Naming children: traditions in 13 different countries
How are children’s names chosen in your country? Do you follow ancient naming traditions or are modern names more popular? Do you pass names down through family generations or invent new ones?
We’ve had a lot of fun writing this post and the subject of how children are named in our various countries has inspired a lot of discussion within our team of contributors. So, read on to find out how children’s names are chosen in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Turkey and the USA.
Have something to add? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
By Ana, regional contributor from Argentina.
There aren’t many clear-cut naming traditions in Argentina nowadays. In the past, first-born babies were named after their parents but now the focus is on distinctiveness. Parents choose names they like or that are fashionable. For example, when Argentinean-born Maxima Zorriegueta married Crown Prince Wilhelm-Alexander of the Netherlands, the name Maxima became very popular.
It is not very common to name children after historical, political or sports celebrities nowadays. However, there are a few older Juan Domingos and Evas (after the Peróns) or Diegos (after Diego Maradona).
Most people have a first and middle name, not more than that. Traditional first names for women are Ana and Maria followed by a middle name, as in Ana Karina (me) or Maria Inés (one of my sisters). For men, it’s generally Juan or José, as in Juan Martín (my brother) or José Luis (don’t know him).
In the past, married women had to take their husbands’ name but the law changed and now they’re free to continue using their maiden name and have the option to add his name to hers. The full name of a married woman would be (given name) (maiden name) de (husband’s name); thus, my full name is Ana Karina Astri de O’Reilly. The preposition “de” means “of” as is “I belong to my husband”. Personally, I don’t like to be treated as a chattel!
There also used to be rules for naming children. One such rule was that the name had to be a Spanish one. If parents wanted to choose a name in a different language, they had to request permission. But it’s different now, although there are still some rules in place that protect children by stopping their parents from using names that may affect the child socially later in life.
By Carla, regional contributor from Brazil.
When I got married, I changed my name. It used to be a common practice in Brazil to change your maiden name, keeping your father’s surname and adding your husband’s last name, so instead of Carla Parente Arena, I am now Carla Arena de Aquino. However, the women have the option to keep their names or make the change.
As for the choice of our kids’ names, there are no rules. Some parents prefer to have a compound name, like João Carlos, Luiz Guilherme, Maria Eduarda, while others keep it simple. In my case, we chose the name of our kids based more on how it sounded than any specific reason. Eduardo and Caio were our choices. We also considered the fact that these names couldn’t cause any embarrassment at school for them and would be more easily pronounced in different parts of the world. However, there are some parents who will name their children in homage to their parents or grandparents, and some even like the idea of putting their male kids’ name the same as the fathers, adding the word Júnior to their surnames. So, if the father is called Marco, the kid would be Marco Júnior.
There are many cases in Brazil with funny stories. Parents wanted to give their kids fancy foreign names, but when they got to the notary public to make the birth certificate of the kids, the notarial just spelled it wrong, so instead of Michael, we have Maikon, for William, we have Uilia. Awkward situations just for the sake of being different or trying to go beyond our cultural traditions!
By Kelly, regional contributor from Canada.
In my family, first names are chosen based on preference. For example, my sister, Cassie, was named after a favourite character of my mom’s, and my name, Kelly, was easy no matter if I came out a girl or a boy. We have whole “Baby Name” books to look through and find that perfect name, along with its origin and meaning. Kelly is Gaelic and means “warrior”.
We are also given middle names. Through no spoken or written rule, these honour family members. There is no rhyme or reason, but it is done with respect and love. My mother’s middle name was her mother’s first. My father’s middle name was his father’s first. I share my middle name, Marie, with my paternal grandmother and my niece. I plan to name my first daughter using the middle names of my maternal grandmother and my sister.
Our last names, as is the legal process in Canada, are taken from your father. Though, in my family these have been legally changed to take on the mother’s or step-father’s surname if this is where the true love and connection lies.
By Nuria, regional contributor from Costa Rica.
In Costa Rica many years ago, it was common for children to get three or four names, and it was a custom to name children after their corresponding saints, depending on the day they were born. Parents used to look at the calendar of saints and would choose that name for one of the several children would get. Being so, there were names such as Juan José de los Ángeles or María Rosa del Carmen.
