Baby Naming Traditions Around the Globe
By Abigail Cukier
As we all know, choosing a name for your baby can be a daunting task. Many factors come into play – trends, tastes, opinions from relatives. But parents are also often guided by religious or cultural traditions. Here are some naming customs from around the world.
Personally, when naming my own children, we had to be careful not to choose anything too similar to that of a loved one, because for Ashkenazi Jews this goes against tradition. We usually name a baby after a deceased relative. Some will use the full name, while others use just the first letter. For example, I am named after my grandfather, Arthur.
This is to honour loved ones who have died but also to a superstition. The old belief was that there might be a mix-up and the angel of death might take the baby instead of the older relative.
On the other hand, among Sephardic Jews, who originated in Spain or Portugal, it is actually an honour to name a child after a parent or living relative.
Babies usually receive an English and a Hebrew name. Some parents translate the child’s secular name while others choose a separate Hebrew name.
A boy is named on the eighth day after the birth during the bris (ritual circumcision). Loved ones have the honour of carrying the baby and often the grandfather holds him during the ceremony. A girl is named in the synagogue, where the father reads from the Torah (Bible) and the baby and mom are blessed.
A Chinese name has three characters and the first character is the last name. For example, if the father’s last name is Leung, the first character of the child’s name is Leung. Siblings usually share the second character. A child with an English name usually has the Chinese characters as his middle name.
In Islam, babies are most often named after someone of importance in the religion, such as a prophet or messenger. You will often see Muslims with the Arabic names of such significant individuals as Muhammad, Ibrahim (Abraham), Isa (Jesus), Musa (Moses), Fatima (a daughter of Muhammad) or Aisha (a wife of Muhammad).
While there is no compulsory naming ceremony in Islam, it is customary for the child to be named on the seventh day after birth, along with the Aqeeqah, which is a celebration where family and friends thank God for the child’s birth.
Italians usually name their children after their grandparents. That is why you’ll often find “a million Valentinos or Giulios” in one family, says my friend Patricia Tomasi, an Italian-Canadian. She says her in-laws have recycled those names for generations. Babies are also likely to have several middle names to honour requests from both sides of the family.
Naming traditions in Kenya often reflect the time of day, day of the week, the weather and the child’s position in the family.
In the Marigoli tribe, the oldest member of the family performs the naming ceremony. The first-born male is named after the paternal grandfather, while the first-born female is named after the paternal grandmother. After that, it moves to the mother’s family. That person is influential in the child’s life, teaching them values and morals.
In the Hindu religion, the naming ceremony is usually held after the first 10 days of a baby’s delivery. Mother and child are bathed traditionally and prepared for the ceremony. A priest, relatives and friends are invited to bless the child.
The mother wets the baby’s head as a symbol of purification. In some communities, the baby is handed over to the paternal grandmother or father who sits near the priest during the ritual.
A letter of the Sanskrit alphabet associated with the child’s lunar birth sign is chosen, which is believed to be lucky for the baby. The baby receives a name starting with that letter.
A child can be named after the deity of the month in which they were born or the name of the family deity. Some communities name the first child after the paternal grandparent or the father.
Usually, the father whispers the name four times in the right ear of the baby. After the naming, the relatives put a few drops of honey or a pinch of sugar to the baby’s lips.
In Japan, on the baby’s seventh day, family and friends hold a celebratory feast. Japanese girls are usually given names relating to virtues, like being obedient or good. The “ko” often found at the end of girls’ names is a feminine ending and means child. Boys’ names often reflect their position within the family. For example Ichiro means “first son.” Japanese people also put their family name in front of their given name
In Guatemala, about 65 per cent of the population is Mayan. When a Mayan child is born, he is taken to a community elder who consults the Mayan calendar of 260 days. This calendar combines a cycle of 20 named days with another cycle of 13 numbers to produce 260 unique days. The elder considers the energy of the year and of the day. A boy’s name is preceded by the number of the day he is born in and a girl has IX, which means woman or feminine energy.
