful consequence is that they then use nicknames to distinguish themselves such as Ali Zain which translates as lucky Ali.
Similarly, in Somalia, people do not have surnames in the Western sense. To identify a Somali, three names must be used: a given name followed by the father's given name and the grandfather's. Women, therefore, do not change their names at marriage. Nearly all men and some women in Somalia are identified by a public name, naanays. There are two kinds of naanays: overt nicknames, similar to Western nicknames, and covert nicknames, which are used to talk about a person but rarely used to address that person.
Link: Somali names click here
India is such a huge country that there are many different naming practices and traditions and the main influences are region and religion. Indeed many people in India bear several names - a personal name, a patronymic, a village name, a caste name, and so on. These occur in a different order in different parts of the sub-continent, so identifying the personal name may not always be easy for non-Indians. In all cases, however, each name has a special meaning or possibly more than one meaning (unlike English names whose meaning is usually opaque), so that it is not uncommon for one Indian to ask another what his or her name means.
The most common religion in India is Hinduism and Hindus believe in reincarnation or rebirth. Therefore Hindu families will often name a child after an ancestor such as a grandparent so that, in a sense, the child becomes the ancestor reborn. Whereas most religions have one holy book which influences naming traditions - the Torah (Judaism), the Bible (Christianity), the Koran (Islam) - Hinduism has several venerated texts whch date from different periods and in turn inspire personal names even today.
The Vedic period (up to c.800 BC) gave rise to a collection of hymns called the Rig-Veda. The names of many of the deities of the Rig-Veda are still in use as personal names - for example, Saraswati and Vishnu. Also many vocabulary words from this period have been used as personal names - such as, Arun (reddish-brown), Jyoti (light), Madhu (sweet), Mani (jewel), Tarun (young), Uttam (highest). The late Vedic period (c.800 - c.400 BC) gave rise to the Artharva-Veda and modern Hindu names probably having their source in this work include Anuradha, Kishore, Nanda, Samant and Sharaada.
The epic period (c.300 BC - c.300 AD) was dominated by two famous Hindu epics. The first, the Mahabharata, has given rise to modern names such as Baldev, Damodar, Karan and Sanjay. This epic contains the famous religous text called the Bhagavad Gita which has made the names Krishna (the godhead in the story) and Arjun (the prince in the story) among the most frequency used names by Hindus in modern times. The second epic of this period, the Ramayana, contains characters whose names are still in very common use, such as Rama, Sita, Janaki and Lakshman.
The classical period (c.100 - c. 880 AD) includes many religous texts with an influence on naming practices, the most famous being the text complied by Manu who laid down rules for caste names. The priestly caste of Brahmins should bear auspicous names that connote spiritual prosperity, such as Kalyan ('beautiful' or 'auspicous'); the warrior caste of Ksatriyas should have names which are full of power and connote safeguard, such as Ajit ('invincible'); the merchant caste of Vaisyas should have names implying wealth, such as Shripati ('lord of fortune'); and the peasant and labourer caste of Sudras should have names denoting servitude, such as one ending in '-das' ('servant'). Women's names are not subject to caste rules, but are supposed to be pleasant-sounding and end in long vowels, such as Asha, Radha and Shanta.
The Puranic period (c.500 - c.1,000 AD) gave rise to many Hindu female names that are still used today, including Sushila, Shyama, Shakti, Parvati, Mohini, Meena and Kanti. Finally, the medieval period (c.1000 - c.1600 AD) promoted many compound names of sectarian origin derived from works called Namastotras, such as Devdan, Harish, Jayakrishna, Nataraj, Raghuvir, Ramakrishna, Ramnarayan, Sriram, Umashankar and Vishwanath.
Parents often name their children with words, the qualities of they would like the child to adopt. For instance, parents may name their child Vivek which means 'intellect'. The idea behind naming him Vivek would also be that hopefully he becomes an intellectual in his life. It also is very common for children to be named after one of the many Hindu gods - for instance, Siva (the God of Destruction), Saraswathi (the Goddess of Wisdom) or Lakshmi (the Goddess of Wealth). An example of a combination of these two naming traditions would be Mansi which is derived from the goddess Mansa Devi, but also means 'from the heart'.
Indians in big cities, however, are now willing to use international names for their children. These may be Spanish, French, or Italian names. But, even then, every word used as a name usually has a meaning and very rarely does one come across a child in India whose name does not have a specific meaning.
Various parts of India have varied systems for names. For example. in the states of Punjab and Haryana, the word 'kaur' depicts a female and the word 'singh' depicts a male. So, if we take the name Deepak (which means a lantern made of mud), Deepak Kaur would indicate that it is a female name, while Deepak Singh would indicate that it is a male name.
In some parts of India, surnames were based on the caste to which one belonged. However, with modernisation taking hold, many urban area dwellers have done away with the distinction of such surnames. Indeed some of the low caste population have adopted upper castes surnames, just to assert they belong to the upper caste.
In some Indian states, the middle name is essential. For instance, in the state of Maharshtra, the middle name is necessary. In case of males, the middle name is his father's name; for females, the middle name is the husband's name. However, in commom parlance, one rarely addresses colleagues with a middle name.
In southern India, it is very common to name a children after the child's grandparent as a sign of respect and affection. The south of India does not have surnames. Men write their father's names instead of a surname, while women write their husband's name. Unmarried girls also write their father's names. The practice in some South Indian states is that people write their surnames as the place to which they belong.
Indians name their children through a special "naming ceremony". A naming ceremony is the day when the priest visits the house, invites the Gods to bless the child, and names the child in presence of the Gods. It is believed that naming a child through this fashion will bring him or her good luck, joy and prosperity throughout life.
