“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare’s Juliet famously asked, and the answer depends on what culture you are talking about and what language you are speaking. Our names are uniquely personal and individual identifiers, yet they often represent the lives, aspirations and beliefs of an incredibly large group of people. In some cultures, names are steeped in tradition and passed down from generation to generation, while in others, parents strive to choose names that are unique and unconventional.

Naming in Russia

Russia has distinctive traditions for forming first, middle and last names, and while many of its proud Cyrillic naming traditions have been held for centuries, others are surprisingly new. Many of the classic Russian first names are in honor of Saints and are chosen based on the day of the week on which the child is born. For example, boys born on a Saturday are often named Dmitry (for Saint Demetrios). Tuesday births, for a boy, are often named Ivan (for Saint John the Baptist), while girls may be dubbed Anastasia (for Saint Anastasia).

Russian middle names generally employ the use of a patronymic, which is a type of family name derived from the father’s first name. For example, a man named Nikolay would give his son and daughter the patronymics Nikolayevich and Nikolayeva, respectively. This naming tradition dates back to the 9th century and is indicative of Russia’s historically strong patriarchal culture. It was not until the 18th century that these names were no longer used solely as last names and started to become middle names. As in many other countries, Russian last names may be based on occupation, such as Kovalev (blacksmith) and Popov (priest).

Naming in Spain

In Spain, it is customary to have two given names followed by two family names, one paternal and one maternal. The two given names may be derived from Catholicism, as in María José (to honor Mary and Joseph) and Juan Felipe (for Saint John and Saint Philip). Children may be named after other Catholic figures as well, with some naming their child Juan Pablo in honor of St. John Paul II.

The use of dual surnames dates back to the 15th century and was officially mandated in the 19th century as a way to preserve familial heritage. In this system, children typically receive both of their parents’ first last names, with the first last name usually being the father’s first last name and the second last name usually being the mother’s first last name. This practice of a child taking a surname from each parent is representative of the importance of family in Spain.

Naming in North America

In the United States and Canada, naming traditions that were once heavily Anglo-Saxon and Biblical, resulting in names like John, Mary and David, have evolved over time and become much more diverse and expressive. As a self-proclaimed “melting pot,” it only made sense that the influence of immigrants from different cultures and backgrounds would lead to greater variety in child names. Today, it is common for parents to choose names that are distinctive, meaningful, and reflect their individual interests and cultural backgrounds.

Far removed from the staid traditions of the 19th century, unique spellings and pronunciations are now more commonplace, with significant contributions made by the African American community. There has also been a process known as “name borrowing,” in which parents choose names that are similar to popular names, but with slight variations, such as Emili instead of Emily, or Camryn instead of Cameron. US celebrities have famously showcased unique baby names, as seen by singer Beyonce and hip-hop artist Jay-Z naming their daughter Blue Ivy. South African transplant Elon Musk and Canadian musician Grimes have further pushed the envelope, with a daughter named Exa Dark Sideræl and a son named X Æ A-Xii.

Naming in Korea

In Korea, as in many Western countries, names have three parts. The difference, however, lies in the order of the names. In Korea, the family name comes first and is then followed by the given name(s). For example, in the name Kim Min-Jae, Kim is the family or surname, and Minute-Jae is the given name chosen by the parents.

The surname is typically one syllable and is passed down from the father’s side. Common Korean surnames are Lee, Kim and Choi. First names generally have two syllables and may reflect desired traits, such as the name Ji-Hoon, which means “wisdom and favor.” Common naming customs reflect traditional Korean culture and have roots in Confucianism. These naming practices and names often emphasize respect for elders and the importance of harmony.

Naming in Africa

In many African cultures, names are often highly symbolic and chosen strictly for their meaning. Names may be chosen to reflect the circumstances of the child’s birth, such as the time of day, the weather or the season. This is customary for the Yoruba in Nigeria, the Igbo in Nigeria and the Akan in Ghana.

African names may also represent the traits and qualities the parents wish for their child to possess. For example, the name Nia, in Kenyan Swahili, means “sense of purpose.” And while some names, such as Misery or Nhamo (Misfortune) may seem negative to outsiders, in some cultures in Zimbabwe this naming practice is common and is intended to mark a period of the parents’ lives, and perhaps something to overcome.

Naming practices provide a unique window into different cultures, as our names are one of the most personal things we have, yet we ourselves do not originally choose them. This task is entrusted to parents, ancestors and cultural tradition.

About the author

Justin Benton

Justin Benton

Justin Benton is a writer and English teacher based out of Colombia.