My mom comes from a big family where there were seven women and three men. All the girls were named María, but they received another name in order to differentiate them: María Jovita, María Gemma, María Teresa, María Leocadia, María Rita, María Catalina and María de las Angustias. All the names used at that time were Spanish and many, if not all, made reference to religious characters or saints: José, María, Jesús, Pilar, Juan, Isabel, Daniel, Carmen, Lorenzo, among others.
Years passed and the naming traditions started to change. When I was born, I got two names, as did my sisters. The three of us received Spanish names, but other children got English names such as Karol, Alexander, Katherine and Johnny. It is very interesting to notice how, through time, the middle names have disappeared. It is now very common to give children only one name. My niece is called Tamara and my nephew, Felipe. Middle names are not that common anymore. In fact, children nowadays would be really surprised if they were told that their grandparents used to have three or more names!
Something that was common and continues to be so in some families is to name children after their parents, uncles or even grandparents, to continue with the same names generation after generation. In that case, when asking about someone in a family with such tradition, you would need to specify which Carlos or Ana you refer to.
Because of the great influence Costa Rica has had from the United States in the last years, it has become really common to use English names instead of Spanish ones; however, the last names remain in Spanish, for obvious reasons. As a university professor, I have come across a good variety of student names. What is even more interesting is that some people spell the English names the way they sound in Spanish, so at the end the names are a mixture of both, “Spanglish”. Some of the most interesting examples are: Esteisy Alfaro, Estiven Campos, Mery Chaves, Maykol Ramírez, Jean Paul Jiménez, Jean Carlos Fernández, and so on.
In addition, there have been naming fashions as well, based on famous people such as Pope John Paul II, singers like Luis Miguel and others from soap operas and movies.
By Anu, regional contributor from Mumbai, India.
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
So wrote Shakespeare. It is obvious he was never in India, for here, there is a whole lot hidden in just a name…
As in most countries, surnames in India are mostly derived from the place we belong to, or the profession of our ancestors. The only distinctive ones are those where the surname is actually the name of a caste – a concept unique to the subcontinent!
The surname is something we are born with, and have no choice over, so it would be more interesting to talk about the part that we do choose – the first name! Aptly called, this is the first thing we think of when a child is born. In fact, we even decide the name before the child is born. As with everything in India, there are many ‘traditional’ ways of choosing the name of a child. Let me give just a couple of examples from our family’s experiences in naming children:
The most common system is that of using ‘family names’. This means that the first male child is named after the paternal grandfather, the second male child after the maternal grandfather, and so on, with the girls being named after their paternal and maternal grandmothers. Imagine the confusion this causes – with many children having the same name! In addition to this, in southern India a father’s name is used as a surname – what ensues is total chaos!
My husband’s name is Shankar. He has been named after his grandfather, who used to be called Shankar Iyer. (Iyer used to be our traditional appellation, based on our caste. We left it off in the last generation, being opposed to a caste-based nomenclature). My father-in-law’s name is Jayaram, so he is Jayaram Shankar, and my husband is Shankar Jayaram! Their identities confound everyone from our postman to the bank and even our passport office! This is why we decided to nip the situation in the bud and named our son Samhith (a word from our holy books, the Vedas)!
The other system involves the horoscope – mapping the planetary positions at the time of birth. (The horoscope is an inevitable part of Indian life, and it shows up in every possible and impossible situation!). In the northern parts of the country, every star is associated with a letter of the alphabet, and a kid’s name begins with the alphabet of the constellation he/she is born under. In the south, the kid is named after the constellation itself (or a variation of the name). This is how I got my name – from the star named ‘Anuradha’ (in the constellation Scorpio).
That’s not all. The most common system is that of naming a kid after a God/Goddess. Sounds simple? Yes, but just till you realize that in Indian mythology, there are 33 crore (1crore = 10 million) gods and goddesses!
