Names for Children

views updated

Names for Children

Personal names are one of the few cultural universals. Families in all societies provide personal names for the children born into them. By naming children, families are inducting their children into the family and the society. At the same time, they are expressing their hopes and desires for those children in the names they select. Names are both messages to children about who they are expected to be and messages to society at large about just who this child is.

Although personal names are universal, the components that make up a personal name and the ways names are bestowed vary widely from society to society. Within many societies, too, how children are named from subgroup to subgroup and from one historical period to the next varies greatly.

In every society children receive personal names. Such names always include a given name that distinguishes a child from all other individuals. These names may include surnames, which distinguish members of one family line from another, or patronyms, which distinguish the offspring of one man from those of another. Personal names may also include middle names, name suffixes (like Jr., II, or III), or sacred names. The components that make up a child's name may be ordered differently. North Americans are familiar with surnames coming last in a complete name, but in Korea, China, Japan, and other Asian societies, surnames are placed first in the child's complete name.

The idea of given names is much too old to have a discernible origin. In the earliest records of the earliest societies, people were provided given names. It is a reasonable assumption that given names probably date from the origin of language itself; when humans began naming their world, they possibly began with themselves.

North American given names can be traced back through its history and further through British history. According to George Stewart (1979), a small, highly traditional stock of Anglo-Saxon names was dominant in England until the Norman Conquest in 1066. Gradually, over the next century, a traditional stock of Norman names (William, Henry, Richard, Robert; Matilda, Heloise, Emma) became prominent in England. By the late Middle Ages the use of saints' names became popular (John, James, Thomas, Stephen; Mary, Elizabeth, Katherine, Margaret). The name pool was too small to distinguish people adequately, however, and nicknames became a common device for differentiating people. After the Protestant Reformation a new pattern emerged. Women were given names from the New Testament and non-Biblical saints' names, while men were given names from the New Testament and traditional Norman names.

The first immigrants to the southern colonies of America brought their naming practices with them. The Puritan immigrants to New England, however, began looking to the Old Testament for names, and the traditional Norman names disappeared for a period. At the same time, extensive contact with two culturally distinct groups had little effect on North American naming practices. Although the white settlers interacted with Native Americans, they did not adopt Native American naming practices. Instead, Native Americans gradually adopted those of the colonists. In addition, the African Americans brought to America as slaves were given traditional English names, although at first they were not given surnames. After they were emancipated, African Americans were highly traditional in their naming practices. This began to change in the 1960s and 1970s when African-American parents began to coin, or create, new given names for their children at an unprecedented rate. By creating new names, they are most likely exhibiting a diminished need to assimilate to white culture and a desire to express their distinctiveness and racial pride.

During the 1800s, Old Testament names began to drop in popularity and non-Biblical names became more the fashion. The Norman names, which became less popular during the Puritan era, returned, and new names flourished. Immigrant groups introduced some of these new names (German, Scotch-Irish); others were family names used as given names; and still others were coined by using diminutive forms of traditional given names. Increasingly for girls, masculine names were transformed by the addition of feminine suffixes (e.g., Roberta, Michelle). The stock of given names was growing dramatically.

In the twentieth century, this expansion accelerated. More and more, parents began creating names by changing the spelling of traditional names (e.g., Debra), by recombining syllables from traditional names (e.g., Kathann), and by making up completely new names. Over the course of the twentieth century, an increasing percentage of North American children were being given new names.

The same expansion of the pool of given names is occurring in other societies, including Japan, China, and India. Although multiple reasons may explain this growing variety, it is likely that at least one is the general loosening of the grip of tradition and the accompanying desire on the part of young parents to provide their children with names that suggest that they are a new generation, rather than emphasizing continuity with the past.

In about two-thirds of all societies given names convey the gender of a child (Alford 1988). This may be done in several ways. First, names that are semantically meaningful may refer to activities that are gender specific (e.g., keeper of the hearth, or hunter of leopard) or may refer to qualities ideally belonging to one gender (e.g., beauty, strength, valor). Japanese given names for girls typically employ characters with such meanings as flower, beauty, and grace; names for boys use characters with such meanings as strong, firm, or winning. The same is true of Chinese given names.

