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The Name Game - A Sequel

Last week we talked about surnames. Historically, babies were more often named for historical figures (like presidents). Modern day Americans have been much more apt to choose a movie star or film character for the past few decades, but the old fashioned ones are creeping back into popular use. Let's take a look at how baby names have been traditionally chosen around the world and how this can help with your family tree research.

Sepia portrait of a family

Several western European cultures (Irish, German, Greek, Italian, Scandinavian, etc.) use the following system that appears to have begun in England:

  • First son for father’s father

  • First daughter for mother’s mother

  • Second son for mother’s father

  • Second daughter for father’s mother

  • Third son for father

  • Third daughter for mother

For the fourth, fifth, etc. child, the pattern would continue with the mother and father moving on to their siblings' names.

When you look at an old census you may have several clues about who the grandparents might be by looking at the listed children. Check the prior census for those names, looking for aunts and uncles while you are there too. Remember, families often had land next door to each other when moving in to new territories. I have found many parents while looking at all the neighbors on the census page.

illustration of a female saint

Religion is a major factor in what people name their babies around the world, and especially in Spanish/Latin speaking cultures. In Spain in particular, a person may legally have two first names, i.e. "José Luis" or "María Isabel" as well as having a middle name. Originally, this was done to guarantee protection of the child by several different saints. Often the name of the patron saint being honored on that birthday is one of those used. The most common names are José (Joseph) and María (Mary), and you will find children named "María José" as well as "Jose María." When looking at documents María is quite often abbreviated to "Ma."

Italian names will often include the city that the baby was born in, or that the family was from. This is a great #clue for finding places on a #map that give you more insight to your family history.

French and #Canadian names were often hyphenated and could cross genders like Hispanic names, such as "Pierre-Marie." Marie and Joseph are the most often seen, again naming the baby after the "Holy Family" of Jesus.

Polish families had the custom of naming their children after their patron saints too. There are several sites you can use to satisfy any curiosity you may have about your birthday's saint like this one (in no way is this an endorsement of any particular religion or belief, this is provided for your amusement/edification only):

Jewish families in Eastern Europe also liked using Biblical names, and beginning in the 1200's a child would also have a secular name. The child is not "officially" named until the eighth day after their birth, so you may find their birth certificate just says "Baby." Ashkenazi Jews traditionally name their children after deceased relatives, while Sephardic Jews use the name of a living relative. The hope is the child will be inspired to live up to their predecessor's qualities or achievements.

The naming traditions in #African countries are as varied as the continent! I found this great interactive map that will give you information about these different countries when you arrive at the site.

African children can have many different first names. Names often include a name from their ethnic group, a Christian or Muslim name, and any of the following examples too!

Several different groups pick names that give information about what the family might be experiencing when the baby arrives. What looks like a one word name in English can be a whole sentence. In Nigeria, "Ayodele" means joy has come home, and can be used for a boy or a girl. In Zimbabwe and Malawi some baby names serve as warnings, "Nhamo" means misfortune, signifying the family was going through tough times when the baby came.

In Kenya the Luos are known for using names of celebrities. Several baby Baracks resulted from the election of a descendent of a Luo to president of the US. Twins have names specially used that will indicate the birth order of the babies. The Yorubas call the first twin "Taiwo" (taste the world), and the second "Kehinde" (came after). How cool is that? In Ghana you will likely be named for the day of the week on which you were born, but it may not be used as your "official" name for documents. In eastern and southern Africa you might be named for time time of day or the season you were born.

Some countries have very specific rules and regulations about baby names. In Iceland, they have the "Icelandic Naming Committee" which will decide if the name you want to use that is not on the "National Register of Persons" is appropriate. Grammar, spelling, and Icelandic traditions are considered. In 2019 they removed the gender specificity requirement of names. This link will take you to the latest names approved/disapproved last year:

Germany requires that the name selected must be okayed by the local Population Register. They check that the name is not associated with evil or insensitive to religions, and no "brand names" or objects. Recently they also deleted the requirement that the name must indicate the baby's gender.


Chinese families may choose a name that will add more strength from the "basic fixed elements" of their zodiac, wood, fire, earth and metal.

The stars traditionally play a role in Indian names. The baby's "birth star constellation" or "Nakshtra" determines certain characteristics, and names will be chosen based on specific syllables or sounds. You can check this wiki to see how complicated this can be!

Well, this has certainly been a lot of fun to research! I learned a lot, and I hope you may have learned something new or useful as well. If you did, please like and share. I am not compensated for any of these links, I do this because it's fun, and I like to learn! And it makes my mother the English teacher happy that I write. I don't track or sell your membership information.

Genealogy or familytree research is a great way to learn about the #history and #traditions of your own family as well as those of other people around the world. Does your family have a naming tradition? Please share!

If there is a topic you would be interested in learning more about, please email me at And, as always, if you would like some help with your own trees, let me know. #Free #quotes based on what you have and what you need.

Thanks for sharing your time and have a great week!

Leslie Ryan


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