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What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
—William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

A name is a label used to identify a particular person, thing, deity, category of things or people, phenomenon, concept, or anything which is a subject of speech, writing, or thought. In a declarative sentence, in the English, a name often begins a sentence. In mythology, gods and goddesses have names, as well as various mythical creatures and often the forces of nature, such as storms and winds.

Human names

The naming of people varies greatly from society to society, and it can have important social, religious and legal ramifications. At bottom, all humans have a first name or given name, which is the name by which they are called. In some human societies, this may be the only identifier, in others, there may be a complex naming system. Few assumptions can be made about names unless one is very familiar with the particular person’s culture as well as their nationality. In many places, it is considered an honour to name the new baby after a living person, particularly a relative, but this is not the case in Jewish culture, for example, where a child is named after a deceased person.

Traditionally, a name supplied additional information about a person. In some cultures, this often included occupation, or a physical characteristic. In other societies, familial relationships were of primary importance when naming, and the name included information about whose son or daughter a person was.

Names can still indicate what family, clan, tribe or ethnic origin a person comes from. They can tell you when a person was born (Noel, a boy born at Christmastide), how many people in the family held that name before this one (John Doe III), characteristics a baby displayed (or ones hoped for), Serena, Grace. In African societies, names may still indicate that this child is the son of so-and-so, but in Irish families this has been lost, and O’Neill simply indicates a surname, not ‘the son of Neill’. By contrast, the placement of Spanish names still indicates the paternal and maternal family names as well as given names.

Naming also changes with the times, and old traditions are being lost. In Luo, the name Akello indicates a female child immediately following a set of twins. This used to be fairly strictly followed, but today, Akello may just as easily be a girl named for a female relative, or a girl whose parents simply liked the name. In the same manner, Noelle may be a girl born on 25 December, or not.

Although most names given to English-speaking families have a meaning, etymology speaking, today's families generally give names they like, with little or no thought to what the original meaning was. It is unlikely, for example, that the parents naming a child "Brendan" have any idea that it means "smelly hair". By contrast, African families are often keenly aware of a name's meaning, a set of Nigerian-American septuplets were all given names that reflected appreciation to God.

In addition, gender differences that used to be followed in naming are no longer paid attention to in the West, (Leslie, a boy and Lesley, a girl) but in other countries, this may still be strictly observed (Akello (Luo: "I follow twins"), a girl, and Okello, a boy). Interestingly, though in the United States it has long been acceptable to name girls with "boys' names", the converse is not true, boys are not given girl's names; to do so would be remarkable (A Boy Named Sue). Europeans and South Americans, however, may include a "female" name among a boy's given names, particularly Marian names (José Maria, Klaus Maria), and Portuguese has the reverse (Maria José, Maria João).