I wrote a short post earlier today regarding names and I thought that this would be an interesting topic to delve into and talk about.
A rose by any other name
"Names are easy to understand, right? Forename, Surname; what's so difficult about that? OK, so sometimes, there's a middle name in there but that's about it, right?"
The fun starts when you consider that there are a variety of cultural naming conventions. Lets start with the basic western naming construct.
Personal Name, Family Name
The dominance of English as the dominant form of communication has also indirectly meant that the above construct is familiar to most. However, looking beyond the anglicised form, it's easy to see various divergances. Firstly, in China and other eastern countries, the order would generally be family name, given name1 i.e. Ly Phu Cuong, Wong Fei Hong.
Even the two phased construct isn't a given as the Arabic system follows a more sophisticated naming in which an individual would be addressed as a chain of names2. An example of such would be Osama bin Laden; an expanded form of his name would be Usamah bin Muhammad bin Awad bin Ladin. This would allow you to trace back an individuals family history; the bin (also spelt as ibn) means 'son of'. Hence you can, for example, work out that he's the son of Muhammad Awad bin Ladin. A similar construct is also used countries in Irish speaking countries e.g. John Michael Patrick Reilly; John son of Michael son of Patrick Reilly.
"So, maybe I was a bit hasty there but at least I can't go wrong with saying that everyone has a Family Name, right?"
Well, step back a couple of years and you'd be wrong. Until 2004, most people in Mongolia were identified strictly on a firstname basis. This lead to a lot of confusion and severely pushed back many forms of census analysis. Upon attaining power, the communist goverment had abolished the use and record of family name, fearing that tribal loyalty would provide a power challenge.
The results of the 2004 election swung the seat of power away from the communist party and one of the more progressive legislations was to reinstigate the use of Family Names.3
Moving westwards, Russian surnames generally differ depending on the individual's gender; compare Boris Yeltsin with his wife, Naina Yeltsina. The use of grammatical gender is repeated across many other Eastern Slavic countries, though often each with their own regional variations; for example, whilst Russian names generally end with the masculine ov or the feminine ova, the suffix enko is generally restricted to Ukraine.
In Iceland, the last name is usually a patrynomic. I'll talk a bit more about what patronymic are in the next section.
The etymology of family names.
Before we move on, lets have a look at the etymology of family names. With English names, the derivation of the name can be broadly sorted into five categories:
- Occupation (Baker, Smith),
- Descriptive (Brown, Young),
- Location/Geographic feature (Hill, Rivers),
- Aspiring trait/expression (Hope, Goodspeed)
- and Ancestry.
Ancestry is an interesting one; generally, this would take the form of a Patronymic. A patronymic is component based on the name of one's father; for example, thtere is Richardson (son of Richard), and Wilson (son of William). Patronym are a popular cultural construct and arise all over the world. In Netherlands, you'd have Pietersen; in Iceland, you'd have Karlsson. There are patronymic such as di Marco (son of Mark) in Italy, and the Hiberno-Norman prefix fitz manifests itself in FitzGerald and Fitzroy4. Mac, the common surname prefix is also a patronymic (Mac being gaellic for son of).
In East Slavic countries, the patronymic would generally be used as the 'middle name'; for example, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, who is the son of Sergey.
The other form of derivation through ancestry is the direct use of an ancestors name as the surname. For example, the Chinese family name of Yuan is believed to be descended from Yuan Taotu's use of his grandfather's name, Boyuan, as his surname.
"OK, you've beaten me over the head with your talk of family names. But I bet you can't do the same with first names. I mean, people just choose a name for their kid that they think sounds nice."
Popular opinion does have a big impact on the choice of first names. Names fall in and out of favour as time goes by. The big screen often plays a large role with many children being named after the current big star. For example, in recent times, names such as Keira and Leo rose up the charts; even Prime Ministers aren't immune.
The choice of name for a child is rarely an easy one. Chinese names are often chosen by consulting other family members (esp. Paternal Grandparents) and with extensive research. An interesting aside is that many Chinese also take up a western name as well e.g. Tony Leung Chiu Wai. I use my Chinese name as my forename (there's an interesting aside which I'll talk about later) whilst my kid brother uses his western name Michael as his forename.
The etymology of given names
"What, etymology again?!?"