However, in India there is much less use of first names than in the West - it is considered disrespectful, even rude. When addressing someone a few years older, one will frequently use the term 'brother' or 'sister'; when addressing someone rather older, one will often use the term 'uncle' or 'auntie'.
Although Hinduism is the main religion in India, there are many others, each of which has its own naming traditions.
Buddhism is still an important religion in the country. However, it is often hard these days to distinguish Buddhist names from Hindu ones, partly because Hinduism eventually incorporated the Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu and partly because names in both religions ultimately derive from the same Sanskrit forms. Names which are distinctly from Buddhist sources include Siddhartha (from siddhartha meaning 'one who has achieved the goal of enlightenment') and Amitabh (from amitabha meaning 'of immeasurable splendour') plus Gautam (from Gautama, the clan name of the Buddha).
Sikhs in India - most of whom inhabit the Punjab in the north-west - have their own special naming traditions. Modern Sikh names are most commonly compound names and often end in '-inder' from the Vedic deity Indra whom the Indo-Aryans invoked in aid for battle. Typical names formed in this tradition are Surinder, Jitinder and Harinder. This suffix is even found in some female names such as Rupinder and Jaswinder. Common names beginning with 'bal' (from the Sanskrit word bala meaning 'strength') are also common - Baldev is one case.
In Sikhism, the naming of a child is a very significant event. Children are named by consulting the local priest who opens at random the holy book of Sikhism, the Guru Granth Sahib, and the first syllable of the opened page determines the intial syllable of the child's name.
All Sikhs take the same second name: Singh meaning 'lions'. In the case of males, the third or last name is a caste name. In the case of females, the third name is often Kaur which identifies her gender.
The most common surname in India is Aggarwal.
The main difference between the situation in China and Britain is that the Chinese have a massive number of first names but a small number of surnames whereas, in direct contrast, the British have a relatively small number of first names but a wide variety of surnames. The Chinese do not have middle names, whereas almost all British people do. The Chinese always put the family name first, whereas the British invariably put the family name last. Whereas many cultures easily decouple first and family names (typically using only the first name when one has assumed a certain familiarity), Chinese family and 'first' names are rarely decoupled, so that even good friends call each other by the full name.
Link: Chinese personal names click here
Usually (but not always), the 'first' name is two syllables long. Since every character in the Chinese language can be used as a first name, there is an almost endless choice, as there are literally tens of thousands of characters (or pictographs) in the Chinese language. It is not usually possible to tell the gender of a Chinese person simply from their name, since first names are not gender-specific.
Although there is a massive choice of first name in China, the most common character in Chinese first names is Wen, meaning 'culture' or 'writing'. This name clearly reflects the ultimate values in modern Chinese society of culture and education. The second most common character in first names is Zhi, meaning 'will, intention, emotions'.
Here is the order of frequency of the most common characters chosen for Chinese first names: Wen (culture, writing), Zhi (will, intention, emotions), Yi (cheerful), Ya (elegant), Ming (bright), Hui (smart, wise), Hong (great, wide).
Other popular characters include: An ('peace'), Fu ('luck'), Kong ('intelligent'), Jing ('classic'), Gao ('high'), Shi ('stone'), Wang ('king'), Xing ('lucky'), and Zhu ('master') for boys and Ai ('love'), Chun ('spring'), Hai ('sea'), Fei ('empress'), Mei ('beautiful'), Li ('beauty'), Su ('understated'), Xi ('happiness') and Yan ('swallow') for girls.
However, most Chinese first names have no meaning on their own (but multiple meanings when combined with other Chinese characters).
The old naming practice for boys is very different from that for girls and it follows a very traditional arrangement. For each of the most common family names (around 200), there is a set of perhaps 15-20 characters which are used in rotation generation by generation as the 'root' for naming boys in the family, usually providing a common first syllable but sometimes providing a common second syllable. So, the brothers of Mao Tse-tung were Tse-tan and Tse-min, while his sons from his second marriage were An-ying and An-ching. Similarly, in the book "Wild Swans" by Jung Chang [click here], the author's three brothers were named Xiao-hong, Xiao-hei and Xiao-fang respectively. Other examples I have come across include Rong-sheng, Kai-sheng, Hu-sheng and Cheng-mao, Cheng-hang, Cheng-jiao.
Generally speaking, for girls, however, there is no such arrangement. Nevertheless, sometimes girls will also have the same name in one family - for example, Cai-hong, Lan-hong, Yue-hong.
Since the advent of the one child policy in China, this traditional naming practice has fallen into rapid decline.
The Chinese were among the first cultures to use hereditary surnames (around 2800BC). Indeed the custom was not adopted in Europe until the Venetian aristocracy made it popular around the 11th century AD. By contrast with the multitudinous choice of first names in China, however, for surnames there is a standard list of the "Hundred Names", first compiled many years ago by order of the Emperor as the 100 most popular surnames (or last or family names) in the country at the time. School children used to memorize them, or at least the first few names from the list. Even by the time of the 1949 revolution, there were still fewer than 500 surnames in China.
The top eight Chinese last names are: Zhao, Qian, Sun, Li, Zhou, Wu, Zhang. Wang. In fact, 270 million of China's 1.3 billion population are named Li (meaning 'plum'), Wang (meaning 'head' or 'king') or Zhang (meaning 'long bow'), making up 7.9%, 7.4% and 7.1% of the total population respectively. Around 50% of all Chinese people have one of these eight Chinese family names and just 50 different family names are sufficient to name 90% of the population of China, that is, over a billion people.