Second, given names may distinguish girls and boys by using prefixes or suffixes. Among the Ojibwa, for example, women's names are distinguished from men's by a suffix that refers to the female genitalia. In several societies, including Native American societies, these suffixes can be used alone to refer to as yet unnamed children. In many societies the endings of girls' names differ from those of boys' names. North American given names for girls often end in y, ie, or sha; given names for boys often end in hard consonants.

Third, given names may distinguish boys and girls purely by tradition. This is true of given names in India, in Russia, in Nigeria, and in the United States. In these societies, although a few names may be gender-ambiguous, most are not. In the United States only 1 to 3 percent of men's names and 3 to 7 percent of women's names fall into this ambiguous category (e.g., Lee, Robin, Sandy, Leslie).


Although the origin of surnames is unclear, they also have a long history. According to Christopher Andersen (1977), the ancient Greeks, Hebrews, and Romans had surnames. After the fall of the Roman Empire, however, surnames disappeared until the eleventh century. English surnames did not become common until after the Crusades. By 1465, King Edward IV decreed that the Irish should take and transmit surnames; before this the Irish did not typically use them. The possession of a surname came to be seen as a sign of modernization. By the twentieth century colonization had spread the use of surnames to many non-Western nations that did not already use surnames.

Surnames are not a Western invention, but are traditional to many Asian societies and often appear first in an individual's complete set of names. In Korea, for example, the first component in a man's name is his surname, followed by a middle name, and then by a given name. All males in a particular generation in a surname group share the same middle name. These middle names occur in series, thus linking different generations. The names of the five classic elements in order (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water) or a cyclic series of animal names might be used as middle names. Thus, for the Korean man, surnames denote lineage, middle names generation, and given names individuality. In earlier times Korean women used personal names only until puberty, after which they were addressed in reference to their roles of sister, daughter, wife, and mother (e.g., wife of, mother of). Today, Korean women keep their given names after marriage and take the surnames of their husbands, although a tendency lingers to refer to Korean women by their family relationships.

In some societies, only aristocrats or important people used surnames originally. In some societies only royalty were allowed to transmit surnames; in many, surnames became a sign of status.

English surnames came from numerous sources, but most were derived from an individual's occupation (Smith, Baker, Taylor); place of origin or residence (London, Washington); or physical characteristics (White, Brown). In addition, many surnames are converted patronyms created by adding an "s" to the father's name (Abrams, Edwards), or by adding a suffix ( Johnson). North American surnames are transmitted along the male line, and women, usually, at marriage, assume their husband's surname. The trend for some women to retain their own surname after marriage or to hyphenate their surname with their husband's reflected the resurgence of feminism in the 1970s.

Middle names, although they existed earlier in the Chinese and Korean cultures, started to be used in the United States and England at the end of the eighteenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century most people in the United States were given middle names, and today only 1 to 4 percent of U.S. children do not have middle names. Middle names, which served to convey status, first became popular among the upper classes and then were adopted by the general population. Middle names are useful in distinguishing one generation from the next when sons are named after their fathers, and sometimes they preserve a mother's maiden name.

Many societies have prescribed systems for selecting children's names. In others, name givers are free to select any name they desire. In the United States, systems for selecting names exist for two subgroups, Catholics and Jews. U.S. Catholics are theoretically bound by Canon 761, set forth by Pope Benedict XV in 1917, to choose names for their children from the list of acceptable saints' names. If such names are not selected as first names, then they are supposed to be recorded as baptismal names. Increasingly, however, U.S. Catholics are ignoring this prescription. Jewish parents are expected to name their children after deceased relatives, never living relatives. Like Catholics, Jews in the United States are increasingly ignoring this rule, although many Jewish parents do try to give their child a name beginning with the same letter as the name of a deceased relative.

Various systems for selecting names exist in different societies. In a few, divination is used to choose the name for a child. Among the Lozi of Africa the names of ancestors will be mentioned in front of the newborn child one by one. When the child cries, the name givers believe that the ancestor just mentioned had been reincarnated in that child.

