How did our ancestors and neighbors around the world find their babies’ names? Ethnic and religious customs can lead you to a strong, ethnically rooted, meaningful name.
If you were born in Elizabethan England (1558-1603), you may have been named by your parents just a few days after birth, at your baptism. Like many other newborns of the time, you were named after one of your godparents, carefully chosen for their higher socioeconomic stature. The pool of names considered acceptable during this time was significantly smaller than what we are used to today. Elizabeth, Anne, Joan, Margaret, Alice, Mary, and Agnes accounted for approximately sixty-five percent of all girls’ names. Likewise, John, Thomas, William, Richard, and Robert accounted for approximately sixty percent of male names. When it came to naming baby in old England, life was comparatively simple but somewhat boring. Naming options broadened during the classical revival period which brought in French and Italian imports, opening the door for more creativity.
Today, throughout predominately Christian Europe, you find similar baptismal ceremonies but various customs in adopting namesakes—that is, who your child will be named after. Orthodox Greeks have customarily named their babies after the fathers’ parents. The French often use a child’s middle name to pay homage to a set of grandparents, using both grandmothers’ first names for a girl and both grandfathers’ names for a boy. The Spanish, known for their traditionalism, have rigid rules even for today; the first-born daughter is named after the father’s mother, whereas the first son is named after the father’s father, and so on. Many other European countries also have customs of naming after the parents. In the common, patronymic style, the “Jr.” wears his father’s moniker. Likewise, but much less common, a girl may become her own mother’s namesake.
Native American naming traditions, some of which are still followed today, vary greatly from tribe to tribe and were often inspired by natural conditions, animals, and virtues. This is especially apparent in the Miwok tribe’s use of water names, often chosen by the way the stream looked when the baby was born. The Southwest Hopis had a mystic tradition of placing an ear of corn, representing Mother Earth, next to the newborn. Twenty days after baby’s birth, the corn was rubbed over his body while the baby, held to face the rising sun, was named when the first ray of sun hit his forehead.
The Navajos attribute great powers to their names. A Navajo name is considered so precious it’s only used during ceremonies, meaning a day-to-day conversation in a Navajo family may go something like “Mother, go get Son.” The Salish tribe follows a “naming trail” in which the name given to a baby by his parents at birth (usually a virtue or trait the parents hope for the baby) is eventually replaced at adolescence with another name that is given by the tribal leader at a ceremony called the Jump Dances. This name usually represents a talent or strength for which the child is known. Likewise, as an adult, yet another name might be granted, but this name would reflect expectations or something for the person to live up to.
While biblical names satisfied most Puritan American colonists in New England, some families of the Mayflower age chose to bestow their own virtuous names such as Charity, Joy, Mercy, Grace, Prudence, and Hope. In more extreme examples, parents derived slogans to send a very direct message through their child’s name: “Fear-God,” “Jesus-Christ-came-into-the-world-to-save,” and “No-Merit,” to name a few. One has to wonder about the conscience of a young lad named “If-Christ-had-not-died-for- thee-thou-hadst-been-damned.” And what do you think “Sin-deny” did when he was caught dozing in church?
If you’re of Hawaiian descent, your “Inoa” (name) is your most prized possession. Traditionally, Hawaiians believed that an ancestral god will mystically send a name to a member of the unborn child’s family. They look for this name in signs, visions, and dreams, and believe that if the specified name is not used, it will cripple the child. If a name is not chosen through the god, there are many different types of names—such as those given to trick evil spirits or known only in secret—and more than one name may be given to a child. Christian names are also used in Hawaii and have been altered to fit with the Hawaiian language, which doesn’t pronounce many English sounds.
African Americans have their own unique naming history and culture. In the days of slavery, a slave owner often renamed his slaves something not generally used by whites; Greek mythology names were commonly used (Daphne, Apollo, Nessus, or Diana) or a slave’s full name was converted into a diminutive cognate of another white-owned name (Tom, Cas, Lil, Bo). Slave owners also granted biblical names in their attempts to convert slaves to Christianity; however, in an attempt to preserve their heritage, slaves often gave their children ethnically based names, which they used secretly in their communities. It wasn’t until the Civil War that most African Americans had complete control in naming their children; with newfound freedom, slaves immediately bestowed previously prohibited names on their children (Moses, Abraham) and also changed their shortened names to the formal versions (Thomas, Cassandra, Lillian, and Robert).
African Americans also adopted the style of creating unique names, which took off even further during the 1960s as individual names, distinct from the white community, surfaced. Traditionalism and pride inspired them to look to their Muslim and African roots, to names like Muhammad, Hassan, and Ali for boys, and Shawana, Naajila, and Malaika for girls.
Similarly, Utah Mormons are known to create unique or uncommon names in a variety of ways, often combining parents’ or grandparents’ first names. So, Lewis and Amanda might result in Le’Anda. They also appreciate extremely unusual spelling variations, such as Kellee, Katlynn, Leee, and Alysoon. Could it be the Mormons that started the surname as first name trend? It seems they’ve been doing this for decades; we found Bowden, Doerr, and Rainey amongst surnames used for males. Mormons also love French sound prefixes (“La” or “De”) and wouldn’t hesitate to completely concoct a name: LaJune or DeBekka. Certainly, a Mormon name shouts “I’m from Utah!”