Nearly always the family name in China is one-syllable long. The only common modern surnames that are two-syllables long are O-uyáng and Si-ma.
All Chinese surnames have meaning. So my friend Hua's surname is Yee meaning 'leaves', while her husband Zhihao's surname is Yong meaning 'brave'.
One more point on family names: Chinese women keep their family name on marriage so their name is no indication of whether they are married or not (they do not wear wedding rings either).
Although most Chinese simply have two names, historically and regionally there are many types of names that might be used for a Chinese male. Here are eleven types of names (but the first four are the most important):
The Vietnamese were dominated by the Chinese for a thousand years (from 1st-9th century), so they share many features of naming practices. Common names in Vietnam often have three to four words (or three to four syllables, since each word is formed by a syllable). The surname comes first, then the middle name and finally the first name. The surname often has no meaning but middle names and first names do. The first name is often a noun and the middle name is often a relevant adjective - for instance, Manh Phong means 'hard wind', Minh Hai means 'morning sea', and Thuy Ha means 'sapphire river'.
Traditionally, a first name could reveal the year that a person was born because the Vietnamese have twelve animals to name a cycle of years - in order: mouse -Tí; buffalo - Suu; tiger - Dan or Ho; cat - Mao; dragon - Thin or Long; snake - Ti; horse - Ngo; goat - Mui; monkey - Than; rooster - Dau; dog - Tuat; pig - Hoi. In fact, the name Long is particularly popular, so parents often choose that name for their son regardless of the year the boy was born. However, generally speaking, parents no longer use names that refer to animals.
Families in Vietnam used to have a lot of children and many fathers put their sons and daughters' names together to create themes or slogans with their names. Some families named their children as kinds of flowers or colours or even countries in the world (Duc, Phap, Anh, My, Nga mean Germany, France, England, USA, Russia). Sometimes the names all of a family's children started with the same letter in the alphabet - for instance, H: Hai, Hieu, Hung, Hong, Huong, Hoa, Hoai... or T: Tung, Thuy, Toan, Thang, Thien... Examples of slogans created from children's names are: Thao, Thuc, Ram, Dong meaning 'None sleep in a full moon winter night', or Binh, Tinh, Chien, Dau, Gioi meaning 'Be yourselves, fighting well', or Bac, Nam, Thong, Nhat meaning 'north and south are united', or Viet, Nam, Chien, Thang meaning 'Vietnam will win'.
In many countries, naming a new baby after a famous person is considered an act of respect to that man, but this is not true in Vietnam. Imagine you can kick Ho Chi Minh's backside or punish General Vo Nguyen Giap when he makes a mistake! In Vietnamese culture, this is just unacceptable and considered rude to great leaders.
The Vietnamese have some names that are mostly used for boys, such as Duc, Hai, Manh, and some others for girls, such as Trang, Nhung, Dung. However, some names are used for both boys and girls, such as Phuong, Linh, Thanh. Generally, in Vietnam, names are not specific to boys or girls. Popular names include Dung ('brave'), Thang ('victory'), Thinh ('prosperity') and Thi ('poetry').
Conversely, a middle name does usually indicate the gender. If Van is the middle name, that person is a man. For women, it is Thi. Many Vietnamese have Van or Thi in their name, especially if they come from the countryside. In some cases, the middle name stands alone. In other cases, it goes with surname to form a shared surname for the clan. This means that all the men in that clan have the same surname and middle name. Ton That and Nguyen Lan are two clans like this with many famous men in Vietnamese history having one of these clan names. Among clan names, Cong Tang Ton Nu is the longest. Nowadays, many people take their mother's surname as their middle name.
As in some parts of Africa, after a baby is born, a Vietnamese family often choses a meaningless, ugly name for him or her to use. They believe that the devil likes to take children with beautiful names or to make the baby ill. Therefore the use of an ugly name is intended to warn off the devil. This ugly name is widely used among family members, relatives and neighbours. Indeed many children do not use their official name until they go to school for the first time when they are six years old. In small communities, these nicknames can be kept for life. Examples of such unpleasant names that I have come across include names meaning Leaf, Bark, Root, and even Bucket.
Turning now to the use of surnames, foreigners often wonder why there are so many people with the surname Nguyen in Vietnam. In fact, millions of men and women in Vietnam have names starting with Nguyen Van or Nguyen Thi. The explantion is historical. The ancient capital of Vietnam is Hanoi city in the north. After a civil war in 17th century, the king and his clan moved far to the south to form his own kingdom. At that time, most of the south was unused land with a lot of fresh ground to reclaim. To attract immigrants from the north, the new king promised to change all his people's surnames to Nguyen, that is the same surname as his own. It was an honour because people would feel like they were relatives of the king. Accordingly the new kingdom grew fast and later it defeated the northern government and unified the country.
Vietnam has 54 races which live peacefully within in the country's borders. One minority race that lives up in the mountain has all its men's and women's surname and middle name as Ho Chi. They asked for that favour as a gift for their support during the war and the North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh agreed - although nobody would be disrespectful enough to call their child Ho Chi Minh.
Finally, women in Vietnam do not take their husband's surname after becoming married but keep their own surname for life. Decades ago, married women were often called by their husband's name, but this is no longer the case.
In Japan, first names are written in kanji or Chinese characters, though some names are written in hiragana or katakana characters, meaning that there are thousands of possible names. Hiragana are mainly used for girl's names because of its soft impression.
Since there are thousands of kanji to choose from, even the same name usually can be written in many different kanji combinations. For example, Keiko is a common female name, but there are more than 70 variations that exist to write the name Keiko in kanji. Depending on which characters are used, the meanings of the name differ.