OK, I'll try to be brief but personally, I find this interesting. However, we cannot reasonably summarise or encapsulate this in a tiny paragraph5, so I'll just give a quick introduction to this.
The popularity of many names stem from their roots in Religious texts; Michael (Hebrew, Old Testament), Muhammad (Arabic, Qur'an), Luke (Latin, New Testament). The origins of the words however, are often found everyday language. Many names derive from desirable titles or properties such as Sophia (Sofia, Wisdom). This can sometimes be in the form of multiple words or expressions such as Alexander ("Protector of men": Alex, protect; Andros, men) or Albert (Bright nobility). The decision to name the child in this manner was, perhaps, an attempt to shape the life of the child; that is, via a name, the child would be bound to a virtue or destiny. The other reason, which follows on from this, is that a name can provide legitimacy or purpose. There are certainly names that derive from titles/occupation such as Sarah (Sara, Princess) or George (Georgios, farmer).
Another popular source of names are Objects; for example, we have Peter (Petra, rock) or Steven (Stephanos, Crown). Another common example of such is in the popularity of flowers as female names e.g. Lily. Other origins include Locations e.g. Britney (Brittany) and Paris or Weather e.g. Fong (Cloud).
Another interesting thing to note about names is how they can evolve so as to jump across barriers. For example, the popular name Michael can be seen in other forms as Mikel, Mikael, Miguel as well as in the feminine name Michelle. There are always transliterations, of course. My western name is a romanisation of my Chinese name. This also works the other way, and often with humourous consequence; for example, Charlie would be transcribed as Tea Pot (Char Lae).
"That's the unimportant part of your name, isn't it?"
Not always so. We've spoken about the use of patronymic6 but in Chinese names, the 'middle name'7 is often a generation name. As far as I can tell, there's no analog to this in Western languages. The generation name, is as the term suggests, a name shared by all those in the same generation. For example, all my brothers share the same generation name8. The generation name is usually derived from a family's generation poem9.
OK, enough. Let's wrap this up with your name?
Everyone knows me as Phu; using the western convention of Forename, Family name, it's Phu Ly. No surprises there; it's emblazoned all over my site.
In Chinese, I'd announce myself using the eastern system of Family name, Generation name, Given name as Ly Phu Cuong (pronounced Li Fu Keung). Phu means 'fortune' or 'prosperity' in chinese; Cuong means 'Strong' or 'Strength'. The transliteration of my name chosen by my Grandfather gives it a Vietnamese slant (which is not surprising as my Grandfather worked in Vietnam and is fluent in Vietnamese).
A rose by any other name
Since, in Chinese, my given name is Cuong, why Phu as my forename10? Well, I've already given away the answer. If you write my name in the eastern style, it'd be Ly Phu Cuong. Ly's my family name so Phu-Cuong must be my given name. And what happens when you write that on a form? Cuong is abstracted away as the middle name (as per western convention).11
My family all call me Cuong (pronounced Keung) and when I speak Chinese, that's the name I give. However, in English, I'm Phu and that's the name I use in public.
Wrapping things up
So, this was a brief walk into the world of names. What's your name? How was it chosen? Do you have any information on the origin of your name or any interesting rules/information of your own? Feel free to add a comment:)
- I'll use given name to denote what is commonly thought of as the forename/personal name so as to avoid confusion. [back]
- Though as is the case with Eastern naming conventions, for practical purposes, a westernised naming convention is now commonly followed [back]
- Rather ironically, the (perhaps predictable) dominance use of Borjigin, Genghis Khan's tribal name, mitigates some of the advantages of this new law. [back]
- An interesting aside; Fitzroy would mean King's son and would be used by an acknowledged Royal bastard. [back]
- Actually, the same applies with this whole entry in general [back]
- This can informally manifest itself in Western culture by the choice of the Father's name as the middle name [back]
- I hesistate when using this terms as the order often depends on the cultural convention as discussed above. [back]
- I chose these words carefully; read on. [back]
- I have a different generation name to my brothers because of an accident; the wrong generation name was picked in my case; an off-by-one error:) [back]
- It's everywhere; all my official documents use Phu as my forename [back]
- Yes, a bit of a cockup. But I've learnt to live with it:) [back]