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on December 6th, 2013 at 12:12 am
I found this article very interesting and informative. I never really thought about this kind of thing until I read this article.
on December 6th, 2013 at 4:39 am
My husband’s family is Russian Orthodox and they name the baby from a list of angels and saints that were born within a week of the baby. Then the middle name is the father’s first name which is feminized for girls.
on December 6th, 2013 at 2:45 pm
Great post! I’m Italian-American and we do it this way- First son get’s his dad’s dad’s name (paternal grandfather), next son get’s mom’s dad’s name (maternal grandfather) sometimes the same thing is done with daughters/grandmothers, but it’s a bit less strict. I doubt that I will use this format if I ever have sons. My husband is Eastern European & Jewish and his family has a whole other naming tradition and are very superstitious about using the names of the living relatives on new babies. Something like it’s replacing the honoree or wishing them dead! Needless to say, my father-in-law would probably not be excited if I named a son Isaac!
on December 6th, 2013 at 3:50 pm
I live in Italy. We don’t USUALLY name children after grandfathers. Especially in the north, this is considered somewhat an old tradition. It DOES happen, but it’s becoming increasingly uncommon.
on December 7th, 2013 at 8:07 am
Thank you all for your replies. I enjoyed writing this post. It was so interesting to learn all of the traditions. You always are so familiar with your own but don’t always know about others. Thanks for sharing the Russian Orthodox traditions. I hadn’t learned that one.
That is interesting about Italy. It seems Italian-Canadians are carrying on a tradition that is becoming outdated in Italy! Thanks for letting me know.
Thanks for reading!
on December 7th, 2013 at 10:08 am
Also, I’m pretty sure most (actual) Italians only have one given name, unless it’s a composite name like Giancarlo or Maria Gabriella.
As for Japanese names, the -ko ending is quite old-fashioned. In the latest Top 100 baby names I think there were only 1 or 2 of these names. I don’t think the “-rou” ending for boys is very common nowadays, either.
on December 7th, 2013 at 5:37 pm
Very interesting! I am so glad there aren’t so many traditions in the US, in my religion, or in my family. It would be so hard to let someone else name my child, wait a week after they are born, or have a narrow list to choose from!
on December 7th, 2013 at 8:33 pm
I really enjoyed reading this – it was SO interesting.
My family is ‘ashkephardic’ – we have a mix of both Ashkenazic and Sephardic roots, my parents asked my great-grandma’s permission to give my sister her name (Frances). As it is, GG Frances didn’t care either way.
My parents also put a lot more effort into my sister’s Hebrew name 😛 My name is Caroline Louise and my Hebrew name is Leah Esther, Leah for my paternal greatf-grandma and Esther because I was born on Purim. My sister is Frances Helen, her Hebrew name is Ora, which has the same meaning has Helen – apparently my mother put a lot of thought into getting the right Hebrew name for my sister!
The Hindu and Mayan traditions were fascinating! And the -ko ending on Japanese girl’s names was something I didn’t know.
on December 7th, 2013 at 10:04 pm
I like this thread. 🙂
Except in western countries, Chinese (or practically any Chinese descent I know) NEVER have English first name and Chinese middle name. We usually have completely separated names, one Chinese name (with three characters like you mentioned) and one English or international-sounding name combo. We only put one in the birth certificate, but use the other every now and then.
on December 8th, 2013 at 11:12 pm
Very interesting article, and the replies shed further light on the subject. Thank you!
on December 9th, 2013 at 12:01 pm
As an Italian, I have to agree with Cloverish and SugarPlumFairy. It is a pretty outdated tradition to name kids after their grandparents. I think it remained in the US or Canada since most immigrants were from the countryside, where the tradition remains even today, especially in smaller towns in the South, but it’s slowly disappearing or morphing into names to honor the ancestors, without actually using their names.
Also, we rarely have middle names, I think I met only two or three in my whole life. Well, there are people with two names, or composed names like the aforementioned Giancarlo, but it is a lot less common than in the US or the UK to have two/three names. It can happen sometimes if the parents are particularly religious and the child is born on a day dedicated to a saint or a Christian holiday, that’s why there are a lot of people with a Maria stuck somewhere before or after the name they want to use (both for girls and boys). Of course Christian names are still radicated in the naming traditions of Italians, but it’s not uncommon to meet a baby Christian/Jessica, rather than a baby Giuseppe/Rosa.
Anyways, it was a very interesting article, than you for sharing it!
on December 16th, 2013 at 9:02 am
A very interesting article! I’m currently living in China, and I’ve found from the people I’ve met, that it’s more common to have just a two character name – the surname, followed by a given name, than have a three character name. The reason, I believe, is that two character names have better flow and luck, than three. This could just be down to where I am and the people I’ve met.
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