In the past, when Japanese parents had large families, boys in particular were sometimes given names indicating the order in which they were born, for example Ichiro 'first son' and Jiro 'second son'. However, most Japanese families now have only one or two children and parents like to choose distinctive names.
Japanese first names commonly consist of two kanji. The meanings of those kanji are often positive characteristics such as intelligence, beauty, love or light, names for flowers, the four seasons, and other natural phenomena. Boys' names usually refer to traditionally male characteristics like power and courage. Girls' names express virtues thought to be feminine, such as purity and beauty.
The gender of a person can often be guessed by the ending of his/her first name. First names ending with '-ro', '-shi', '-ya', or '-o' are typically male first names, while names ending in '-ko', '-mi', '-e' and '-yo' are typically female first names. For example, the ending 'ko', meaning 'child', can be found in Akiko, Fumiko, Keiko and Yoshiko. Indeed, in the past, most girls' names ended in '-ko', but this tradition is now fading.
Both genders often have names with a character from the name of a grandparent or the child's father in order to honour the elder relative. Both genders often have names that refer to trees or parts of them because the tree is seen as a symbol of longevity, strength and success - examples include the boys' names Kazuki ('best tree') and Naoki ('upright tree') and the girls' names Natsuki ('summer tree') and Sugi ('cedar tree').
For some traditional Japanese, one's name has a special importance. 'Seimei handan' or name diagnosis is a type of fortune telling concerning names. Its theories centre around the number of strokes that are required to write the characters of a name (there is a defined number of strokes for every Japanese character). Depending on the total number of strokes and the sums of strokes for different parts of a name in relation to each other, a name is considered more or less auspicious. Some people consult 'seimei handan' when selecting their child's name.
Sometimes the combination of family name and first name is carefully considered because of the meaning of the family name. For instamce, I have a good Japanese friend whose family name is Ishibashi, which means 'stone+bridge', and his parents deliberately gave him the first name Michihiro, which means 'passage+big'.
Like the Chinese, the Japanese do not use middle names.
Until the Meiji restoration of the 19th century, most Japanese people did not have family names which were in fact forbidden. When they were allowed to have family names, they tended to choose names related to nature, geographical features, or locations - for example, mountain (yama), tree (ki), rice field (ta), island (shima), village (mura), bridge (hashi), between (naka), below (shita). Most Japanese family names consist of two kanji (Chinese) characters combining two features or characteristics.
Today there are over 300,000 family names in Japan, although about 7,000 names cover around 95% of the population. Some of the most common Japanese family names are Sato, Suzuki, Takahashi, Tanaka and Watanabe.
Like the Chinese, the Japanese quote the family name before the given name. The Japanese commonly address each other by last name. Only close friends and children are usually addressed by first name. In addition, people rarely address each other just by name, but usually attach an appropriate title to the name. There is a large number of such titles, depending on the gender and social position of the person one is addressing, but the most common title is the suffix '-san'.
Therefore, when talking about my Japanese friend, I should use the term Ishibashi-san. A particularly common further instance of the use of this title is the Japanese manner of combining being friendly with being respectful by putting the suffix '-san' at the end of a friend's first name - for instance, to my good Japanese friend Michihiro-san, I am always Roger-san.
Formation of Japanese names click here
Japanese first names click here and click here
Japanese naming practices click here
REST OF AFRICA
Names in Africa reflect the diverse nature of this huge continent, so the Arab countries of the north and Muslim families elsewhere follow the Muslim traditions of naming, while many of the countries which were colonised by European states continue to use many names derived from the colonising country and its language such as English, French and Portuguese. In other cases, more traditional or tribal systems of naming are used.
In fact, given this variety of naming traditions, many Africans have more than one first or last name. Take, for instance, the most famous African of them all, the man known to the world as Nelson Mandela. The first name given him by his father was Rolihlahla which in Xhosa literally means 'pulling the branch of a tree' and colloquially means 'troublemaker'. He did not take the first name Nelson until, at the age of seven, he went to school and, on the first day there, his teacher gave him this English name. When he was nine and joined his adoptive family, they called him by the pet name Tatomkhulu which means 'grandfather' because they said, when he was very serious, he looked like an old man. At the age of 16, he was given the circumcision name Dalibhunga meaning 'Founder of the Bungha' (the traditional ruling body of the Transkei). While Mandela is known as his family name, he is often addressed as Madiba, his clan name, as a sign of respect.
Some names in African countries refer to the nature of the pregnancy. References to pregnancy include Anindo (a male name used by the Luo of Kenya) which means 'mother slept a lot during preganacy', Arogo (another male name used by the Luo of Kenya) which means 'mother nagged a lot during pregnancy', and U-Zenzo (a male name used by the Ndebele of Southern Africa) which means 'things happened in the womb'
Much more common though are names referring to the timing or circumstances of the birth of the baby, such as the day of the week, the season of the year, the number in the family, the relationship with other children or between twins, and the economic or emotional situation of the family.
Consider the following male Yoruba names used in Nigeria: Abegunde ('born during holiday'), Abejide ('born during winter'), Abiade ('born of royal parents'), Abidugun ('born before the war'), Abimbola ('born rich'), Abiodun ('born at the time of a festival'), Abiola ('born in honour'), Abiona ('born during a journey'), Abioye ('born during coronation') and Amadi ('seemed destined to die at birth'). Similarly we have Khamisi ('born on Thursday'), Mwanajuma ('born on Friday'), Mosi ('first born child') and Haoniyao ('born at the time of a quarrel') - Swahili names in South Africa - and Esi ('born on Sunday'), Kunto ('third child') and Nsonowa ('seventh born child') - Akan names in Ghana. In Ghana, the founding President was Kwame Nkrumah, the first name meaning ' born on Saturday' and the second name meaning 'the ninth born' (incidentally he was not born with this name, but took it later in life, and he was not in fact born on a Saturday).