Following tradition, Muslim parents may name their child on his or her birthday or at an “Aqeeqah.” Held on the seventh day after baby’s birth, this ceremony entails a sacrifice of a goat or sheep (two for a boy, one for a girl). The infant’s head is then shaved and covered with saffron. It is important to Muslims to give their child a good name, determined by its meanings, which should be beautiful.
A Jewish boy is given his Hebrew (as opposed to his secular) name at his “Bris” eight days after his birth, at which time he is also circumcised by a trusted Mohel. A Jewish baby girl receives a naming ceremony eight to fifteen days after birth that includes a public reading of the Torah. During the reading, the special “Mi Sheberach” blessing is said. The blessing begins with a prayer for the mother’s health and continues with the giving of the baby’s name—and a prayer that this new daughter should grow to be a wise and understanding person of goodness. Jewish people believe that you should name an infant after someone who was righteous in hopes that the child will emulate that person. The Eastern European, Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazic tradition is to name after a beloved departed relative, while the Sephardic Jews may name their offspring after a living person.
What do a name and an egg have to do with each other? If you’re in China, you might be invited to a “Red Egg and Ginger” baby naming party—a celebration held after baby’s first month of life. The egg, considered a delicacy in ancient China, represents fertility and is dyed the color red for good luck. At the ceremonial feast, the baby’s hair is shaved and gifts are presented to the new life. Today, modern Chinese families use brightly colored eggs as party favors at their adapted ceremonies.
Superstitious as they are, the Chinese wouldn’t dare name a child before he is born! Instead they will give him a fake or “milk” name—something very undesirable, such as “mud face” or “excrement,” that is meant to disgust evil spirits and trick them to stay away from the child. These names may stay with children throughout childhood. On the heels of the many childbirth practices they follow, the Chinese believe that each child is unique and should carry an individual moniker; however, this is becoming increasingly difficult for them to follow as the most populous country in the world.
In Japan, on the “Oshichiya” (baby’s seventh day), family and friends congregate for a celebratory feast. Traditionally, the baby may be clothed exclusively in white, and an elegant “Shodo” (name plaque) with the child’s name eloquently inscribed in Japanese characters on a special Japanese paper is hung on the wall. The festivities continue with laughter and eating—certainly a pleasurable celebration for new parents and a visual (albeit, fuzzy) welcome to the world for their new baby.
There are many variations of the “Namakarena” naming ceremony in India. In the state of Maharashtra, you will walk in on a beautiful image of a baby in the cradle, decorated with flower garlands and surrounded by women singing hymns and gently rocking the cradle. The mother or a grandmother will then enter the room with a lit silver lamp and a small gold jewel for the child. Afterwards, the baby is blessed with rice and a small dot of vermilion is placed on her forehead. Blessings are once again said, and the ceremony ends with the mother whispering the gods’ names and then whispering the child’s name in her ear. Finally, the name is announced to the guests.
Buddhists have their own Namkaram within the first three months of life or when it’s thought that the baby can hear. During the event, a mother writes the baby’s name on a banana leaf, which is then covered with handfuls of uncooked rice. The mother lays the baby on the banana leaf and whispers the child’s name three times in his ear, after which the other relatives and guests do the same. A frequent practice among Hindus is to name their children after sages, saints, holy persons, deities, and the names of the incarnation of God. It is believed that by repeatedly calling such names, one is reminded of God.
Out of Africa
In many regions of Africa, naming ceremonies are extensive and elaborate, with special prayers recited by an appointed religious teacher. Usually, animals are sacrificed during these proceedings. Africans mostly choose names that denote the time (“Abena”—born on Thursday), something that represents the times (“Iniko”—born during troubled times), a physical characteristic (“Hassain”—handsome), or possibly the child’s position within the family (“Delu”—the only girl).
If you are an Egyptian, you may learn of a special naming ceremony called the “Sebooh,” held on the child’s seventh day of life. As a guest of this event, you will find the baby dressed in white and placed in a sieve. The parents will slowly rock the sieve to symbolize acquainting their child with the motions of life. Guests chant, sing, and laugh as the child is placed on a white cloth on the floor with everyone surrounding her and scattering grains around her—symbolic of the earth’s bounty. At this time, gifts are presented to the infant. The baby’s mother may then sidestep the baby’s body seven times to ward off evil spirits. Everyone’s focus is on the mother’s motions, as a knife is momentarily laid across the baby’s body to ward off more evil spirits. The ceremony ends with the lighting of candles, which are given to attending children to bear in a procession led by the mother, who is carrying the baby throughout the home. She is followed by the incense bearer shaking a lantern-like incense burner releasing cleansing scents. This time-honored custom dates back to the Pharaohs but is still used throughout Egypt in Christian and Muslim homes alike.
Creating Traditions Today
It is a strong human force to mark life’s mileposts through ceremony or festivity. Good decisions and achievements should be celebrated, and surely, you’re reaching far and wide to find the perfect baby name, so certainly a celebration of the naming of your child is in order! This is especially true since for most American parents today, the closest thing to a name tradition is a mailed birth announcement.
While we hope these customs throughout history and around the world have inspired you to add more names to your list, you may also want to consider creating a naming tradition within your own family!