Another interesting system is that of multiple names – the first and most important name in any family is the ‘family name’ – the name of an elder / ancestor. But then, it is not considered appropriate for the younger members to take the name of an elder, so another name is chosen for use in day-to-day life. And then there are pet names – or short names that we earn as we grow!
I was named after a great grandmother, under the condition that the name never be used. In my grandfather’s words – “I don’t want all of you to scold my mother every time you scold her!!!!” And then after a star, the name I use officially. This one was deemed too long, and I was called Deepa at home – the choice of a neighborhood kid I don’t even remember. The result – I am called Anu by my friends, Anuradha by my husband’s family and Deepa by my family! So, the question arises – who am I?
By Carrie, regional contributor in Bali, Indonesia.
Balinese children are named according to birth order:
Wayan/Putu/Gede/Nengah: first born (most common are Wayan and Putu; I haven’t met a lot of people named Gede or Nengah)
Made/Kadek: second born baby
Nyoman/Komang: third born baby
Ketut: fourth born baby.
All of the names above can be for either boys or girls. Balinese also often use only one name (ie no last name / family name) which means that in documents like a passport, it may only list one name! What this means essentially is that there are a lot of people named Wayan/Putu/Made/Kadek!
By Rosemary, regional contributor in Nigeria.
The various groups that make up Nigeria have their own naming cultures. Here I’ll write about the Yoruba people, who are mostly found in the South Western region of Nigeria, as well as Togo and the Republic of Benin.
In most families, the names of Yoruba children are presented by family elders. The child’s proud parents wait on names from the new grandparents and other significant family members, irrespective of whether they reside in Nigeria or the Diaspora. The names are publicly announced during a traditional or religious naming ceremony on the 8th day following the child’s birth.
Rosemary, my baptismal name, was given to me by my Catholic parents. I wouldn’t say there was anything extraordinary about this name – you will not find it in the Christian bible! On the other hand, my Yoruba family name or surname, Àjàyí, is one of a few unique names which serves to describe the circumstances of a child’s delivery. These names are predetermined by a higher being, and are carried along by the newborn as it enters this world. These names are also easily recognisable by the majority of Yoruba people.
The most common ‘destiny names’ or ‘Oruko amu t’orun wa’ are for Yoruba twins;
Taiyewo, Taiye or Taiwo – identifies the older child in a set of twins, and Kehinde – the younger. There is one school of thought that believes that the name Taiyewo (which means to ‘taste the world’) suggests that Kehinde is actually the older child, and has sent his/her younger sibling to check out the world and bring back news. Kehinde means ‘last to come’.
Other destiny names include:
Idowu – A boy or girl born to a family after a set of twins
Alaba – A boy or girl born after Idowu
Aina – A girl born with the umbilical cord around her neck; of which Ojo is the male version
Ajayi – A boy born with his head facing downwards
Ige – A boy or girl born feet first, or breech
Salako – A boy born with the umbilical membrane head or body is covered by some membrane
The following are not destiny names but are related to circumstances surrounding a child’s birth:
Abiodun (boys) or Odunayo (unisex) acknowledges the closeness a child’s birth to celebrations like Easter, Christmas, or the New Year, while Abosede refers to girls born on Sunday.
Abidemi – A boy or girl born whilst his/her father is out of town
Abiona – A boy born during a journey
Babatunde, Babajide, Babawale, Babatunji – A boy born soon after the passing of a grandfather, or great grandfather
Dada – A boy or girl born with matted hair
Tokunbo – A boy or girl born overseas
Yetunde, Yewande, Yejide, Iyabode, Iyabowale – A girl born soon after the passing of a grandmother, or great grandmother
There are also many, many children of Yoruba descent who are given regular Yoruba names. Their names are no less special than the ‘destiny’ names.
Many thanks to Akin Akintayo for his help with translations.
By Jenna, regional contributor in Poland.
When I first received my class register here in Poland and read through the list of students’ names, I felt lost in a sea of consonant clusters. Katarzyna. Małgorzata. Czesław. Grzegorz. As an English speaker, I’d always considered z to be the loneliest letter of the alphabet. Not so in Polish. I quickly realized that I had an entire list of new sounds to learn, in order to pronounce my students’ names correctly.
