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The history of naming

The history of naming
Latest posts by Keith Lindner (see all)

You might not be expecting to find this type of article on a parenting website, but we think it can add a little extra meaning to the naming journey you might be about to go down. 

If you’re a research nerd like me, you’ll find this very interesting. And who knows, maybe it will have some small impact on the names you choose. 

This article is going to focus on the naming history in Western Civilization and then how America got to where it is today. 

It is important to acknowledge that it only scratches the surface and overlooks much of the impact that various Arabic, Hindu, Persian, and various Asian cultures likely had on our naming traditions. These groups have enriched naming conventions with their distinct traditions and cultural significance and we hope to dive into that further one day soon. 

For now, we hope you enjoy this fairly concise summary of how we got to where we are today. 

Where and when did naming begin?

Names have always played a significant role in our lives, typically serving as a key identifier of our individuality. They offer insights into our ancestry, revealing details about our family’s origin, occupation, and physical attributes. 

The origin of names is hard to actually pinpoint and is not universally agreed upon. There were a few ancient civilizations that started their own naming practices many thousands of years ago and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it all happened. 

What is widely agreed upon is that there were clear differences between how these civilizations created their naming traditions. Much of that revolves around the use of first (or “given” or “single”) names and last (or “surnames”). 

When did first (or given) names begin to be used?

Given the rudimentary form of language in ancient times, the earliest names were very simple and only one word. They were very descriptive names derived from nouns and adjectives, such as Irish Gaelic names Conan and Aed, which respectively mean “hound” and “fire.” 

These “single” names were often related to a physical attribute, physical things or a circumstance of birth. Many of them still survive as surnames.

It is assumed that naming continued along these lines for many centuries (because there is no definitive proof). As time passed, certain descriptive names became popular and formed a name pool within a culture. Parents would choose names from this pool rather than creating new ones. 

And for many centuries, there seemed to be no need for surnames because there just weren’t enough people. Everyone knew John, Conan, or Adam in their little village. It wasn’t until many many years later that last names became more popular in western cultures. 

When did last (or surnames) begin to be used?

When it comes to last (surname) names, it is believed the Chinese were among the earliest to adopt surnames, with legends suggesting that Emperor Fushi introduced the practice around 2852 BC. 

Western Civilizations, on the other hand, initially stuck with the single name but then by the first century BC, the Romans actually transitioned to a three-name system. 

  1. The given name, known as the “praenomen” 
  2. Followed by the “nomen,” indicating a clan or group of families they belonged to 
  3. Followed by a last name, referred to as the “cognomen,” signifying the family. 
  4. Some Romans added a fourth name, the “agnomen,” to commemorate notable actions or events. 

As the Roman Empire declined, family names became confused, and single names once again became common. But during the Middle Ages, the practice of adding a second name to distinguish individuals gradually gained popularity. 

These second names often reflected a person’s place of birth, descriptive characteristics, occupation, or the use of the father’s name. 

By the 11th century surnames were becoming more common but the establishment of fixed, hereditary surnames is difficult to trace accurately, as the process took place over several centuries. By around 1450, it became commonplace for people of all social ranks to possess fixed, hereditary surnames. 

Interestingly, the Scandinavian countries and Turkey adopted family surnames much later, with Scandinavia embracing them in the 19th century and Turkey making it mandatory in 1933.

How did first and last names evolve over time?

The evolution of given names in western civilization

The oldest recorded names often trace back to Hebrew origins, with their meanings aligning with the narratives found in the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Christian Old Testament. Examples include Adam, meaning “earth,” and Eve, meaning “living.”

In Ancient Greece, naming practices also featured compound names, combining two elements with distinct meanings in a way that reflected the cultural values of the time.

There was significant exchange of names between Ancient Greek and Roman societies. Despite periods of enmity, rivalry, and reluctant admiration, these separate empires borrowed extensively from each other, leaving enduring traces in naming conventions that persist to this day.

With the rise and fall of many empires over the following centuries the naming practices from one culture to another spread. The Romans absorbed some of the Celtic tribe’s colorful mythologies and reverence of nature and the Germanic tribes that invaded most of Europe in around 400 AD spread names meaning spear, rule, protector, and bravery.

The Anglo Saxon era in England formed the basis of Olde English which led to a new breed of people and names. 

The intermingling of Indo-European language groups in Europe during the Early Middle Ages facilitated the exchange of personal names. However, it was the Christianization of the Western World that had the most profound impact on naming practices. 

With Christianity becoming the recognized religion of the Roman Empire, saints gained immense popularity and became the “celebrities” of the Middle Ages. Naming a child after a saint was seen as a protective measure. And with over 10,000 Saints, it’s easy to trace back many of our current names to this time. 

The Norman Conquest (the French) introduced new names to England, and variations in dialects and phonetics further shaped names. Over time, dialectal variations and phonetic renderings changed the pronunciation and spelling of names. Rhyming names emerged, such as Rick and Dick for Richard or Rob and Bob for Robert.

As names became more common, pet forms and diminutives were adopted to differentiate individuals. For example, Mary could be referred to as Mae, Mamie, Moll, or Polly, while John could become Jake, Jack, or Johnnie.

The Protestant Reformation, which challenged the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, brought about another significant shift in naming conventions. Puritans and other Christian dissenters sought to live by biblical principles and began adopting names directly from the Holy Scriptures. 

Old Testament Hebrew names, considered virtuous and godly, experienced a revival and were used beyond the Jewish population. These Hebrew names, such as Isaac, Moses, Samuel, Elias (Elijah), and Solomon, were among the earliest names used by American colonists.

