Comparative Diversity: Where Do Names Come From?

February 6, 2020


The history of names is ancient. In fact, no one really knows the origin of most given names. However, evidence from archaeological studies suggests that the earliest names likely had an original meaning or association to the individual. It is believed that during periods of prehistory name pools formed within a culture or tribe. Parents would then select from the existing collection of names rather than invent new names for their babies. Even though these early names were descriptive in nature, prehistoric languages changed over time leaving names somewhat fossilized and difficult to interpret as words were dropped and spellings changed.

Possibly the oldest recorded name is that of King Iry-Hor dating back to 3200 B.C. Although little is known about the King, his name appeared on pottery shards in one of the oldest tombs of pre-dynastic Upper Egypt. Before the birth of Jesus, cultures had started to add bynames to those pulled from the tribal pool to distinguish locals from others with the same first name. For example, Jesus the son of Joseph or Jesus of Nazareth let people know who the person was as well as from which family, culture or location the person came. A thousand years later, bynames were replaced by Norman barons who introduced surnames into England. Although there were no laws that kept identifying names from being dropped or changed, naming protocols began to spread and the concept of having a first name and a surname began to stick.

Over time, populations grew and villagers began to travel and traded with people living in other places. During the Middle Ages, naming practices became the norm for most European cultures and could be categorized into four groups:

  • Patronymic Surnames - These surnames were used to identify a father's children. For example, a father named John might have a son named Benjamin, who would take the name Benjamin Johnson for John's son Benjamin.
  • Locative Bynames - These last names were used to identify where someone was born, lived or worked. For example, Stephen York would be Stephen from the town of York or Brooke Atwood probably got her name from the nearby woods or forest where she lived.
  • Occupational Surnames - Trade surnames suggest a person's status or job title. For example, Theodore Baker might be the only Theodore in the village that was also a baker by trade.
  • Personal Nicknames - Personal last names were typically used to describe a person in some unique way. For example, Stephen Short might be a bit deficient in height or Karen Jolly may have been known for her infectious sense of humor.

The concept of having a last name is considered a western convention, as other cultures like the Chinese often placed the surname before the person's forename. Moreover, Chinese surnames were originally passed down from the mother's family and not the father's, a practice that did not change until the middle of the 17th Century. Today, in America, Smith remains the most popular of all surnames followed by Johnson, Williams, Brown and Jones. However, for the first time in history, two Hispanic surnames (Garcia and Rodriguez) are included in the Top 10 U.S. surnames. Most scholars agree that France has the largest variety of surnames with about 900,000 last names and Belgium has the greatest number of last names per inhabitant, with approximately 190,000 for a population that six times smaller than France.

Interestingly, numerous baby names have been banned by different cultures around the globe. Although it is legal in the United States to not have a name, you cannot acquire licenses, passports, etc. without one. Moreover, you can use letters or symbols for names like the pop singer Prince did when he officially changed his stage name to a love symbol. For an interesting read, check out the 50+ Illegal Baby Names That Have Been Banned Around the World in Good Housekeeping online. You might be surprised how serious different cultures feel about naming practices and deviations from ancient naming pools, as well as learn more about where your name may be banned and why.

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