Many Polish names are rooted in the names of Christian saints. It is quite common for people to celebrate their name-day, which is the day dedicated to their patron saint, in the same way that they celebrate their birthday. Many places that display the date (for example, on the electronic screens in trams and buses) also flash that day’s particular patron saints.
I also soon learned that, like in many Slavic languages, most Polish names actually have two forms; the formal version and the diminutive, which is a shorter and more widely used form of the original name. Katarzyna becomes Kasia. Małgorzata becomes Gosia. Barbara becomes Basia. Joanna becomes Asia.
In some ways, diminutives added a new challenge to my name-recall skills, and for the first few weeks, I felt that I had to remember two names for every face. But the diminutive forms of Polish names are also usually shorter, and easier for the pronunciation-challenged, like myself.
Adding another layer of complexity, most Polish names, as well as many Polish words, can have multiple diminutive forms. By adding endings like –ka, -siu and –ek to names, the speaker expresses a level of intimacy with the person. Literally translated, these endings essentially mean cute or small.
So, for example, a woman’s formal name may be Katarzyna. Her colleagues and friends may call her Kasia. Her mother and her boyfriend may call her Kaśka.
By Sandra, regional contributor from Portugal.
In Portugal we generally give two Christian names as first names, for example Maria Helena or António Joaquim. Usually, these first names are followed by two surnames. The first is from the mother and the second is from the father. Imagine like this: Maria Helena Pereira Silva. “Pereira” is from the mother and “Silva” is from the father.
Maria is a very popular name in Portugal. It’s the name of Our Lady to whom Portugal is especially devoted. Usually, we use the name Maria together with another Christian name. In that case, the lady in question should be called by her complete first name, Maria Helena. But now is also popular to name the girl only by Maria.
For boys, Maria could be their second Christian name: Dinis Maria, José Maria or Manuel Maria are some examples. Nowadays it’s a very fashionable choice. Manuel, José, João, António or Pedro are the most common names for boys. Again, Saints names and the Catholic influence.
In 1970, when I was born, the most common first names for girls were Sandra, Sónia, Susana, Carla and Paula. However, ten years ago, the most fashionable names were Constança, Carolina or Mariana.
It’s considered polite and well appreciated to give the godmother/godfather names or put together the grandmas/grandpas names. My mother, for example, was named with the first name of her father’s grandma. My grandpa loved his grandma very much. It was his way to show his love for her.
By Carmen, regional contributor from Romania.
In Romania we don’t have strict rules on how children ‘s names are chosen. Still there are some “customs” regarding children‘s names.
In many cases, children are named after their grandparents or their godparents, the moment they are baptized. Often they are also given a second name too (normally a name their parents are fond of ). And sometimes, in order for all the grandparents to be satisfied, they get a third name too. This was my case too. I have two names Ecaterina (Catherine) and Carmen. Ecaterina was the name of my paternal grandmother (I was never very fond of her, and because of that I rarely use this name). Carmen was the name my parents preferred. If I were a boy, one of my names would certainly be Ion (John), the name of my paternal grandfather.
Nowadays customs have changed a little and people tend to borrow their children names from showbiz and movies more. Alexandra and Alexandru (Alexander) are popular names at present – at least in Bucharest, the town where I live.
By Marta, regional contributor from Spain.
When a child is born is Spain, traditionally, she or he has one or two given names followed by two surnames. The second given name is many times chosen to honour some close friend or family member, typically, a grandfather or grandmother. The first surname is the father’s first surname, and the second is the mother’s first surname.
The first name usually indicates the gender of the child, but the second name can be feminine for a boy, or masculine for a girl. So, for example, a boy’s name could be José María (Joseph Mary) or a girl’s could be named María José. Many foreign friends have told me it was very shocking for them to know children called Jesús.
When a woman gets married in Spain, she usually keeps the same surnames. Some years ago, some women changed their second surname for their husband’s first’s surname. For example, Pepita Palotes Pérez got married to Pepito González Gómez, she would change her name to Pepita Palotes de González. I think it is a very old-fashioned tradition and I will never add this “de + surname” even though I am married.
