The Name Game

I got a comment on one of my previous posts from Mattias Thorslund and it sparked an interesting conversation by email about naming conventions around the world. To quote Mattias: Attitudes towards names and naming seem to vary widely between cultures. I was planning on doing some research before writing it up as an article, but I haven't had time, so, here's a slightly modified (read: tidied up) transcription of the emails we traded (I hope you don't mind Mattias).


In some countries (e.g. my native Sweden - I think in Germany also), personal (first and last) names must be approved by the government (Incidently, check out this article about the Swedish government stepping in on a couple wanting to call their kid Superman -- Lee). This might seem overbearing to some but the idea is that names shouldn't be offensive or cause embarrassment to the bearer.

Recently rejected names from the Swedish government:

Anncoccozz: unsuitable spelling or pronounciation (that's a slippery slope)
Crakel, Krakel, Asterix: names of someone else's protected works
Lovejoy: a trademark
Donadoni: a well-known foreign last name
Montana: a name that can be mistaken for the name of a post office, railway station or similar, likely to cause confusion

In other countries (e.g. the US), it seems any name goes. Chastity is one of the weirdest names IMO.


I didn't realise some countries vetted names! That seems strange to most people [in the US and UK] I would think as they can name their kids, and indeed change their names themselves (though only once), without any approval. The best story I heard about this was a filmmaker who changed his name to Yahoo Serious, only to find that he couldn't change it back and was stuck with it.


In Iceland, the phone book is ordered by first name. And nobody can choose a first name for their child that isn't on their list of "Good Icelandic Names". That might cause some concern to immigrant parents who don't want their child to be named Sigurd or Vigdis, but happily names like Omar and Abdullah have been added to the list in recent years. This is from my father, a notable collector of anecdotes, so take it with a table-spoon [sic] of salt.

Here in the US, people seem to revel in the weirdest of names. Often they'd use a weird spelling of an existing name, which doesn't strike me as "special" but (sadly) just suggests a low level of education by the giver: Antwoine and Tomarrow come to mind.

Then there's that strange practice of naming one's child the same as oneself (doesn't that seem a little bit egocentric?): Jr, Sr, III, IV, etc. It's a cause for endless mistaken identities, misdirected mail and so forth.

If you add Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One hundred years of solitude to your reading list (recommended), you'll also find an endless repeating of names from one generation to another.


I don't get the whole naming the kid after yourself idea either, and I agree, I think it's somewhat egocentric. Thankfully the Brits don't tend to employ it often, but we do use celebrity names (lot of Britney's at the moment), fashionable names and misspellings (and yes, it's the dim ones who do that here too).

I'm currently dealing with a lot of Indians and Chinese through work and I find it endlessly confusing as to whether the first name is actually their last name or vice versa. It's strange how they've developed. In Europe surnames seem to have been used mainly to differentiate between people with the same first name, in the Middle and Far East they seem to be used to indicate your family and hence your status/history/background.


From my experience (and some explanations by Indians), Indians tend to use their initials of their first names since they are largely difficult to pronounce. I happened to think that was for some obscure reason of secrecy (and there might be - considering the distinction between "calling name" and "real name" as mentioned in A House for Mr Bishwas by V.S. Naipaul) but I've been told it's just to make life easier for those of us who don't understand their language. The reason for the "calling name" custom is the belief that if people know your true name they can do harm to you through black magic. I'm not sure how widespread that belief is, however.

Many Chinese adopt a Western first name (Faye Wong, John Woo) besides their Chinese one. It appears this is particularly common in Hong Kong, which was a British colony after all. Those that don't adopt a Western first name usually put a hyphen between their first name: Wong Kar-wai -- his family name is Wong. I'd recommend Chingking Express, Fallen Angels and In the Mood for Love, BTW.

Incidentally, my girlfr... er, wife of ten years is from Hong Kong. She says her father wanted to give here some name beginning with A.. (she can't remember what) but she didn't like it because it was to hard to say. So he suggested Jolia, and that she kept. I told her that I think he meant Julia but she won't hear of changing it. It will be doubly confusing once we move back to Sweden since when you say "Jolia" with a Swedish inflection it sounds like "Julia" in English...

You are right that the family name is the most important in a Chinese name. A big reason that many Chinese want a son is so that their family name will not die out. But this is not such an alien idea. It exists in Western cultures, too. When addressing someone formally, we might use Mr/Ms and their last name. That's why I used Iceland as an example of an exception. In Iceland, it is perfectly formal to address a person by the first name only -- they retain the old Viking tradition that the first name is the most important and that surnames, as they exist, merely specify more precisely the person being referred to. Surnames are merely formed from the first name of the father (or mother) plus -son or -dottir. That Bjork Gudmundsdottir uses just "Bjork" on her albums isn't just a gimmick; it's also Icelandic tradition.

I also have an Ethiopian friend. His surname is his father's exact first name. And when it's needed to be even more precise, he'd append his grandfather's name, great-grandfather's name and so on.

Then there are the Russians. They use first name, father's name, and surname. Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's father must have been named Ilya. Slavic last names also differ depending on whether the bearer is male or female.


I would agree, in my experience many Indians do use their initials, thankfully for me. But they also use Mr whoever to show respect, especially to their superiors. If you hear someone referred to as Mr whoever, they'll be a high ranking, well respected individual.

And the adopting of western first names by the Chinese is certainly something I've found as well.

The Japanese, on the other hand, will usually add 'san' to the end of their formal usage, for example, Mr Smith-san, even though they rarely use Mr themselves and instead would use Smith-san or equivalent.

Again I totally agree about many western countries (mainly European) who, while not starting with much interest for surnames, now hold them in great importance (hence the whole heraldry thing).


I've done the reverse, BTW. I have a Chinese name: Leuy Tin-Tzee if I try to transcribe it from Cantonese into English. Mandarin speakers would pronounce it differently.

It's a translation of my name, using the meaning of my last and first names. It means Thunder - Heaven - Gift. A very powerful name, but it looks and sounds (almost) like a real Chinese name, even to the Chinese.

Another, more common, way to translate Western names into Chinese is to use the sounds only, and pick Chinese similar-sounding words with good (auspicious) meaning for each syllable. That way you usually end up with more than three characters, so it doesn't look very Chinese any more. You might be able to avoid it since "Lee Penney" is, obviously, three syllables.

Why would a Westerner have a Chinese name? Because, in order to sign any legally binding document (in China), you'll need a 'name chop' -- a stamp made out of stone, metal or bone with the name carved into it. Name chops also make interesting souvenirs. I have one made out of a deer antler.

Chinese add titles after the name also. You might call me Leuy sin-san.

Let me know if you have facts or thoughts on naming conventions and uses around the world.

1 Comment

  1. Steve

    Having worked in the environement as Lee descibes, with Indians, I have over time been referred to as "Mr Steve" on more than one occasion.
    Interestingly also, whilst not following the Slavic "patronymic" system, I hail from an established celtic (Welsh) tradition where the second given name of the first male heir is that of the first name of the father. Hence in my line I am Steven Michael, my father Michael Richard, his father Richard Evan, My great grandfather Evan John (which itself is confusing because Evan is the welsh form of John!)....... and so on ad infinitum.

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