• The Festival Celebrant

What's in a name?

Updated: Mar 4

Some naming traditions from around the world.

So, you’re a proud new mom or dad. Congratulations! Your bouncing bundle of joy is going to need a name pretty soon. How are you going to choose one?

Will you honour a family elder? Does your clan have favourite names that are passed down from generation to generation (whether you like them or not)? Do you have religious or other belief systems that are chock full of ideas? Will junior inherit the name of one of your personal heroes?

Or will you make something new because it’s unique or sounds cool?

There are so many ways you can go with this it’s easy to forget that it hasn’t always been the case. And in some cultures it still isn’t. Here’s a potted review of some naming traditions from around the world. See if any of them appeal to you.

The ‘West’ (but not all of it)

This is the one I’m familiar with and it’s how I was named. There’s my given name Paul, which my parents chose because they liked it, and my family name Kemp, which I share with mum, dad and my sister. Given name first (forename) family name last (surname). It’s the most common naming convention in the Anglophone world and in Europe and North America in general.

But its isn’t the only one.

Spain, Portugal (and most of Central and South America)

In the Spanish and Portuguese speaking world you can have two surnames: the first surnames of your father and mother respectively! So, if mom is named Antonella Ruiz Moreno and dad is Joaquin Suarez Ortega, baby Javier would be Javier Suarez Ruiz. Using surnames from both parents means mothers’ maiden names are retained in the family line.


The main feature of Icelandic names is the use of a patronymic (occasionally matronymic) instead of a family name. This was once common in Norway and Sweden too, but they largely switched to family names in the 19th century. A patronymic/matronymic is simply the forename of a child’s father/mother with the suffix ‘son’ or ‘dottir’ (son or daughter).

First names must follow Icelandic linguistic conventions and precedent, and there is a government commission whose job it is to vet and approve all first names.


German is basically like Britain when it comes to the structure of names. But unlike here, you can’t choose just any old name. Like Iceland, Germany has a few rules. Essentially you can’t use a name that is ‘associated with evil’ or that could be construed as insensitive to religion. Also verboten are names of objects, locations or brands. And you can’t use a surname as a first name! Lastly, first names must indicate gender. You can choose a gender neutral first name but a gender specific second name must be added.


Denmark is a bit stricter. As in Germany first names have to be gender specific, and surnames used as first names are a big no-no. But on top of this you’d be wise to consult the list of approved first names because anything eccentric may be rejected, along with non-standard spellings of common names. There’s a government commission which reviews unusual name proposals.


I like this one! Children in Nigeria are traditionally given three names. The first is their personal name, the second is their ‘praise name’ which is meant to suggest hoped-for qualities in the child (like purity, radiance, prosperity etc) and the third is the one that links them to their family. As a child grows, they usually accumulate a number of informal names that are used as frequently as their formal ones.


This is another three-parter. The first part is the given name; let’s say Galina. The second part is a patronymic based on the father’s given name with the suffix ‘ovna’ or ‘evna’. So, if dad is Viktor she’d be Galina Victorevna. The last part is the father’s surname. Let’s assume it’s Kuznetsov. Our little Russian girl would be Galina Victorevna Kuznetsova (you add an ‘a’ at the end for a female). The same rules apply for boys’ names, but with the patronymic ending in ‘ovich’ or ‘evich’.


Traditionally, babies are named 100 days after birth and are given a temporary ‘milk’ name, which often becomes a life-long nickname. As babies were once considered easy pickings for evil entities, giving your little one an unpleasant milk name was believed to ward off any curious demons. When naming day came, the child received a personal name (a ‘ming’) and a family name (a ‘xing’). So far, so familiar. But not quite. In China, and much of east Asia, the family name comes first and is usually monosyllabic. It’s also likely to be one of just 100 or so family names that are shared by about 85% of the population. The given name follows and is usually of one or two syllables.

Native American (I know I shouldn’t have favourites, but...!)

Traditionally, Native American children are given names that suite their personalities. If the first choice doesn’t fit, it’s changed. And because an individual’s personality can change repeatedly throughout their lifetime, Native Americans can take new names whenever it seems appropriate. They act like a thumbnail portrait of the bearer’s temperament, accomplishments or experiences and create a kind of basic psychological profile. And by taking their names from the natural world Native Americans acknowledge their connection with the environment. They may also have a secret name which they share only with the medicine man who bestows it. This name represents their pure ‘essence’ and can’t be contaminated.

Some names that didn’t quite make the cut -

Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii (New Zealand)

Robocop (Mexico)

@ (China)

Harriett (Iceland)

Linda (Saudi Arabia)

Fish & Chips (for twins, New Zealand)

Cyanide (Wales)

Number 16 Bus Shelter (New Zealand)

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