Other examples are: the male name Otieno which means 'born at night' in Kenya; Abeeku ('born on Wednesday'), a Fante name from Ghana; Wasswa ('first of twins'), a Lugandan name in Uganda; the male name Bandele which means 'born away from home' in Nigeria; and Mainza ('born during the rain season'), Chilala ('born after the expected time'), and Mutinta ('child of a different gender born after two or more of the same gender'), all names from the Tonga language used in southern Zambia. In the same vein, there is Andile meaning 'the family is growing' in the Xhosa language of South Africa. The description can be quite precise, as in these names from Nigeria: Taiwo meaning 'the first of twins' (the name in full is actually 'To aiye wo' which literally means to 'taste the world'), Kehinde meaning 'the second of twins' (the name literally means 'came later'), Idowu (male) meaning 'born after twins' and Idogbe (male) meaning 'the second born after twins', Ojo (male) and Aina (female) both meaning 'difficult birth', and Ige (female) meaning 'born feet first'.
Similarly specific names from Uganda include Kabiito ('born while foreigners are visiting'), Kamuhanda ('born on the way to the hospital'), Karwana ('born during wartime'), Mwaka ('born on New Year's Eve') and Sempala ('born during prosperous times'). Similarly, in Nigeria, we have Yetunde, Yewande, and Iyabo meaning 'the "mother" has come back' (this usually means a female child was born after an elderly woman in the family recently died), Babatunde meaning 'the "father" has come back' (this usually means a male child was born after an elderly man in the family recently died), and Tokunbo meaning that the parents of the child were overseas (out of Nigeria) when the child was born.
In many African countries, the choice of personal names reflects the joyful reaction of the parents have in bringing forth a child. This seems to be especially the case in Nigeria where, among many examples, we have : Abayomi ('born to bring me joy'), Abagebe ('we begged to have this one to lift up'), Abeni ('we asked for her, and behold, we got her'), Abeo ('her birth brings happiness'), Hanna ('happiness'), Amachi ('who knows what God has brought us through this child'), Kayode ('he brought joy'), Monifa ('I am lucky'), Olabishi ('joy is multiplied'), Titilayo ('eternal happiness') or just Modupe ('thank you'). Further examples are found in the Tonga language used in southern Zambia: Chipo ('gift'), Luyando ('love'), Choolwe ('lucky'), and Chabota ('this is good'). In Ghana, the female name Afryea means 'born into happiness'. In Benin, the female name Izegbe means 'the long awaited child'. In Southern Africa, the female Ndebele name U-Thokozile means 'we are happy to have a child'.
The rising United States African-American politician Barack Obama was named after his father who came from Kenya and, in Swahili, Barack means 'blessed'. For the same reason, a friend of mine from Zimbabwe has the delightful name of Gift Chimanikire. When I was in Botswana, I met a man called Ipeleng which means 'rejoice' in the Setswana lanugage.
By contrast, from Uganda we have the Luganda name Gwandoya meaning 'met with misery', from Zambia we have the Tonga name Milando meaning 'trouble', from Mali we have the Fulani name Guedado meaning 'wanted by nobody' and from Benin we have the female name Itohan meaning 'to feel sorrowful'. In Nigeria, the male name Dunsimi means 'don't die before me'.
Other African names reflect characteristics that parents associate with their child. Sometimes these are very specific such as Chiku (a female Swahili name in Kenya), Masopakyindi ( a male Nyakyusa name in Tanzania), and Masani (a female Buganda name in Uganda). In Nigeria, Yejide means 'image of the mother' and Dada means 'curly hair' (both feminine names in Yoruba), while Akins (male) means 'brave' and Hazika (female) means 'intelligent one'. In Rwanda, Sentwali (male) means 'courageous', while Muteteli (female) means 'dainty'. In Tanzania, Chiumbo means 'small' (a male name in Mwera). In Kenya, Zuberi means 'strong' (a male name in Swahili) while, in South Africa, Njongo means 'purpose' (a male name in Xhosa) and Zethembe means 'trust yourself' (a male name in Zulu). In Zambia, Loshomo means 'trust' in the Tonga language.
My friend Gift Chimanikire of Zimbabwe called the youngest of his daughters Tsitsi which locally means 'kindness'. In South Africa, I was served by a waiter called Talent and a waitress called Precious while, in Swaziland, I was served by a waitress called Sweetness.
Then there are names which reflect the religious nature of the parents, such as various Swahili names used in Kenya and Tanzania: male names like Abdalla ('servant of God'), Abdu ('worshipper of God'), Abdul ('servant of the lord') and Andwele ('God brought me') and female names like Tulinagwe ('God is with us') and Tumpe ('let us thank God'). In Benin, the male name Osazema means 'the Lord has chosen this child for me' and the female name Ehizokie - for parents hoping for a boy but proud to have a daughter - means 'the Lord has chosen the king'. In Nigeria, the male name Chike means 'the power of God', while the female name Isoke means 'a satisfying gift from God'. In this Ewe tribe of Ghana, names can be a sentence such as 'I know that my redeemer liveth'. Other religous references mean 'God is good' and 'God is alive.'
