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Names for Children

Name Use In The Family

In all societies one can address or refer to a member of one's family in a variety of ways, using: kin terms (e.g., mother, father, sister, brother), teknonyms (e.g., mother of . . ., father of . . .), nicknames, various forms of personal names (e.g., complete personal names, given names, surnames), honorific or respect terms (e.g., Mr., Mrs.), or some combination of the above. In many societies, custom dictates the use of a particular form of address or reference in particular relationships, and the individual has little latitude in choosing a form of address. In all societies, however, individuals sometimes have the latitude to choose a form or address or reference that serves their particular needs.

In most preindustrial societies individuals must use kin terms when addressing certain relatives (Alford 1988). This is especially true when individuals address their parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. A number of anthropologists have noted the important functions of requiring the use of kin terms. According to Martha Kendall (1980), in a discussion of the Yuman Indians:

One appeals to others with generalized vocatives or kinship terms, thereby playing on all the structural and moral dicta governing appropriate reciprocal behavior between particular categories of actors. As my respondent put it, "If you call someone maya (parallel cousin), they have to treat you right." Calling someone by name makes no such general appeal to institutionalized rights and obligations, rather, it does just the opposite. Since personal names make no direct reference to the place of a person in a social network, they leave the actor unconstrained when used in address. (p. 266)

Laura and Paul Bohannan (1953) make similar observations about the use of names and kin terms among the Tiv. "Everybody is referred to by personal name, including the parents, unless you are trying to call up specific types of kinship activity, in which case kinship terms are useful." Societies that require the use of kin terms with a variety of relatives, then, are emphasizing the aspects of that relationship that are governed by a particular role. In many societies it is considered disrespectful for a child to address a parent, aunt, uncle, or grandparent by name. In some groups, a child will not even know the names of these relatives.

Not only in preindustrial societies do children address parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents by kin terms. This is also true in India, Japan, China, Russia, Nigeria, and the United States. The required use of kin terms in these relationships emphasizes the role-governed nature of these relationships as well as the greater authority of the older relative. In many societies where children must use kin terms with senior relatives, those senior relatives can use personal names when addressing their junior relatives.

In the United States, according to David Schneider and George Homans (1995), children have a wide variety of alternative terms available for addressing parents (e.g., father, pop, pa, papa, dad, daddy), and the selection of one term rather than another varies with the context and with the quality of the particular relationship. Father suggests greater formality, distance, and respect. Dad suggests less formality and distance. Shifts in the use of parental terms as one grows up reflect changes in the quality of the relationship. The continued use of the preferred early childhood terms, Mommy and Daddy, suggests a relatively unchanging relationship.

In Japan, too, parental terms vary in formality. A child might call his mother: okaachan (most childish), okaasan, or okaasama (most formal). Similarly, a child might call his father: otoochan (most childish), otoosan, or otosame (most formal). In Russia, while a child will use the same kin term for a parent throughout life, in rural areas a child will use the formal form of you with parents, while in cities a child will use the informal form of you with parents, reflecting slightly greater informality.

When addressing brothers and sisters, people in more traditional societies often use kin terms, especially with elder siblings. Japanese children must address elder siblings older sister or older brother, while younger siblings may be addressed by name. The same is true in India. In Nigeria a sibling senior by two or more years must be addressed by kin term plus name, while a younger sibling can be addressed by name only. This pattern occurs especially in societies where sibling seniority is important.

Between husbands and wives the use of kin terms or teknonyms (father of . . ., mother of . . .) is typical of preindustrial societies. In many societies husbands and wives are not allowed to use each other's names. This custom has the effect of emphasizing and reinforcing how the role governs their relationship. In some traditional societies husbands and wives in the past addressed each other with kin terms, but today, they more commonly call one another by personal names. In India, for example, in the past husbands and wives used kin terms with each other. Today, especially more educated people use personal names instead. In Nigeria, too, in the past husbands and wives addressed each other as father of and mother of. Today, more educated Nigerians increasingly use personal names or terms of endearment. According to Schneider and Homans, the practice of using personal names or terms of endearment between husbands and wives reflects a new attitude toward marriage, such that the husband-wife relationship is outside of the realm of kinship and centers instead on the unique relationship between marriage partners. The use of personal names de-emphasizes the parts of the relationship that are governed by role and emphasizes the open-ended, negotiable nature of modern marriage.


Alford, R. (1988). Naming and Identity: A Cross-Cultural Study of Personal Naming Practices. New Haven, CT: Human Relations Area File Press.

Andersen, C. P. (1977). The Name Game. New York: Jove Publications.

Bohannan, L., and Bohannan, P. (1953). The Tiv of Central Nigeria. London: International African Institute.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1964). "Nuer Modes of Address." In Language In Culture and Society, ed. D. Hymes. New York: Harper & Row.

Kendall, M. B. (1980). "Exegesis and Translation: Northern Yuman Names as Texts." Journal of Anthropological Research 36:261–273.

Lieberson, S., and Bell, E. O. (1992). "Children's First Names: An Empirical Study of Social Taste." American Journal of Sociology 98:511–554.

Rossi, A. S. (1965). "Naming Children in Middle-Class Families." American Sociological Review 30:499–513.

Schneider, D. M., and Homans, G. C. (1955). "Kinship Terminology and the American Kinship System." American Anthropologist 57:1194–1208.

Stewart, G. R. (1979). American Given Names. New York: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, R. (1974). "John Doe, Jr.: A Study of His Distribution in Space, Time, and the Social Structure." Social Forces 53:11–21.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaPregnancy & ParenthoodNames for Children - Surnames, Name Use In The Family