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Names for Children - Surnames

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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 In Korea, a boy's name is made up of his surname, followed by a middle name, and then by a given name. All males in a particular generation in a surname group have the same middle name. NATHAN BENN/CORBIS 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.


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