Finally, there are many vocabulary words which are used as names, such as boys' names Sefu ('sword' in Swahili) and Tau ('lion' in Tswana, a language of Botswana) and girls' names Marjani ('coral' in Swahili) and Ife ('love' in Yoruba). Other examples from Nigeria are Agu (male) meaning 'leopard' and Oriji (male) meaning 'sturdy tree'. The Ewe tribe of Ghana being very religious has Prosper, Joy, Peace, Love, Faith and Rejoice.
In African societies, infant morality is much higher than in the industrialised nations. It is quite common for parents who have lost a child to name a subsequent child after the deceased one in order to honour the earlier child's memory. One example comes from the life of the South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela. His first daughter Makaziwe died at the age of only nine months and therefore he and his (first) wife called their next daughter by the same name.
Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and its diverse peoples represent a range of naming traditions. In the Yoruba culture of the south-west, the child is usually named on the 8th day of life (exactly a week after he/she was born), in a traditional naming ceremony. Many Yoruba names are compound words, in which the following elements frequently occur: ade ('crown'), ayo ('joy'), fe ('to love'), ife ('love'), ire ('goodness'), oba ('king'), omo ('child'), ola ('wealth'), olu and oluwa ('God'), and ore ('goodness'). Similarly, many Igbo names in the south-east are compound words, typically using elements such as Amaka, Mma and Nma (all meaning 'beautiful'), Chi, Chukwu and Nna (all meaning 'God'), Nne ('mother'), and Nwa ('child'). Hausa names of the north are usually Arabic because Islam has a large influence on naming conventions in Hausa. So, for example, there are many male names beginning with Abdul and followed by one of the attributes of God - such as AbdulRahman, Abdulsalam, Abdulmalik, Abdulaziz.
First names in Lesotho where the local language is Sesotho, as in many other parts of South Africa, are colourful and meaningful. A child gets its name because the parents are in a certain mood, or because the country is undergoing a certain transformation, or something of that kind. Children are rarely named randomly.
Most families pray for their first-born to be a boy and, when it is, the name reflects the family's joy, and could be Thabo ('happiness'), Katleho ('success'), Khotsofalang ('be satisfied') or Teboho ('gratitude') or any of a host of other grateful names. If the first-born is a girl, however, the name will probably not be as happy: Masoabi ('shame'), Likhang ('arguments'), Remaketse ('we're surprised') or another unsatisfied name. Sometimes the names of the children tell an unfolding story, such as Lebalang ('forgetting'), Kekeletso ('addition'), Refiloe ('enough'), Remaketse ('we're surprised') and Bakae ('where are they?' - for instance, a family with five children, all girls).
Other common names in Sesotho are Hlompho ('respect'), Khotso ('peace'), Lefu ('death'), Sello ('wailing'), Tau ('lion') and Thabang ('be happy') for a boy, Liketso ('acts'), Moroa ('khoi-khoi'), Palesa ('flower') for a girl, and Lebohang ('give thanks'), Mpho ('gift'), Rethabile ('we're happy') and Tumelo ('faith') for a girl or boy.
One story I was told was by someone who went to Lesotho high school with a boy called Ntja (meaning 'dog'). He wanted to know why parents would give their son such a name and was told that it was to fool Death. Ntja's elder sibling almost certainly died so, by naming him in this way, they 'let' Death surmise that they hated the child. Since death is ugly, it is believed that it will only take away loved ones. Names intended to be undesirable to evil spirits are called apotropaic names.
In Benin, names are often structured around the the root words 'efe' meaning 'wealth', 'osa' meaning 'God', and 'omo' meaning 'this one can make a child'. So, for example, the male name Efosa means 'the wealth of God' and is a particularly powerful name.
For many westerners, it is difficult to know whether a particular African name is masculine or feminine, but often there are clues that suggest the likely gender of a name. For instance, in Uganda one can sometimes tell the gender from the name. Among Baganda, a Bantu tribe comprising the majority of the population, names starting with 'S(s)e' like Sempala, are male, unless taken from a husband or father, as is done these days. Feminine names in this case are prefixed with 'Na' thus Nampala. Non-Bantu tribes like Acholi and Ateso have names starting with 'O' for male and 'A' for female children, so one has Okello and Akello respectively.
African first names click here
African personal names click here
REST OF ASIA
In Israel, as one would expect of a Jewish population, first names are frequently taken from the Old Testament of the Bible - for instance, Abraham, David, Ya'akov (Jacob), Yitzak (Isaac), Moshe (Moses) for boys and Rivka (Rebecca), Ruth, Sarah for girls. Even names which occur only once in the Bible - for example, Medad and Eldad - can become popular. The letters 'el' in Hebrew refer to God, so we have boys' names like Amiel, Ariel, Gavriel, Immanuel, Israel, Mikhael, Samuel and Yoel and girls' names like Danielle, Emmanuelle, Katriel, Mireil and Nirel. Many other Hebrew names have a reference to God - for instance, boys' names like Dan meaning 'God has judged in my favour', Eliyahu meaning 'my God is God', Yehu meaning 'He is God', Yonaton (Jonathan) meaning 'gift of God' and girls' names like Basia meaning 'daughter of God', Beth meaning 'house of God', Eliana meaning 'the Lord is my God', Ikia meaning 'God is my salvation', Jane and Joan both meaning 'God is gracious', Rebecca meaning 'servant of God', and Sheena meaning 'God is gracious'. The Hebrew word for pleasant or agreeable gives rise to Noam (male) and Naomi/Nomi (female). Middle names are not used in Israel.