Other fixed systems also continue. Among the Ashanti of southern Ghana, one component of a child's personal name is a "day name," a name corresponding to the day of the week on which the child was born (there are separate sets of day names for boys and girls). Among the Hausa of northern Nigeria and southern Niger, a Qur'anic day name is given to each child according to the day of the week of the birth. Among some groups in Malaya, seven specific names are given in order to a couple's first seven children. If the couple has more than seven children, these same names are used again, with the addition of a prefix meaning little. Thus, the birth order of a child is evident from his or her name.

The first daughter of a Highland Scot couple will be named after the maternal grandmother, the first son after the paternal grandfather, the second daughter after the paternal grandmother, and the second son after the maternal grandfather. Among the Santal of West Bengal in India, first and second sons and daughters are named after paternal and maternal grandparents, and third sons and daughters are named after paternal and maternal great-uncles and great-aunts.

In some African and Africa-origin societies, fixed systems apply only to particular categories of children. The Wolof apply specific names to twins, as do the Bush Negroes, descendants of runaway slaves in South America. The Hausa, too, have specific names for twins, as well as a special name for a boy born after a number of girls or for a girl born after a number of boys. The Ganda, too, not only have special names for twins, but even the parents of twins are given special names, which they use thereafter. The subsequent siblings of twins also receive special names. The Ashanti give particular names to children born on holidays.

In most societies parents are free to select any name they choose for a child, but name selection usually follows certain principles. The most common tendency is for parents to select family names, and especially names of grandparents. On the eastern edge of Polynesia, Lau boys are often named for grandfathers or for grandfather's brothers, while girls are often named for grandmothers. Among the Ifugao of the Philippines, names are often chosen from the names of deceased ancestors. In Malaysia, Iban children are named after maternal or paternal grandparents, depending on their gender. This is to keep the memory of the grandparent alive. Among the Kanuri, children are often named after paternal, then maternal grandparents. This is to prevent jealousy. Parents are not allowed to speak their parents' names, however, so they have to call their children little father or little mother. Among the Senussi, nomads of western Egypt and eastern Libya, it is a man's obligation to perpetuate the name of the person (usually his father) who has provided him with his bride-price. Thus, sons are usually named after their grandfathers. But if a man dies without wealth, even his sons might not pass on his name.

The North American practice of naming children after their parents, and especially naming sons after their fathers, is very rare in other societies. Of all relatives, grandparents are typically the preferred name sources. In a few societies, even grandparents are considered too closely related to be name sources. The Garo of northern India always name their children after ancestors who have been dead for many years, since it is thought unlucky to mention the name of a recently dead person. On the Indonesian island of Celebes, Toradja children cannot be named after parents, grandparents, or even great-grandparents. The names of great- great-grandparents, however, are given to children.

Most North Americans are free to select their children's names in whatever manner they choose. They may name a child after a family member, living or dead, and they may bestow this name as either a first or middle name. Two different studies of given names (Rossi 1965; Alford 1988) have estimated that more than half of all children get at least one name from a relative, although it is more likely to be a middle name than a first name. This pattern of naming children after family members is very old in North American society and does not appear to be waning. A small percentage of names (perhaps 6–10%) are taken from people special to the parents (friends or famous people). The remainder of names, more than half of all first names, are chosen on the basis of aesthetic preference, usually from the pool of given names available. An increasing percentage of North American parents make up new, unique names for their children by changing the spelling of a traditional name or by recombining name elements.

Research has revealed a number of patterns in name preference that suggest the influences that underlie name selection in the United States, four of which are particularly noteworthy. First, boys are much more likely to be named after a relative than are girls. In turn, girls' names are more often selected for their aesthetic appeal. Second, there is a much larger pool of girls' names than boys' names, and girls are less likely to share popular names. Stanley Lieberson and Eleanor Bell (1992) found that 20 percent of all girls born in 1985 in New York had the ten most popular girls' names, while 35 percent of all boys born had the ten most popular boys' names; this was 50 percent or higher in the 1800s. Girls' names change more from generation to generation as well. Preferences in boys' names change more slowly. Third, girls' and boys' names differ phonetically. Leiberson and Bell found that nearly 34 percent of girls' names ended in a schwa sound ( Jessica, Sarah), while only 1 percent of boys' names ended with that sound. Some 28 percent of girls' names ended in an ee sound (Mary, Amy), but only 10 percent of boys' names ended with that sound. In contrast, boys' names usually end in a consonant. Fourth, many popular girls' names (Danielle, Michelle, Stephanie) are adapted from boy's names, but few if any boy's names are adapted from girls' names.