Some days after children are born, their parents have to go the Registro Civil (registry office). According to the Spanish legal system, a name cannot be insulting for the child and boys have to get masculine names and girls, feminine names. It can be difficult to register a foreign name because the civil servant does not know if the name is masculine or feminine.
Traditionally, the Bible and Greek stories were a great source of inspiration. Nowadays, besides Catholic and myth names, there are names taken from cinema, sports and even popular rock songs.
By Sinan, regional contributor from Turkey.
In the Ottoman times Muslim citizens of the Empire didn’t have surnames, instead their father’s name was used (e.g. Ahmet oğlu Mehmet – Mehmet’s son Ahmet). After founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, a Surname Law was adopted (in 1934) and every family maintained a surname.
In the past it was a tradition to name the children after their grandparents, mostly from Arabic origins. But lately more and more parents leave that tradition and give their babies modern and “unique” names. It was also a tradition to give a second name to the child by grandparents. They were supposed to announce this name (it would be a name from the family tree of course) when the infant’s cord was cut, hence it was named “Göbek adı” (Belly name). Today it is rarely seen.
Religious names were and are always popular in Turkey. Muhammet and Mustafa, names of the Prophet of Islam, are very common in Turkey. So are Ayşe and Fatma, wives’ names of the Prophet. Muslims believe every prophet before Muhammet was also Muslim. Therefore names like İsa (Arabic name for Jesus), İsmail, İbrahim, Yusuf and so on are also popular. Least but not least Caliph names like Ali, Ömer and Osman can be seen widely. It is also should be mentioned that Ottoman Sultans’ names and sometimes nicknames (like Fatih – Conqueror, after the Mehmet II, who conquered Constantinople) were the namesakes for children. Old Turkic names before Islam, like Alpaslan, Baybars, Kaan (King), Ece (Queen) (from the era when the Turks lived in Central Asia) are all time favourites of the parents as well.
Mustafa was also the name of the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Therefore many secular families also prefer that name. In the late 60′s, when revolutionary movements were widespread around the world, leftist parents gave their children names like Özgür (Free) and Devrim (Revolution). On the contrary, in the mid 70′s after the Turkish operation on Cyprus, patriotic names were chosen for the children. Fictitious historical comics & movie characters like Tarkan (a hero from Central Asia) and Murat (from Kara Murat, an Ottoman hero) were the inspiration for parents to name their boys.
In rural areas, where families have a lot of children, some names like Dursun (Literally: Make it stop!) can be seen. Flower names are always a favourite choice for girl names in Turkey. However Gül (Rose) is a very versatile name, because imperative of laugh in Turkish is also “Gül!”. Therefore you can derive lots of names from it like Ayşegül, Gülsen (You laugh), Gülşen (Rose orchard – Laugh cheerful) etc.
By Sean, regional contributor from the Midwest USA.
It’s really hard to write about this topic from a US perspective. There are so many different cultures in the USA, each with their own naming conventions, and each one is different.
I guess I would say that traditionally, the woman takes the husband’s last name, and her “maiden” name usually doesn’t appear anymore. Things are changing though. Many women elect to hyphenate their last name (ie Jane Doe marries John Smith, and changes her name to Jane Doe-Smith, instead of Jane Smith). My mother never changed her name at all. Some people thought that was weird, but it was always normal to us growing up.
Middle names can also be a family tradition. The name James is the middle name of the first-born sons on the Oliver (father’s) side of my family going back a long time. My middle name is James, my dad’s middle name is James, my grandpa’s middle name is James…
One interesting trend is the “last name first name” phenomenon. It used to be a way for rich families to pay homage to the mothers’ side. Since in the US the mother’s “maiden” name is not typically a part of the children’s last name at all, they would name the child (as a first name) Vanderbilt, Kennedy, or Rockwell, for example.
It’s now become common in Hollywood, and therefore the rest o the US to take a last name and make it into a first name: Tucker, Tanner, Quinn, Anderson, Carson, Cooper, Kramer, Reed, Presley, Jefferson.