In 2005, a group of Israeli rabbis issued a list of names they said Jewish parents should not call their children for fear of bringing bad luck. The list includes the names Ariel and Omri - which happen to belong to the Israeli prime minister and his son. Calling Ariel, the rabbis say, could mistakenly invoke the wrath of a namesake angel, while Omri was the name of an evil biblical king.
In Jewish communities around the world, there is strong tradition of naming babies after the closest deceased relative for whom no one else in that immediate family has already been named. Also most Jewish males have two names: a religous name called the shem hakodesh which is a Hebrew name and a secular name called the kinnui which is in whatever vernacular language is used in the country of habitation.
The most common surname in Israel is Cohen.
In many countries, the systematic use of family names is a relatively recent practice. For instance, in Turkey, it was not until 1934 that the 'Father of the nation' Kemal Atatürk had a law passed obliging every Turkish citizen to adopt a surname (on his birth, Kemal Atatürk himself was called simply Mustafa).
In other countries, family names are still not used. For example, in Oman, a child would be given a personal name, his father's personal name and then a tribal name - such as Mohammed Hassan al-Hathari. Similarly, in Iraq, the former dictator was called Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti becuase he came from the clan based on the town of Tikrit.
Armenia is a nation whose ancestral history dates back 2000 years B.C. so, along the way, the nation has accumulated a rich list of personal names. Some are borrowed from other civilisations it came in contact with, and others are simply the names of elements found in nature. The most common Armenian boy names are Raffi and Ara. Girls are commonly called Ani. Interestingly, almost all Armenians have a last name ending in either '-ian' (such as Aloian or Hamparian) or '-yan'. To the best of my knowledge, Armenians were required to add this ending to their names in order to be more recognizable by Turkish authorities.
Link: Armenian names click here
Names in Iran reflect the unique nature of the predominant language which is Farsi. Children are given names from religous and historical sources and, as in many Islamic countries, must be officially sanctioned. Common boys' names therefore are Muhammad, Ebrahim, Kourosh, Farhad and Hamid. Other boys' names refer to vernacular words such as Arman ('goal'), Casper ('treasurer'), Cyrus ('sun'), Dra ('wealthy'), Feirouz ('fortunate'), Kiyan ('king'), Pirouz ('victory') and Soroush ('happiness'). Girls' names tend to reflect so-called feminine virtues or images such as Esther ('star'), Laleh ('tulip'), Mehri ('lovable'), Nahid ('Venus'), Pari ('fairy'), Shirin ('sweet') and Soraya ('princess') plus many variations on Jasmine/Yasmin.
In Sri Lanka, the noted writer Ariesen Ahubudu suggests that a baby's name should be "striking, attractive to others, melodious, meaningful, easy to pronounce, rhyming with the surname, based on proper numerological calculations to ensure longevity, progress popularity and the first letter of a name should be selected according to the birth time" - a formidable list of requirements with which he is willing to assist!
Link: Ariesen Ahubudu's advice click here
Sri Lanka is a mainly Buddhist country and some of the names derived from Buddhism, mentioned earlier in the discussion of Indian names, are to be found in the island. Some epithets associated with the Buddha, however, are distinctly Sri Lankan as naming influences, such as Jayawardene (from jayavardhana meaning 'promoting (the) victory (of Buddhism)') and Wickramasinghe (from vikramasimha meaning 'a lion in valour'). As far as surnames are concerned, as well as local influences, one finds some names which show a Portuguese colonial influence, such as De Silva and Perera. Both first names and surnames in Sri Lanka are often compound names, making names in this country among the longest in the world.
Link: Sri Lankan names click here
Thailand has managed to avoided colonialisation by any of the European powers, so names here are very traditional. They tend to be long and elaborate, so many people are referred to by nicknames. Boys' names reflect strong virtues: for instance, Decha and Sakda (both meaning 'power'). Girls' names typically refer to flowers or jewels: for instance, Mali ('jasmine flower') and Sumalee ('garland') or Phailin ('sapphire') and Ratana ('jewel').
The country must have some of the longest family names in the world. This official at the Center for Labour Information Service and Training has 14 letters in his last name: Somyot Pruksakasemsuk.
Burma has never adopted the system of family names and uses only a system of first names. Traditonally these names have been a single syallable but, in the mid 20th century, double-syllable names became common. As they become more familiar with Western culture, Burmese people are gradually increasing the number of syllables in their children's names and today names with up to four syllables are common for males and up to five for females.
Often Burmese people have a number of first names - frequently referring to other family members - and change them as they go through life. Also there are many honorific names in Burmese society. Take the democracy activist: Aung San Suu Kyi. The first part of her name 'Aung San' is from her father's name at the time of her birth (he had changed his birth name); 'Suu' comes from her grandmother; 'Kyi' comes from her mother. Throughout Burma, she is usually called Daw Suu - 'Daw' (literally 'aunt') is used for mature or senior women as a term of respect.
In Korea, naming structures are similar to those in China. Korean given names are usually composed of two characters or syllables using Hanja. A few people have one- or three-character given names, like the politician Kim Ku and Sin Saimdang, the mother of the philosopher Yi I. People with two-character family names often have a one-character given name, like the singer Seomoon Tak.
In 1991, the South Korean Supreme Court published the Table of Hanja for Personal Name Use that restricts the possible Hanja in new Korean given names. Originally the list included the 1,800 Basic Hanja for Educational Use taught in middle and high school plus 1,054 additional characters; since then, the list has been expanded.
Traditionally, given names are determined by a rule called 'dollimja', which originated in China but fell into disuse there. One of the two characters in a given name is unique to the individual and the other is shared by all people in a family of the same sex and generation, called the generation name.