The evolution of surnames in western civilization

As the government activities of each era expanded, accurate identification of individuals became crucial, especially for administrative and taxation purposes. Personal names alone were insufficient in larger urban communities, necessitating the use of surnames for social and administrative clarity. 

In rural areas, hereditary succession to land required a means of tracking families rather than just individuals.

These surnames not only identified the family but also maintained a connection to the family’s past, ensuring its legacy. Preserving surnames became a matter of pride, and it was a source of regret if a man had no male descendants to carry on the inherited surname that he held dear.

Typically, surnames were initially used by the nobility and wealthy landowners, eventually spreading to merchants and commoners. The first permanent surnames were derived from manors and fiefs, associated with barons and landowners. 

As the hereditary nature of these lands solidified, the names became fixed. The working and middle classes sought social status by emulating noble practices, leading to the widespread adoption of surnames.

Classifying family names becomes challenging due to changes in spelling and pronunciation over time. Many old words have different meanings or have become obsolete. Additionally, the writer’s competence and discretion influenced surname variations, even within the same document.

Family names have various origins. They could be based on a person’s surroundings, occupation, or ancestral names. Most surnames can be categorized into four main sources:

  1. Occupation: Names like Carpenter, Cook, Miller, and Taylor indicated a person’s specific trade. These occupational surnames were common in every village but didn’t necessarily denote a familial connection between individuals sharing the same surname.
  2. Location: Surnames derived from a person’s place of residence, such as Overhill or Brook, were common. Locational surnames often reflected natural features or specific elements of the landscape. Some endings, like -ton, -ham, -wick, or -stead, indicated a farm or small settlement, while others, such as -don, -bury, -leigh, or -ley, represented a hill, fortification, or clearing.
  3. Patronymic (father’s name): Many surnames incorporated the term “son” in various languages, such as Williamson, Jackson, or MacGilleain. Different cultures used specific suffixes or prefixes to denote “son” in surnames.
  4. Characteristic: Surnames based on physical or personal traits were common. These names could describe a person’s stature, such as Small or Longfellow, or be derived from an animal’s name to depict certain qualities, like Fox or Dove.

Historically, locational surnames were the earliest to become hereditary, followed by characteristic names. Occupational surnames came later, and patronymic names were the last to solidify as hereditary. Patronymic names changed with each generation, while other types of surnames remained more consistent.

It’s important to note that the original meanings of surnames may not align with their modern interpretations. Word meanings have evolved over the centuries, leading to discrepancies. Some surnames, like Stout, might have once referred to a characteristic other than what they imply today. There are also names that vividly depict distinct physical attributes, such as Stradling for bowed legs or Balfe for stammering.

Many surnames have multiple origins and can be associated with various factors. For example, the English surname “Bell” could indicate someone who lived or worked near a bell, a bell-ringer, or a bellmaker. Its roots can be traced back to the Old French word “bell” or the pet form of Isabel.

Understanding the complexities and origins of surnames adds depth and intrigue to the study of our family histories.

What about middle names?

Poor middle name, we didn’t forget you. 

The custom of middle names faded for centuries until it resurfaced in Italy in the late 13th century. Initially prevalent among the elites, the use of middle names gradually spread across social classes in Italy, Spain, and France. 

England adopted middle names later, and by the 19th century, middle names became popular in Europe among all classes.

In the United States, the timing and meaning of middle names followed the trends of its colonists’ nations of origin. Middle names provide individuals with the opportunity to shift identities throughout their lives. 

They can symbolize social allegiance, godparent relationships, and family lineage. Middle names serve as a way to preserve family names, maintain relationships, and try out new combinations or variations of names.

In the early 1900s, hyphenated names and women keeping their maiden names as middle names became more common. Today, middle names continue to serve similar purposes, allowing individuals to honor family connections while exploring new naming possibilities.

A look at the more recent evolution of naming in America

The evolution of names in America has been influenced by a variety of factors throughout our fairly brief history. 

  • The early European settlers brought with them traditional names from their respective countries of origin, such as English, Dutch, French, Spanish, and German names. These names often reflected religious and cultural influences prevalent in Europe at the time.
  • As America grew and developed as a nation, waves of immigrants and slaves from different parts of the world brought their own naming traditions or created their own after being stripped of their names. 
  • The Industrial Revolution brought significant societal changes, urbanization, and the rise of the middle class. As people began living in larger cities and engaging with different cultures, names became more diverse.
  • Slavery was abolished in 1865 and freed an entire generation of slaves from having no name or one given to them by their owners. 
  • Another wave of names was spawned during and after The Civil Rights Movement in our African American communities
  • The influence of Christianity and the use of biblical names have persisted into modern times but other religious movements like the Morman religion have created their own naming traditions as well. 
  • As America grew in population, different regions with their own style, culture and traditions have also emerged. Think of the Dirty South or the Midwest. 

Overall, naming conventions in America continue to reflect a blend of religious, political, cultural, and regional influences. There is also systemic named based prejudice and discrimination that we are still trying to navigate our way through. 

In recent years, there has been a trend towards more unique and individualistic names. Much of this can be attributed to how the internet began changing the way American parents searched and chose a name for their baby. 

Parents are increasingly seeking names that are distinctive and reflect their personal preferences or values. This has led to a greater variety of names, including unconventional spellings, creative combinations, and names inspired by nature, mythology, technology and pop culture.

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