Naming Traditions From Around the World

  • By: Sandra
  • Date: March 18, 2022
  • Time to read: 8 min.

What’s in a name? Well, if you look at naming traditions around the world, you’ll see there’s quite a lot of thought that goes into them, not to mention a lot of tradition…

USA

Is it really possible to say that there are naming traditions in the US? Unlike in many other countries, where cultures define naming traditions, the fact that there are so many different cultures in the US means that it kind of defies tradition.

Let’s take a look…

First names still tend to be either a name chosen as a favourite by the parents or a ‘family’ name. With regard to baby boys, many parents in the US still opt for the ‘Jr’ option – think Donald Trump III – but the fact that many women are opting to be single mothers now means that this trend is starting to die out.

The ‘last name as a first name’ choice is still popular with many families, with some opting to go for the mother’s maiden name as a first name so that it is marked in some way.

Where Hollywood leads, the rest of the US tends to follow and so the increasing popularity of using last names as first names is on the increase, with Presley, Tanner, Quinn and Kramer particular favourites.

As in many countries, middle names still tend to be either a family tradition or simply a favourite name. 

When it comes to surnames, the fact is that when a woman marries today, she still tends to take her husband’s surname, so that’s one tradition that has tended to stay around, although it has to be said that many women are now choosing to hyphenate their last maiden name with their husband’s surname. 

This categorization of names, however, while common in western societies, is not globally uniform. Depending on certain cultures and/or customs, naming conventions can and will vary.

There are many naming traditions from all around the world. The naming structures in different cultures can vary dramatically. No matter where you come from, however, naming traditions unite families and cultural groups.

India

The first male child, for example, is named after the paternal grandfather and the second male child after the maternal grandfather. The same process is involved in the naming of baby girls. The upshot of this is that many extended families have lots of children with the same names!

Most surnames in India are derived from the place in which a baby is born or the profession of their ancestors. Most babies are actually named prior to their birth, with family names featuring heavily in the process.

Argentina 

In Argentina, most people tend to have only a first name and middle name. Traditionally, first-born babies were named after their parents but, as in many countries, parents now tend to choose names that they like, or which are popular. When Crown Prince Wilhelm-Alexander of the Netherlands married the Argentinian Maxima Zorriequeta, for example, her first name became popular in the country. 

Again, as in many countries, many married women are now opting to continue using their maiden name or making their surname double-barrelled with their husband’s surname. 

China

In China, babies are usually named 100 days after their birth. The family name or surname – known as ‘xing’ – always comes first., while the baby’s given name – its ‘ming’ is almost always formed by one or two syllables. 

It’s considered unlucky in China to name a baby before it’s born and so parents used what is known as a ‘milk name’: one that is only known by the parents and close family.

It may interest you to know that it’s estimated that approximately 100 of the most common Chinese surnames make up 85% of the population!

Spain

When a child is born in Spain, it is given two one or two first names. Naturally, the first name usually indicates the gender of the baby, but the second name can be a girl’s name for a boy and vice versa. This means that a boy’s name could be José Maria and a girl’s name could be Maria José!

In terms of second or middle names, it’s often chosen to honour a close friend or family member.

The child is also given two surnames: the first from the first surname of the father and the second from the first surname of the mother. This tradition means that, unlike in other countries, a mother never loses her maiden name and it is carried on to the next generation.

Following marriage, both the bride and groom retain their birth names, but many women are referred to as ‘Senora de’ (meaning ‘wife of’), followed by the husband’s last name. 

Indonesia

In Indonesia, babies are named according to their birth order and the same names can be given to either boys or girls:

Wayan and Putu are the most common for first-born babies

Made and Kadek for second-born babies

Nyoman or Komang are most popular for third-born babies

Ketut for fourth-born babies

Indonesian people also often only use one name – no surname – so official documents like passports often have only one name listed on them!

Southern Africa

Zulu names are often given in connection with a family’s situation when a baby is born. This is referred to as the ‘home name’ and may reflect how the family relates to others in the community or may even refer to weather conditions at the time of the baby’s birth!

Following a baby’s birth, Zulus hold an ‘imbeleko ceremony’. This is to introduce the baby to their ancestors, who live in the spirit world and provides an opportunity to name the child. 

