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Names for Children

Surnames, Name Use In The Family

Personal names are one of the few cultural universals. Families in all societies provide personal names for the children born into them. By naming children, families are inducting their children into the family and the society. At the same time, they are expressing their hopes and desires for those children in the names they select. Names are both messages to children about who they are expected to be and messages to society at large about just who this child is.

Although personal names are universal, the components that make up a personal name and the ways names are bestowed vary widely from society to society. Within many societies, too, how children are named from subgroup to subgroup and from one historical period to the next varies greatly.

In every society children receive personal names. Such names always include a given name that distinguishes a child from all other individuals. These names may include surnames, which distinguish members of one family line from another, or patronyms, which distinguish the offspring of one man from those of another. Personal names may also include middle names, name suffixes (like Jr., II, or III), or sacred names. The components that make up a child's name may be ordered differently. North Americans are familiar with surnames coming last in a complete name, but in Korea, China, Japan, and other Asian societies, surnames are placed first in the child's complete name.

The idea of given names is much too old to have a discernible origin. In the earliest records of the earliest societies, people were provided given names. It is a reasonable assumption that given names probably date from the origin of language itself; when humans began naming their world, they possibly began with themselves.

North American given names can be traced back through its history and further through British history. According to George Stewart (1979), a small, highly traditional stock of Anglo-Saxon names was dominant in England until the Norman Conquest in 1066. Gradually, over the next century, a traditional stock of Norman names (William, Henry, Richard, Robert; Matilda, Heloise, Emma) became prominent in England. By the late Middle Ages the use of saints' names became popular (John, James, Thomas, Stephen; Mary, Elizabeth, Katherine, Margaret). The name pool was too small to distinguish people adequately, however, and nicknames became a common device for differentiating people. After the Protestant Reformation a new pattern emerged. Women were given names from the New Testament and non-Biblical saints' names, while men were given names from the New Testament and traditional Norman names.

The first immigrants to the southern colonies of America brought their naming practices with them. The Puritan immigrants to New England, however, began looking to the Old Testament for names, and the traditional Norman names disappeared for a period. At the same time, extensive contact with two culturally distinct groups had little effect on North American naming practices. Although the white settlers interacted with Native Americans, they did not adopt Native American naming practices. Instead, Native Americans gradually adopted those of the colonists. In addition, the African Americans brought to America as slaves were given traditional English names, although at first they were not given surnames. After they were emancipated, African Americans were highly traditional in their naming practices. This began to change in the 1960s and 1970s when African-American parents began to coin, or create, new given names for their children at an unprecedented rate. By creating new names, they are most likely exhibiting a diminished need to assimilate to white culture and a desire to express their distinctiveness and racial pride.

During the 1800s, Old Testament names began to drop in popularity and non-Biblical names became more the fashion. The Norman names, which became less popular during the Puritan era, returned, and new names flourished. Immigrant groups introduced some of these new names (German, Scotch-Irish); others were family names used as given names; and still others were coined by using diminutive forms of traditional given names. Increasingly for girls, masculine names were transformed by the addition of feminine suffixes (e.g., Roberta, Michelle). The stock of given names was growing dramatically.

In the twentieth century, this expansion accelerated. More and more, parents began creating names by changing the spelling of traditional names (e.g., Debra), by recombining syllables from traditional names (e.g., Kathann), and by making up completely new names. Over the course of the twentieth century, an increasing percentage of North American children were being given new names.

The same expansion of the pool of given names is occurring in other societies, including Japan, China, and India. Although multiple reasons may explain this growing variety, it is likely that at least one is the general loosening of the grip of tradition and the accompanying desire on the part of young parents to provide their children with names that suggest that they are a new generation, rather than emphasizing continuity with the past.

In about two-thirds of all societies given names convey the gender of a child (Alford 1988). This may be done in several ways. First, names that are semantically meaningful may refer to activities that are gender specific (e.g., keeper of the hearth, or hunter of leopard) or may refer to qualities ideally belonging to one gender (e.g., beauty, strength, valor). Japanese given names for girls typically employ characters with such meanings as flower, beauty, and grace; names for boys use characters with such meanings as strong, firm, or winning. The same is true of Chinese given names.

Second, given names may distinguish girls and boys by using prefixes or suffixes. Among the Ojibwa, for example, women's names are distinguished from men's by a suffix that refers to the female genitalia. In several societies, including Native American societies, these suffixes can be used alone to refer to as yet unnamed children. In many societies the endings of girls' names differ from those of boys' names. North American given names for girls often end in y, ie, or sha; given names for boys often end in hard consonants.

Third, given names may distinguish boys and girls purely by tradition. This is true of given names in India, in Russia, in Nigeria, and in the United States. In these societies, although a few names may be gender-ambiguous, most are not. In the United States only 1 to 3 percent of men's names and 3 to 7 percent of women's names fall into this ambiguous category (e.g., Lee, Robin, Sandy, Leslie).

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