Exploring naming traditions across cultures
A name is among the most personal, meaningful gifts you will give to your baby. Expectant parents have been known to throw out their backs lugging baby-name books around for months, poring over every page, paralyzed by choices. If you’ve ever wondered if there might be a better way, take a cue from the naming traditions of the cultures that follow.
Love Your Family — A Lot?
Use a relative’s name. In Greek tradition, firstborn boys and girls are named after their paternal grandfathers and grandmothers, respectively. The Irish way is slightly different: A firstborn son takes his father’s father’s name; firstborn daughters are named after maternal grandmothers; second sons get their maternal grandfathers’ names; and second daughters are names after paternal grandmothers. Ashkenazi Jews might name a baby after a deceased relative; whereas, for Sephardic Jews, the relative is usually living.
Stuck in the Middle
Russian middle names are patronymic, or based on the father’s first name. Spanish-speaking families may have sisters all names Maria or brothers all named José, with different middle names to distinguish them.
Want to Outsource?
Cherokee maternal grandmothers traditionally name girls. In Poland, a priest might help out. Some cultures even have professional baby-naming consultants!
That’s the Spirit
Hawaiian children are sometimes given two names, one of which is kept secret so evil spirits can’t hear it. Before a Chinese baby is born, she may be given a fake “milk name,” which is intended to confuse or repel demons. Milk names may persist as nicknames throughout childhood.
Say It Like It Is
If a Japanese family has three sons, they might be names Ichiro (“first son”), Jiro (“second son”) and Saburo (“third son”). Yoruba “destiny names” describing birth circumstances are pretty self-explanatory: Ige is a girl born breech; Ojo is a boy born with the umbilical cord around his neck; and Idowu is a child born after twins. If you’re on your seventh or eighth child in Turkey, you might name your baby Yeter (“Enough”) or Dursun (“Let It Stop”).
Just Can’t Get Enough?
Many cultures bestow numerous names on children, each used in different contexts, such as for family, school and work. There are six types of names in the Sioux tradition, some given at birth and others reserved for important milestones.
Think Inside the Box
Some countries regulate names tightly. In Japan, all names must come from Chinese symbols called kanji. In Germany, they must be gender-specific and spelled conventionally. Sweden requires names to be, well, not awful — both Superman and Ikea have been famously rejected by the authorities.
Need a Bit More Time?
Many traditions don’t name babies until a week or more after birth. Of course, you might want to come up with some contenders before your baby is born so you don’t have to depend entirely on your sleep-deprived brain.
Pediatrician Elizabeth Shashaty, MD, is on staff at Children’s National Medical Center and Medstar Georgetown University Hospital, both in Washington, DC. She is also the mother of three young children.