Baby Naming Traditions around the World
How did our ancestors and neighbors around the world find their babies’ names? Ethnic and religious customs can lead you to a strong, ethnically rooted, meaningful name.
If you were born in Elizabethan England (1558-1603), you may have been named by your parents just a few days after birth, at your baptism. Like many other newborns of the time, you were named after one of your godparents, carefully chosen for their higher socioeconomic stature. The pool of names considered acceptable during this time was significantly smaller than what we are used to today. Elizabeth, Anne, Joan, Margaret, Alice, Mary, and Agnes accounted for approximately sixty-five percent of all girls’ names. Likewise, John, Thomas, William, Richard, and Robert accounted for approximately sixty percent of male names. When it came to naming baby in old England, life was comparatively simple but somewhat boring. Naming options broadened during the classical revival period which brought in French and Italian imports, opening the door for more creativity.
Today, throughout predominately Christian Europe, you find similar baptismal ceremonies but various customs in adopting namesakes—that is, who your child will be named after. Orthodox Greeks have customarily named their babies after the fathers’ parents. The French often use a child’s middle name to pay homage to a set of grandparents, using both grandmothers’ first names for a girl and both grandfathers’ names for a boy. The Spanish, known for their traditionalism, have rigid rules even for today; the first-born daughter is named after the father’s mother, whereas the first son is named after the father’s father, and so on. Many other European countries also have customs of naming after the parents. In the common, patronymic style, the “Jr.” wears his father’s moniker. Likewise, but much less common, a girl may become her own mother’s namesake.
Native American naming traditions, some of which are still followed today, vary greatly from tribe to tribe and were often inspired by natural conditions, animals, and virtues. This is especially apparent in the Miwok tribe’s use of water names, often chosen by the way the stream looked when the baby was born. The Southwest Hopis had a mystic tradition of placing an ear of corn, representing Mother Earth, next to the newborn. Twenty days after baby’s birth, the corn was rubbed over his body while the baby, held to face the rising sun, was named when the first ray of sun hit his forehead.
The Navajos attribute great powers to their names. A Navajo name is considered so precious it’s only used during ceremonies, meaning a day-to-day conversation in a Navajo family may go something like “Mother, go get Son.” The Salish tribe follows a “naming trail” in which the name given to a baby by his parents at birth (usually a virtue or trait the parents hope for the baby) is eventually replaced at adolescence with another name that is given by the tribal leader at a ceremony called the Jump Dances. This name usually represents a talent or strength for which the child is known. Likewise, as an adult, yet another name might be granted, but this name would reflect expectations or something for the person to live up to.
While biblical names satisfied most Puritan American colonists in New England, some families of the Mayflower age chose to bestow their own virtuous names such as Charity, Joy, Mercy, Grace, Prudence, and Hope. In more extreme examples, parents derived slogans to send a very direct message through their child’s name: “Fear-God,” “Jesus-Christ-came-into-the-world-to-save,” and “No-Merit,” to name a few. One has to wonder about the conscience of a young lad named “If-Christ-had-not-died-for- thee-thou-hadst-been-damned.” And what do you think “Sin-deny” did when he was caught dozing in church?
If you’re of Hawaiian descent, your “Inoa” (name) is your most prized possession. Traditionally, Hawaiians believed that an ancestral god will mystically send a name to a member of the unborn child’s family. They look for this name in signs, visions, and dreams, and believe that if the specified name is not used, it will cripple the child. If a name is not chosen through the god, there are many different types of names—such as those given to trick evil spirits or known only in secret—and more than one name may be given to a child. Christian names are also used in Hawaii and have been altered to fit with the Hawaiian language, which doesn’t pronounce many English sounds.
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