What comes first? The name followed by the personality, or the personality that is born to a name? My mother found my name in the society pages of a New York newspaper and liked the sound of it. Amanda means “fit to be loved” or “lovable,” and her choice reflects how she feels about me. However, it’s entirely possible that I also just popped out that way.
Cultures around the world use a combination of traditional naming structures; elements of nature and birth order, while others have had to come full circle, back to the names that their cultures once knew.
Sonia Weiss, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Baby Names, explains that naming practices for African-Americans shifted depending on the time in history. During slavery, owners assigned biblical, classical, or short nicknames and stripped the slaves of their unique names. Families took American leaders’ last names, like Washington and Jefferson, in an effort to acclimate. After the Civil War, African-Americans returned to their roots and added the suffix, -index, to classic names, to form names such as Lucinda and Clarinda. Eventually, African-Americans invented their own names, combining popular names with prefixes and suffixes, to put stress on the names in the beginning or end to create individuality. These included strong prefixes, La- and Shan- into the mix with names like, LaTasha and Shandra, and suffixes, -quon and -ell for names like Maquon and Sidell. After the Civil Rights movement, powerful African-American men returned to their roots, choosing Muslim names and traditional names from their ancestors in Africa.
Naming traditions in Africa depend on the region, but can include double first and last names and factor in emotions around birth and pregnancy. Barack Obama, who took his father’s Swahili first name, means “blessed.” Most names from Africa refer to the details surrounding a child’s birth, such as the season, day of the week, number of family members, or the emotional state of the family during birth. In Nigeria, the Yoruba culture names children during a ceremony on the eighth day of life, while the Hausa culture, influenced by Islam, uses a two-part naming system, starting with Abdul and ending with one of God’s characteristics, as in Abdulsalam, which means “servant of peace.”
Consisting of a family name followed by a given name, Japanese names implement nature and are similar to Chinese and Vietnamese naming structures, which do not use middle names as we do in the West. Female names usually end in the character -ko or -mi meaning “child” and “beauty” or -ka for “flower” or -na for “greens.” Male names might include the birth order, including ichi or kazu for first son and ji for second son.
Unlike Western tradition, the Chinese culture considers naming a child after a parent or family member as a forbidden act. Chinese names are one or two characters, and last names come before given names when written. Female names use feminine characters from nature, and sibling names tend to follow a theme, like sun and moon. Different family members will share the same character—or banci—signifying that they come from the same generation and some of these names can tell a historical story of the clan.
Indians incorporate their culture, religion, caste, and horoscopes into their name giving practices. All names have a special meaning, like my friend Poonam, whose name means “full moon” in Hindi, even though her astrologer always reminds her to lay low on evenings with a full moon. Birth names can vary from an official name, and the first letter of the birth name is auspicious and aligned with their horoscope, while their last name comes from their family. You can usually tell what part of India someone comes from by looking at his or her last name.
While Indonesian is a simple language to learn and speak, their naming practices can complicate things. Depending on which island—of 13,000—they come from will explain how they got their name. Children receive either a single name, a name without a family name, or a name with a family name, but there are exceptions. On Java, people have one name. In Northern Sumatra, there are clan names rather than family names. In Bali, children are named according to birth order of one through four (Wayan, Made, Nyoman, and Ketut), and the names repeat and start over once the fifth child is born. Though they usually take their father’s last name, if taken at all, they include the word putra (if they are male) or putri (if they are female).
As John is to America, Nguyễn is to Vietnam, which occurs in 40 percent of all Vietnamese names. The family name comes from the father and precedes the given name. Most Vietnamese names stem from China, and middle names tend to be the same (women using Thị and men using Văn) throughout the culture and either indicates generation, a separate branch of the larger family, or birth order. While all names are unisex, names illustrating feminine notions tend to work for women, or names may include attributes that parents hope for in their child.
The Land of Smiles is one country in the region that avoided colonization, so traditional Thai names are intact. Both first and last names are long and hard to pronounce, so most Thais refer to one another by a nicknaming system, according to their stature or virtues. When I taught English to Thai professionals, one of my female students was nicknamed “fat” in Thai. The same went for one of the characters I sang karaoke with on Thursday nights, as a larger Thai man, everyone called him Mr. Fat, and fortunately, he kept smiling.
Similar to India and Africa, Native American names stem from tribes and take on qualities of nature or animals. Native Americans also include naming ceremonies. In the Hopi tradition of the Southwest, tribes will place an ear of corn near a newborn, and for twenty days rub the corn on the baby’s body, naming the child as the rising sun hits the baby’s forehead. The Sioux (Nakota, Lakota, and Dakota) tribes factor in honor, special deed, birth order, nicknames, and secret and spirit names into their naming practices, which can change many times in a lifetime. Navajos only use their given names during ceremonies; instead, people speak to one another according to their specific role in the family. The Cherokees left naming to the father and the grandmother of that father’s clan to name any Cherokee child born to the tribe.
I lived with two Guatemalan brothers who had the hyphenated last name, Ibarra-Rivera, which was their father’s last named joined with their mother’s last name. Usually, the last name that follows the child’s name is the paternal last name, though times are changing. In Spanish law, children must keep the same system of surname and not stray from the rest of the family when ordering last names. First names mostly come from the saint names in the Roman Catholic church, with many families equipped with one José or María in the family, or a child named after a deceased family member.
Most Caucasian names come from the English language since ancient languages are extinct. While many parents will name their children after family members, present and deceased, most will choose a name that is to their liking. Almost all first names in English have meaning, and many come from Christianity or the Celtic tradition. Less steeped in tradition, modern naming customs include new spellings of popular names or using surnames for first names.
As a yoga and meditation junkie, I wanted to learn how my name translated from Sanskrit. It means, “Active and bright,” which I can only hope still applies today.