Why did you name me Ahmed?
This is the opening line of Radiolingo’s first episode What’s in a Name?, where host Ahmed Ali Akbar explores how second generation immigrants choose names and the impact those choices have. Naming traditions, as diverse as the cultures they come from, can reveal a lot about what different communities value. In fact, a name can provide fascinating insights about both the individual who carries it and the one who chose it for them!
Why did you name me Kate?
If you know anything about Western naming traditions, there are a few things you might assume upon hearing my name, Kate Barker: that I identify as a woman, that my father’s last name is probably Barker, and that my first name is likely a shortened version of my first, or given, name. As for the meaning of my name, well, it was probably just something that sounded good to my parents! And if you later learned my full first name, then you could even guess when I was born (1987, the year of the Katelyns/Kaitlins/Catelynns).
In the United States, it’s pretty common for parents to look through baby books and choose a name that they simply like the sound of. In other parts of the world, however, there are different customs and practices surrounding the selection of a name.
Keep it in the family
In many Western cultures, it’s common for parents to pass down family names to their children. This could involve naming a child after a deceased relative, in order to honor their memory, or after a living relative in order to foster a sense of connection. It is common for Italian children, especially first-born children, to be named after their grandparents: The first-born son is often named after the paternal grandfather, and the first-born daughter after the paternal grandmother. That makes a lot of sense when I think about the many Anthonys and Vincents at the family reunion on my Italian-American side. In contrast, in some Jewish groups, like the Ashkenazi community, it is considered bad luck to name a child after a living relative, so children are often named after deceased relatives to honor their memory.
Names show important family connections in Korea, too. Korean names typically consist of a one-syllable family name followed by a two-syllable given name. Korean siblings and cousins often share that second part of their given names, for example 민 (Min) in the names 김민서 (Kim Min-seo) and 김민준 (Kim Min-jun). This practice helps to identify and reinforce relationships and reflects the importance of family unity and solidarity.
No really—keep it in the family
Matronymics and patronymics—naming conventions that derive a person's name from their mother's or father's name, respectively—are used in unique ways across the world.
In modern-day Spain and Portugal during the Middle Ages, it was common to form surnames by adding -ez to the end of the father's name. This patronymic naming convention was used to indicate "son of." The surname González, for example, would mean "son of Gonzalo," and Rodríguez, "son of Rodrigo." Although this use of patronymic surnames has declined over time, it explains why many Spanish surnames with the -ez ending are still around today.
But patronymics and matronymics are not just a thing of the past!
In Iceland, the ending -son (son) is added for males and -dóttir (daughter) is added for females to the father's name. For example, if a man named Jón has a son named Ólafur and a daughter named Sigríður, their full names would be Ólafur Jónsson and Sigríður Jónsdóttir. If the mother's name is "Anna," the child's matronymic surname could be Annadóttir or Annason.
In Russia, people typically have three names: a first name, a patronymic, and a family last name. A child's patronymic is a middle name based on the father's name. For example, Иванович (Ivanovich, "son of Ivan") or Ивановна (Ivanovna, "daughter of Ivan"). Matronymics, though not as common as patronymics, can be formed by adding -овна (-ovna) or -евна (-evna) to the mother's first name, depending on the ending of the name. For example, if the mother's name is Светлана (Svetlana), the matronymic would be Светлановна (Svetlanovna).
Written in the stars
Some cultures place less emphasis on shared names and instead focus on other factors outside the family tree. In some cultures, particularly across Asia, names might be chosen based on their meaning or to bring good luck.
In India, for instance, Hindu parents often consult an astrologer to help choose a name that works with the child's nakshatra, or the lunar constellation at the time of their birth. (In Hindu astrology there are 27 of these constellations!) If the name is in harmony with the child's nakshatra, it will bring good fortune and positive energy into the child's life. Each nakshatra has a set of associated syllables, so a child with an Ashwini nakshatra—the first nakshatra in the zodiac—should have a name starting with "chu," "che," "cho," or "la," like Cheena or Lalitha.
In traditional Chinese culture, the concept of balance and harmony is crucial. This can be seen in a naming tradition that relies on the Chinese zodiac. In Chinese astrology, each person's birth year is associated with one of the 12 animal signs and one of the five elements: water, fire, wood, metal, and earth. Some parents choose names that include specific elements in order to promote balance, good luck, health, and prosperity in their child's life. If a parent believes their child has an excess or deficiency of a certain element, due to their zodiac sign and element, they might choose a name containing a specific element to restore this balance and harmony. So a parent wanting to add fire to their child’s name might choose a name like 炎 (yán) meaning "flame." Similarly, some Chinese names are chosen based on the parents' wishes or aspirations for their child. For example, 志强 (Zhìqiáng), which combines the characters 志 (zhì, "ambition, aspiration") and 强 (qiáng, "strong, powerful") might be chosen to express their hope that their child will grow up to be ambitious and strong-willed.
Good names come to those who wait
In some cultures, parents don't choose a name for their child right away.
In Greece, for example, it is common for parents to wait until "Name Day" to announce the name they have chosen for their child. A name day, or onomastice in Greek, is a celebration of a person's given name, which usually corresponds to the feast day of a Greek Orthodox saint that bears the same name. Name days are often considered more important than birthdays in Greek culture. On a Name Day, friends and family members usually visit the person celebrating, bringing gifts and wishes. It's also common for the person whose name day it is to host a party at their home.
In Ghana, a naming ceremony is held 7 days after the birth of a child, where the name is announced to friends and family. This traditional “outdooring” ceremony is called Akwambo by the Akan people and Aqiqah by the Dagomba. This event marks the introduction of the child to their family and community. During the ceremony, the child's name is revealed, and the family gathers to offer prayers, blessings, and gifts. The week-long wait before announcing the name allows the parents to carefully consider the name and its cultural significance, ensuring that the child is given a name that holds meaning and value.
Family, balance, superstitions—you name it!
There are countless ways that people around the world choose, use, and change names. A name can reveal a great deal about the person who carries it and the culture they belong to. "Kate Barker" might be a pretty simple name, but it says something about who I am and those that gave it to me.
And at least my name isn’t Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Protector of the Seven Kingdoms, the Mother of Dragons, the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, the Unburnt, the Breaker of Chains.
Because that would be a lot to fit on a LinkedIn profile.