What’s in a Name?

Names are remarkably complicated things. From my earliest years I was aware, courtesy of my dad, that our family name, Schuler, was German in language and Swiss in national origin. My first name, David, is a family name, too. It’s my great-great-grandfathers name. Among the Swiss it used to be a commonplace for all of the sons of a family to be given the same first name and different middle names, e.g. my grandfather and his brothers were Joseph Melchior, Joseph Leonard, Joseph Louis, Joseph Anton, Joseph Jacob, and Karl. I don’t know what happened with Karl. He died as an infant so that have had something to do with his being shortchanged in the name department.

My dad also told us that German family names were adopted beginning in the Middle Ages, about the same time as they were adopted in England and France. Our Swiss Schuler family name, for example, was in use by our family as early as the 14th century. Family names were made mandatory in the Austrian Empire by Emperor Josef II in 1787 when he commanded that all Jews within his realm adopt German surnames and that place names were forbidden to them.

Most family names in Europe are patronymic in origin, that is they are derived ultimately from somebody’s father’s name. Johnson, Jansen, Johansen, Jones, MacIan (also McCain), Giovanni, Ioannidis all mean “son of John” and in most European countries half or more of all family names are patronymics. Iceland retains true patronymic family names to this day, i.e. if your father’s name was John your surname is Johannsen if you’re a man and Johansdottir if you’re a woman. I understand that the Reykjavik phone book is arranged by given name.

Other sources for family names are occupational names (Smith, Schmidt, Favre, “smith” or Taylor, Schneider, Thayer, “tailor”), place names, and even characteristics. Reid and Roth are both names for redheads.

In Europe most family names are surnames, i.e. they are placed at the end of the name although even in Europe that’s not universal: in Hungary family names are placed at the beginning of the name. In China family names are placed at the beginning, too.

Russians have three names: a given name, a patronymic, and a family name. Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov is “John son of John of the Johnses”. His friends call him “Ivan Ivanovich”. I began studying Russian when I was 13. It was my first introduction to culturally different naming conventions.

In Spain and many Spanish-speaking countries in addition to their given names people receive two surnames: one from their father’s side and one from their mother’s side. The given name occurs first followed by the father’s family name then the mother’s family name although mother/father is also used.

Arabic names consist of a given name, one or more patrynomics, and an occupational, geographic, or tribal name. Additionally, if a man has a son, his son’s name may occur before the other names. There may also be nicknames or honorifics. So, for example, Abu Kareem Muhammad al-Jameel ibn Nidaal ibn Abd al-Aziz al-Filisteeni indicates that its bearer is the father of Kareem, has a given name of Muhammad, is called “the handsome”, his father’s name was Nidaal, his grandfather’s name was Abd al-Aziz and he’s from Palestine.

I know nothing whatever of African naming conventions. My understanding is that, although family names are common they’re not universal and although they are most commonly surnames, that’s not universal, either.

Although all sorts of things can be inferred from naming conventions, some of them pretty far-fetched ideas of the deep cultural significance they bear, I think that mostly what naming conventions tell you about is history. Cultures with historic connections to one another tend to have related naming conventions, too.


I just realized that I inadvertently omitted a major source of family names. In addition to patronymics, occupational names, and geographical or topographical names there are also patronage names. In peasant and slave cultures it was a commonplace for the serfs or slaves of a patron to take the patron’s family name as their own. It is believed that the surnames of most African Americans are patronage names.

7 comments… add one
  • michael reynolds Link

    Thanks for such an interesting post.

    Americans names are stripped down for action and mobility in a way older-style European or Arabic names are not. Our names are disconnected from place and show only the most minimal family connection. (Child to father.) American names are all-but content-free. Even if you show up as an immigrant to this country with a name loaded with patronymics and place references, you’ll still end up as “Johnny,” or “Mack.”

    I’ve used quite a lot of names for myself — I was Robinson when I was born, Reynolds when I was adopted, and as a writer have used a dozen pen names, including female names. Not surprisingly when my son wanted his own last name (long story) I said okay. So I’m Reynolds, my wife is Applegate, our biological son is Mates and just to confuse people further our adopted daughter (who does not bear the least resemblance to either of us) has my last name. I can no longer sign my own name as anything other than a scribble because I only do that a dozen times a year but sign my pen name hundreds if not thousands of times in a year.

    I’ve probably named 500 characters as well, trolling through baby name lists on the internet.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I read Njal’s Saga a few months ago — the number of characters with the same or similar names would have been very difficult without the handy genealogical table at the back. Outside of a few stand-out characters, names aren’t that important, its the identity of their kin.

    One naming convention I’ve seen in my family tree a lot is the naming of a child after a child that preceded it in death. To much personal consternation, I have at least one ancestor who named two children George Mclellan. (And as I recall two others after Davy Crockett).

  • the number of characters with the same or similar names would have been very difficult without the handy genealogical table at the back

    Have you ever read a Chinese novel? Try reading, say, Water Borders some time. It has dozens of major characters and hundreds of minor characters.

    I’m trying to remember the English name of the book. Maybe All Men Are Brothers? Translated by Pearl Buck?

  • PD Shaw Link

    Sounds like hell; I have difficulty with names and often use a piece of paper as a bookmark to make notes so I can keep track.

    BTW/ Your ancestral story reminded of the historian Edward Gibbons, whose father and grandfather were named Edward, as was each of his five younger brothers: “So feeble was my constitution, so precarious my life, that, in the baptism of each of my brothers, my father’s prudence successively repeated my Christian name of Edward, that, in case of the departure of the eldest son, this patronymic appellation might be still perpetuated in the family.”

  • When my wife insisted on naming our son after her father I replied, “But you got to name the cats…” Thankfully she prevailed and I ended up learning a lesson on the importance of names.

    Names shouldn’t be messed with. They shouldn’t be handed out because of TV stars or fads. In fact I recall reading about some people somewhere who leave the naming of their children up to their own parents – to prevent youthful errors in judgement that can have lifelong consequences.

    Consequently the scope of names for newborns should be limited to those of his or her ancestors. It’s a way of honoring them while at the same time making the child a link in the chain between past and future generations.

  • There are unforeseen secondary effects of fad or movie star names. My experience is that it’s more common to give such names to a daughter than a son. The implication is that to a first approximation you can frequently guess a woman’s approximate age based on her name.

    Most Shirleys are nearing 80 now. Check the flurry of baby Jennifers and Jessicas of a few years ago. Right now there’s a flurry of Olivias which I strongly suspect will be over soon and in 30 years you’ll know that the Olivia you just met was born around 2011.

    One of my pet peeves in names is a mismatch between given names and family names. Sean Sullivan—fine. Sean Schultz—not so fine. It’s particularly true of extremely ethnic names like Siobhan (Gaelic for Joan) or Seamus (Gaelic for James).

  • Very enlightening. And especially coming from one named Schuler. (“scholar”)

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