Alice Rossi (1965), Richard Alford (1988), and Lieberson and Bell (1992) have offered some interpretations of these gender differences. Rossi suggested that boys more than girls are seen as symbolic carriers of family continuity and so are more likely to receive family names. Alford and Lieberson and Bell suggest that girls' names, in contrast, are seen as a form of decoration, verbal jewelry. Since the aesthetics of girls' names is more important, fashions in girls' names change more. An apt analogy can be made between gender differences in clothing and in names. Men's clothing varies less than do women's clothes. Further, over time, men's fashions change more slowly and less dramatically than women's fashions. This analogy can be extended from names and clothes to North American gender roles themselves. It can be argued that female gender roles permit greater variation from woman to woman than male gender roles. So, too, female gender roles have changed more over time than have male gender roles. Despite these changes, however, two important elements of the female role have always been beauty and fashion, while two important elements of the male role have always been stability and tradition.

By the end of the 1990s a new trend appeared in boys' names. Boys' names are becoming as subject to fashion as girls' names have long been. Between 1985 and 1995 the top ten boys' and girls' names have almost completely changed. Increasingly, parents name boys based on aesthetic preferences, rather than family honor and continuity. Girls' names, too, are increasingly subject to fashion, turning over more completely from one generation to the next. This greater sensitivity to fashion for both boys' and girls' names very likely reflects the increasing pace of change in North American society as a whole, and the desire of parents to provide their children with names that sound current, not old-fashioned. This trend is even extending to middle names. In other words, fewer children appear to be named after relatives.

Social class, measured either by education or occupation, is the second most important factor after gender in determining name selection. Rex Taylor (1974), Rossi (1965), Alford (1988), and Lieberson and Bell (1992) have all uncovered pronounced class differences in naming. First, parents with higher socioeconomic status (SES) are more likely to select more traditional names than are parents of lower SES. Lower SES parents have a greater preference for new and unique names than do higher SES parents. Higher SES parents are more likely to give family names (especially the father's and grandfather's) to boys and to give less feminine names to girls than are lower SES parents. Finally, names that first become popular among higher SES parents gradually trickle down to lower SES parents, evidence of status diffusion.

These social class differences have stimulated some interesting interpretations. First, it seems clear that higher-status parents use names as a vehicle to convey status to their children. They do so by conferring a name of a high-status relative or a traditional, high-status name. Higher-status fathers are especially likely to name their firstborn sons after themselves. For example, Taylor (1974) found that 77 percent of lawyers, 52 percent of doctors, and 23 percent of teachers gave their names to their firstborn sons. In addition, high-status parents are more likely to bestow traditional names, especially upon boys. These names connote stability and tradition. Lower-status parents, in contrast, choose a different route to status. In their less frequent use of names of relatives and their rejection of more traditional names for new and more unusual names, lower SES parents are expressing their desire for change and for a new status system.

Name Use in the Family

In all societies one can address or refer to a member of one's family in a variety of ways, using: kin terms (e.g., mother, father, sister, brother), teknonyms (e.g., mother of . . ., father of . . .), nicknames, various forms of personal names (e.g., complete personal names, given names, surnames), honorific or respect terms (e.g., Mr., Mrs.), or some combination of the above. In many societies, custom dictates the use of a particular form of address or reference in particular relationships, and the individual has little latitude in choosing a form of address. In all societies, however, individuals sometimes have the latitude to choose a form or address or reference that serves their particular needs.

In most preindustrial societies individuals must use kin terms when addressing certain relatives (Alford 1988). This is especially true when individuals address their parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. A number of anthropologists have noted the important functions of requiring the use of kin terms. According to Martha Kendall (1980), in a discussion of the Yuman Indians:

One appeals to others with generalized vocatives or kinship terms, thereby playing on all the structural and moral dicta governing appropriate reciprocal behavior between particular categories of actors. As my respondent put it, "If you call someone maya (parallel cousin), they have to treat you right." Calling someone by name makes no such general appeal to institutionalized rights and obligations, rather, it does just the opposite. Since personal names make no direct reference to the place of a person in a social network, they leave the actor unconstrained when used in address. (p. 266)

Laura and Paul Bohannan (1953) make similar observations about the use of names and kin terms among the Tiv. "Everybody is referred to by personal name, including the parents, unless you are trying to call up specific types of kinship activity, in which case kinship terms are useful." Societies that require the use of kin terms with a variety of relatives, then, are emphasizing the aspects of that relationship that are governed by a particular role. In many societies it is considered disrespectful for a child to address a parent, aunt, uncle, or grandparent by name. In some groups, a child will not even know the names of these relatives.