While the traditional practice is still largely followed, since the late 1970s, some people have given names that are native Korean words, usually of two syllables in length to follow the old two-character pattern. Popular native Korean given names include Haneul ('heaven or 'sky') and Iseul ('dew').
Korean family names are influenced by Chinese family names so, as in Chinese, there is the term 'the hundred family names' ('baekseong'). As with Chinese family names, almost all Korean family names have just one Hanja (or one syllable).
Just three family names - Kim, Pak and Yi - account for a large number of Koreans and half the population of Korea has one of the 13 most common family names. In fact, there are only roughly 250 family names ('seongssi') in use today. Each family name is divided into one or more clans ('bongwan'), identified by the city that the clan office is located in. The most populous clan is Gimhae Kim; that is, the Kim clan based in the city of Gimhae (near Busan). Every 30 years, each clan publishes a comprehensive genealogy.
Unlike the situation in Europe or North America, a woman keeps her family name at marriage, but her children take her husband's name. A small number of women give their children double surnames: one from each parent.
As former British colonies, Australia and New Zealand largely have the same naming practices as Britain, except that some first names are more common in these countries than in Britain.
Consider the most popular names in Australia in 2011:
What is striking is how similar this list is to the one for England & Wales. For both boys' and girls' names, there is a 60% overlap in the top ten. All the most popular Australian names are popular in Britain as well with the exception of Lachlan.
New Zealand holds the dubious distinction of being the location for perhaps the most unusual English-language first name: Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii. In 2008, a nine-year old girl with this name was put into court guardianship in New Zealand so that her name could be changed. Media reports of the case mentioned various other names which had been disallowed including Stallion, Yeah Detroit, Fish and Chips, Twisty Poi, Keenan Got Lucky and Sex Fruit. On the other hand, names which were allowed included Midnight Chardonnay, Number 16 Bus Shelter, and twins called Benson and Hedges. Of course, most New Zealand names are more conventional. In 2011, the most popular boys' name was Liam and the most popular girls' name was Ruby.
The main difference between names in Britain and the USA on the one hand and those in Australia and New Zealand on the other hand is that the indigenous peoples of the two latter countries have their own distinct naming practices. The Aboriginals of Australia use first names which are very derivative of nature, while the Maoris of New Zealand have a mixture of equivalents to English names and names from natural features.
In Kiribati (previously known as the Gilbert Islands), the official language is English (following its previous status as a UK dependency), but there is the indigenous language of Kiribati spoken by many of the 100,000 population. Names tend to be quite traditional English names but, in many cases, there is a Kiribati equivalent. For instance, for boys Iaone, Tiaon, and Ioane are all cognates of John and for girls Maria, Meri and Mere are all cognates of Mary.
Link: Kiribati names click here
In the tiny nation of Pitcairn Island (population 47), the community is drawn entirely from just four families: the Christian and Warren clans are descended from the mutineers on the "HMS Bounty" in 1790, while the Youngs and the Browns trace themselves back to sailors washed up on the island in the 19th century.
This review of naming practices around the world has hopefully made clear that so many of the implicit assumptions that citizens of the English-speaking nations make about names in other countries are simply wrong:
In many western countries, there is a growing tendency to use unusual first names or even to invent new first names. As an example, my beautiful niece is called Saskia Effigina Darlington.
The following comment appeared in a column by Leighton Williams in Jamaica's "Star" newspaper in July 2004:
"I'm puzzled by the names parents call their children these days ... The other day while at a function I had to write down the names of seven children ... I had to ask the organiser how the names of five out of the seven children were spelt. I mean, how on earth do you pronounce 'Fuschiea'. Do you call it Fucha, Fushia or let me not say. Then let me not mention Teaekeishia ... What were these parents thinking? ... What happened to Kerry, or Kevin or David or Dawn or Simone? ... Where did the African names go? Although they may sound strange to some of us at least they had meanings and could be spelt. I guess in our quest to be 'modern' we have gone for the ridiculous."
The British celebrity couple David and Victoria Beckham named their first son Brooklyn, after the district of New York in which he was conceived. But the most original first name I ever came across was created a long time ago - it is Floella, the name of a colleague of mine at Ofcom whose father invented it more than 50 years ago.
Personal names are so important. They define in large part who we are, how we are perceived, and even how we perceive ourselves. When we meet someone new, the first thing we tell that person about ourself is our name. Conversely, the first thing we learn about that person is his or her name. So much about us changes as we grow older, but most people keep the same name. If we change it - for instance, a woman adopting the surname of her husband on marriage - it marks a very significant event in our lives. When we choose a name for our child, it is usually a very careful and deliberative act.
In many African cultures, a first name can tell us about the timing or circumstances of the birth or the expectations or hopes of the parents for their child. Indeed, in her novel "The Poisonwood Bible", Barbara Kingsolver explains the Congolese concept of nommo, "the force that makes things live as what they are", and that a name is so important to defining something that a child is not alive until it is named.
At a societal level, names can tell us so much about gender, religion, class, nationality and ethnic origin. Looking at the origin of names and the changing choice of names can reveal much about a community or nation. This essay is intended to be a modest contribution to that exercise.
Wikipedia guide to most popular given names around the world click here
Dictionary of first names from around the world click here
Origins of first names from around the world click here
First name origin and meaning click here
Baby Names Country site click here
Namepedia site click here
Baby Name Train site click here
Last modified on 18 May 2013
I would be interested to know how names are used in your country or culture. Please e-mail me and let me know and I will add the information to this essay.
Conversely, if you would like to know the meaning or origin of your name, e-mail me and I will do my best to advise you.