In order not to leave the topic that I touched upon last time unfinished, I’ll continue my chitchat about names in this post, on the second branch of onomastics: anthroponymy (or anthroponomastics).
Personal names! I bet many of you wouldn’t have thought that there’s much to say about. Well, let me prove you wrong.
In Europe, the distinction between first and last names spread in the Middle Ages. Having a “first” and a “last” name is not universal though! In Hungary and China, for example, the last name is the “first” one and the first name is the “last” one (e.g. Mao Zedong).
What awoke my interest in this topic was a Jordanian film, Captain Abu Raed. As the title suggests, the characters had names such as “Abu Raed” (Father of Raed) “Abu Murad” (Father of Murad) or “Um Murad” (Mother of Murad). This practise of naming people after their children is called teknonymy and is less common than the opposite of naming children after their parents – patronymics – which is common in Russia. So a person named after his/her father would be called “Ivanovich“/”Ivanova” (Ivan’s son/daughter). In Icelandic, the patronomic serves as surname (changing with each generation) which is frequent in other languages, too: Robertson (English), M(a)c … (Scots), O’… (Irish), –ovich (Russian) (Ivanovich Ivanovich? lol). There are also other similarities in (sur-)naming practise, so that in earlier days, many surnames indicated the person’s profession (most popular example: “Smith”: Haddad (Arabic), Ferrari (Italian), Schmitt (German), H/Fernández (Spanish), Sepp (Estonian)…).
The diversity of first names is endless; people are named after personal traits (e.g. Merciful), places (e.g. Dakota), saints (e.g. Martin) and even animals (e.g. Little Bear) and fruit (thinking of Gwyneth Paltrow’s child Apple). Some people have apotropaic names to make them undesirable to evil spirits (e.g. the Russian name Mels– an acronym for Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin). This variety may be restricted in countries such as Fance, the Netherlands or Germany that have approved lists of names to prevent the child from having a name that might cause harm. So when my sister was born in Germany, she could not legally be called Tai because the name didn’t ‘really’ exist back then. Even though every one calls her Tai, her “legal name”, that is found in all her documents, is another one (Indira)…
In some societies, middle name(s) are very frequent. In America, initials are favoured. Whereas in English the first name is more important, in German it was the name closer to the last name that people used to call someone (e.g. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would have been called Amadeus rather than Wolfgang).
Whereas we find a great diversity of given and family names in many parts of the world, in several oriental societies the options are limited. For example in Korea, only three family names are used by most people (Yi, Pak, Kim). I am glad that I live in a society that offers somewhat more “uniqueness” in regards to (sur)names – even though, I have to admit, I sometimes wished I had some boring everyday-first+surname, rather than the ones that I’ve got (if you know my first name; you know what mean things can be done to it… And if you know my surname and a bit of German, then well, you might know what my ancestors’ professions could have been)…