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‘The idea of announcing a child’s name immediately after birth is not a universal practice’

With examples spanning from Anglo-Saxon kings to today’s celebrities, Hello, My Name Is… expertly and entertainingly charts the history and importance of personal names-given names, surnames, name titles, and professional names. Here Burdess delves into how naming works worldwide and finds that there is not one standard practice but a diverse myriad of traditions.

Hello, My Name Is: The Remarkable History of Personal Names
By Neil Burdess
Published by Sandstone Press

Bart Simpson, Bart Homerson and Bart bin Homer: Names and naming around the world

In modern societies, we expect a child to be given a name almost immediately after birth, but what about more traditional societies? Richard Alford’s study of traditional societies still in existence in the mid-twentieth century found that naming a baby soon after birth was the most common practice, but it certainly wasn’t the only one. In societies where infant mortality was high, adults often didn’t name babies until it was clear that they would live through infancy. For example, children were named only when they reached a particular life-stage, such as when they could crawl, when they were weaned, or when their first tooth appeared. The thinking was that the family might grieve less if an unnamed child died. Other societies waited until a child’s physique or personality was clear so that the name could reflect this characteristic. Finally, some societies put off naming babies for supernatural reasons, believing that harmful spirits were less likely to notice an unnamed child.

Even in modern societies, the idea of announcing a child’s name immediately after birth is not a universal practice. For example, in Iceland a baby’s name is not announced until the official naming ceremony. As parents legally have up to six months to register a baby’s name, there can be a long period before the name becomes known. Before the naming ceremony, only the parents know the name—even grandparents and siblings are kept in the dark. Until then, the baby is called drengur or Gunnarsson if he’s a boy, and stúlka or Gunnarsdóttir if she’s a girl. If the parents don’t want to divulge the sex, they can call the baby elskan, an affectionate term meaning sweetheart.

In our society, naming a child is usually the joint responsibility of the mother and father. In contrast, in ancient times often only mothers named their children. The birth of Biblical strongman Samson is described in the Old Testament as follows: ‘And the woman bare a son, and called his name Samson’ (Judges 13:24). (Samson, you might recall, grew up to have tremendous strength—which he lost when the devious Delilah cut off his hair while he slept.) This name giving role was just one aspect of the dominant position of women in many ancient societies. Marriage agreements in ancient Egypt clearly show this, one husband-to-be declaring to his bride that after marriage she would ‘assumest full power over me’.

In part, women’s dominant social position was because of the widespread belief that men played no part in conceiving babies. Instead, pregnancy was seen as the result of eating special foods, bathing in the sea or, most importantly, the work of spirits. This lack of understanding about sex and pregnancy, particularly by men, in ancient hunter-gatherer societies is not surprising. After all, sex doesn’t always result in pregnancy, and when it does the biological father could well have moved on as in many prehistoric societies sexual liaisons were short-lived. Also important is the fact that only women kept calendar records, which would allow them to see the nine-month pattern between sex and childbirth. It followed that if men played no part in conceiving babies, they had no part in naming babies. This was the exclusive role of mothers.

Over the centuries societies that were once controlled by women (called matriarchal societies) gradually changed, and became controlled by men (patriarchal societies). Part of this social change involved a change in the way human reproduction was understood. Instead of being superfluous in the creation of babies, men now saw themselves as having the starring role, by providing the seeds of life. In contrast, they saw women as simply providing the receptacles of men’s seeds. Not surprising, therefore, in traditional societies still in existence in the mid-twentieth century, it was fathers alone who were most likely to be name givers.

People in modern English-speaking countries today see the name of a baby as being the choice of the parents. Society has no part to play except when parents choose what are generally regarded as completely unsuitable names. However, this idea that society should step in only in the most extreme cases certainly doesn’t apply across all cultures and all times. Richard Alford’s study of traditional societies still in existence in the mid-twentieth century found that there was a completely free-choice system of naming in only half of them. In the rest, there were various restrictions on the name-givers. Some traditional societies fixed children’s names according to the circumstances of their birth. For example, one society used seven specific names depending on whether the child was the couple’s first, second, and so on. If the couple had more than seven children, the sequence of names started again, with the eighth and subsequent children’s names having a prefix meaning ‘little’. Elsewhere, birth order determined which relative the child was named after. For example, the first son was named after his paternal grandfather, and the first daughter after her maternal grandmother.

Yet another fixed system relied on when a child was born. For example, some West African societies used a ‘day name’ that reflected the day of the week on which a birth occurred. People from West Africa were often part of the transatlantic slave trade to America from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, and West African slaves continued using day names. There is an echo of this naming practice in the classic novel Robinson Crusoe, which is set in the slave trade era. In fact, in the early part of the novel Crusoe himself is at first a slave and later a slave-owner. After saving a man from cannibals, Robinson Crusoe ‘let him know his name should be Friday, which was the day I saved his life’. Not surprisingly, Robinson Crusoe at first saw Friday more as a slave than as a companion.


Hello, My Name Is… by Neil Burdess is out now published by Sandstone Press priced £14.99.

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