The baby’s clan name functions as its surname.

Turkey

Surnames actually only came into existence in Turkey in 1934 when the Surname Law was adopted, ensuring that every family had a surname. Prior to this – from the time of the Ottoman Empire, in fact – Turks didn’t have surnames, but simply used their father’s name, for example, Ahmet oğlu Mehmet – Mehmet’s son Ahmet.

Previously in Turkey, it was tradition to name babies after their grandparents, but it’s increasingly popular for parents to opt for more modern names and indeed ‘unique’ names that they have come across.

Flower names are very popular for girls in Turkey. Gül (Rose) is a particular favourite and has many derivatives, such as Gülsen (Rose Orchard).

Religious names are always very popular in Turkey. The name of the prophet of Islam, Muhammet or Mustaf, is a particular favourite for boys, while the Prophet’s wives’ names, Ayşe and Fatma are equally popular. 

Romania

In Romania, there are no strict rules on how babies’ names are chosen, but many babies are named after their grandparents or godparents. They’re also usually given a second name and, in some cases in order to satisfy grandparents, a third name. 

Poland

Many Polish names are derived from the names of Christian saints. It’s also quite common for people to celebrate their name-day, which as in countries such as France, is the day dedicated to their patron saint. 

Many names also have two forms: the formal version of the name and the diminutive. Katarzyna, for example, becomes Kasia, while Malgorkzata becomes Gosia. 

The Poles are also very fond of adding endings to names. This indicates a level of intimacy with the person. For example, a child’s formal name may be Katarzyna. Her friends may call her Kasia, while her parents and boyfriend may call her Kaśka.

Portugal

As with its neighbour, Spain, Portuguese babies generally get two first names and two surnames: the first is that of their mother and the second that of their father. 

Portugal is devoted to the Madonna and so the name Maria is extremely popular with girls. In many cases, it is combined with another name, such as Maria Helena, but it is becoming increasingly popular to simply use Maria by itself. 

Ironically, Maria is not simply a ‘female’ name! It’s often used as the second name of boys, as in Josė Maria or Manuel Maria. The most common boys’ names today, however, are Antȏnio, Pedro and Manuel.

Germany

Germany is a country that has quite strict rules when it comes to naming babies. For a start, no surnames can be used as ‘first names’ and the chosen names must also clearly indicate the gender of the child so that a person will be able to clearly differentiate whether the baby is a boy or a girl.

Parents are given a list of ‘approved names’, but, should they wish to choose a name that’s not on the list, then they need to request the approval of the name on the vital statistics office in the area where the baby was born. You can’t give the same name as a sibling!

France

French babies following these naming conventions: first name, middle name, family name. the family name is inherited from the parents and shared with other members of the individual’s immediate family. Again, as in so many other countries we’ve looked at, many parents are now choosing to give the baby a hyphenated surname comprising both the surnames of the mother and the father on the birth certificate.

Ireland

A child’s birth used to be quite a traditional matter in Ireland, and if you are looking for your Irish ancestry knowing the historic naming conventions can be very useful. Traditionally, the first son was named after the father’s father. The second son was named after the mother’s father. The third son was named after the father. The first daughter was named after the mother’s mother. The second girl was named after the father’s mother, the third girl was named after the mother.

If the first boy born died, then the name was reused in the same family. So you might have three baby John’s born in the same generation, if older babies had died (sadly a common occurrence). All the children would be named after personal names in the family, naming children wasn’t the fun choice it is today, catholic parents respected the naming practices and parents’ names were used. After you named your sons after the father’s family, you would then look at other close family members. You can often track families just by the common names.

Babies were always given their father’s surname unless born out of wedlock. There were rarely given a middle name and all names were named after patron saints, this was common practice.

Take Away

As we can see in most countries, especially western countries, it’s only recently that a personal name was not taken from a baby’s parents or grandparents or extended family. Many cultures honour a person’s father first and baby names were passed down through generations. Now we tend to give a middle name from family, my own names (I have two middle names) come from my maternal grandmother and paternal grandmother, as I guess a way for my parents to sort of carry on the tradition!

At least we don’t live in Iceland, where the Iceland naming committee decide whether to accept the name you have chosen!