Not only in preindustrial societies do children address parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents by kin terms. This is also true in India, Japan, China, Russia, Nigeria, and the United States. The required use of kin terms in these relationships emphasizes the role-governed nature of these relationships as well as the greater authority of the older relative. In many societies where children must use kin terms with senior relatives, those senior relatives can use personal names when addressing their junior relatives.

In the United States, according to David Schneider and George Homans (1995), children have a wide variety of alternative terms available for addressing parents (e.g., father, pop, pa, papa, dad, daddy), and the selection of one term rather than another varies with the context and with the quality of the particular relationship. Father suggests greater formality, distance, and respect. Dad suggests less formality and distance. Shifts in the use of parental terms as one grows up reflect changes in the quality of the relationship. The continued use of the preferred early childhood terms, Mommy and Daddy, suggests a relatively unchanging relationship.

In Japan, too, parental terms vary in formality. A child might call his mother: okaachan (most childish), okaasan, or okaasama (most formal). Similarly, a child might call his father: otoochan (most childish), otoosan, or otosame (most formal). In Russia, while a child will use the same kin term for a parent throughout life, in rural areas a child will use the formal form of you with parents, while in cities a child will use the informal form of you with parents, reflecting slightly greater informality.

When addressing brothers and sisters, people in more traditional societies often use kin terms, especially with elder siblings. Japanese children must address elder siblings older sister or older brother, while younger siblings may be addressed by name. The same is true in India. In Nigeria a sibling senior by two or more years must be addressed by kin term plus name, while a younger sibling can be addressed by name only. This pattern occurs especially in societies where sibling seniority is important.

Between husbands and wives the use of kin terms or teknonyms (father of . . ., mother of . . .) is typical of preindustrial societies. In many societies husbands and wives are not allowed to use each other's names. This custom has the effect of emphasizing and reinforcing how the role governs their relationship. In some traditional societies husbands and wives in the past addressed each other with kin terms, but today, they more commonly call one another by personal names. In India, for example, in the past husbands and wives used kin terms with each other. Today, especially more educated people use personal names instead. In Nigeria, too, in the past husbands and wives addressed each other as father of and mother of. Today, more educated Nigerians increasingly use personal names or terms of endearment. According to Schneider and Homans, the practice of using personal names or terms of endearment between husbands and wives reflects a new attitude toward marriage, such that the husband-wife relationship is outside of the realm of kinship and centers instead on the unique relationship between marriage partners. The use of personal names de-emphasizes the parts of the relationship that are governed by role and emphasizes the open-ended, negotiable nature of modern marriage.

See also:Gender; Gender Identity; Kinship; Socioeconomic Status


alford, r. (1988). naming and identity: a cross-culturalstudy of personal naming practices. new haven, ct: human relations area file press.

andersen, c. p. (1977). the name game. new york: jove publications.

bohannan, l., and bohannan, p. (1953). the tiv of centralnigeria. london: international african institute.

evans-pritchard, e. e. (1964). "nuer modes of address." in language in culture and society, ed. d. hymes. new york: harper & row.

kendall, m. b. (1980). "exegesis and translation: northern yuman names as texts." journal of anthropological research 36:261–273.

lieberson, s., and bell, e. o. (1992). "children's first names: an empirical study of social taste." american journal of sociology 98:511–554.

rossi, a. s. (1965). "naming children in middle-class families." american sociological review 30:499–513.

schneider, d. m., and homans, g. c. (1955). "kinship terminology and the american kinship system." american anthropologist 57:1194–1208.

stewart, g. r. (1979). american given names. new york: oxford university press.

taylor, r. (1974). "john doe, jr.: a study of his distribution in space, time, and the social structure." social forces 53:11–21.