Personal name

Personal name

A personal name is the proper name identifying an individual person. It is nearly universal for a human person to have a name; the rare exceptions occur in the cases of mentally disturbed parents, or feral children growing up in isolation. A personal name is usually given at birth or at a young age. The Convention on the Rights of the Child endorses personal names as a human right. The details of naming are strongly governed by culture; some are more flexible about naming than others, but for all cultures where historical records are available, the de facto rules are known to change over time.


Common components of true names given at birth include:

  • Personal Name: Universal. In most of Western culture, the given name precedes the family name; some other cultures place it after the family name, or use no family name.
  • Patronymic: A surname based on the given name of the father.
  • Matronymic (also Metronymic): A surname based on the given name of the mother.
  • Family name: A name used by all members of a family. In Europe, after the loss of the Roman system, the common use of family names started quite early in some areas (France in the 13th century, and Germany in the 16th century), but it often did not happen until much later in areas that used a patronymic naming custom, such as the Scandinavian countries, Wales, and some areas of Germany as well as Eastern European countries such as Russia and Ukraine. The compulsory use of surnames varied greatly. France required a priest to write surnames in baptismal records in 1539 (but did not require surnames for Jews, who usually used patronymics, until 1808). On the other hand, compulsory surnames in the Scandinavian countries did not happen until the 20th century (1923 for Norway), and Iceland still does not use surnames for its native inhabitants. Before the use of family names, people were often referred to by a description or nickname, their place of birth or former place of residence, their occupation, or their parent's name. Many modern family names derive from one of these.
  • Middle name: Least common. In royal or aristocratic families, several middle names honoring ancestors, relatives, or political allies are commonly given. In many families, single middle names are simply alternative names, names honoring an ancestor or relative, or, for married women, occasionally their maiden names. Many Catholic families choose a saint's name as their child's middle name or this can be left until the child's confirmation when they choose a saint's name for themselves. Cultures that use patronymics or matronymics will often give middle names to distinguish between two similarly named people: e.g. Einar Karl Stefánsson and Einar Guðmundur Stefánsson. This is especially done in Iceland (as shown in example) where people are known and referred to almost exclusively by their given name/s.

Some people (called anonyms) choose to be anonymous, that is, to hide their true names, for fear of governmental prosecution or societal ridicule of their works or actions. Another method to disguise one's identity is to employ a pseudonym.

Occasionally, a person is referred to by a single name. For example, Teller, of the magician duo Penn and Teller, has no given names. (His parents named him Raymond Joseph Teller but he legally changed his name to "Teller".) In official government documents (such as his driver's license) his given name is listed as NFN, meaning "no first name". Arvind of MIT CSAIL is another example.

The Inuit believe that the souls of the namesakes are one, so they traditionally refer to the junior namesakes, not just by the names (atiq), but also by kinship title, which applies across gender and generation without implications of disrespect or seniority. In Judaism, someone's name is considered intimately connected with his fate, and adding a name (e.g. on the sickbed) may avert a particular danger. Among Ashkenazi Jews it is also considered bad luck to take the name of a living ancestor, as the Angel of Death may mistake the younger person for his namesake (although there is no such custom among Sephardi Jews). Jews may also have a Jewish name for intra-communitary use and use a different name when engaging with the Gentile world. Chinese children are called insulting names to make them appear worthless to evil spirits. They receive a definitive name as they grow up. Chinese and Japanese emperors receive posthumous names. In some Polynesian cultures, the name of a deceased chief becomes taboo. If he is named after a common object or concept, a euphemism has to be used for it.

Depending on national convention, additional given names (and sometimes titles) are considered part of the name.

Feudal names

The royalty, nobility, and gentry of Europe and Britain traditionally have many names, including phrases for the lands that they own. The French developed the method of putting the term by which the person is referred in small capital letters. It is this habit which transferred to names of the Far East, as seen below. An example is that of Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch Gilbert du Motier, who is known as the Marquis de Lafayette. Notice that he possessed the lands both of Motier and Lafayette. Another example is Don Quixote de la Mancha, who is never referred to in literature by the phrase used as the title of the musical comedy, Man of La Mancha.

The bare place name was used formerly to refer to the person who owned it, rather than the land itself (the word "Gloucester" in "What will Gloucester do?" meant the Duke of Gloucester). As a development, the bare name of a ship in the Royal Navy meant its captain (e.g., "Cressy didn't learn from Aboukir") while the name with an article referred to the ship (e.g., "The Cressy is foundering").

Naming convention

In contemporary Western societies (except for Iceland and Hungary), the most common naming convention is that of a given name, usually indicating the child's sex, followed by the parents' family name. In earlier times, Scandinavian countries followed patronymic naming, with people effectively called "X's son/Y's daughter"; this is now the case only in Iceland and on the Faroe Islands.

Different cultures have different conventions for personal names. This is a list of articles about particular cultures' naming conventions.

Name order

Since a name is made up of several parts, the order in which those parts are arranged can be significant. The order family-name given-name is commonly known as the Eastern order and is used in Africa, East Asia (for example in mainland China, Japan, Korea, Malaysian Chinese, Singapore, Taiwan, and Vietnam), and Hungary. Eastern order is also common in Central/Eastern European and Central Asian countries such as Ukraine and Russia, where the system was used commonly right until the end of the USSR, especially in official contexts. Because such variation may create ambiguity, last names are often capitalized (e.g., MIKHAILOV Dmitri or Dmitri MIKHAILOV). The order given-name family-name is commonly known as the Western order and is usually used in most Western European countries and in countries that have cultures predominantly influenced by Western Europe (North and South America and Australia). In these countries, the family name is often used first in lists and catalogues, with the family and given names separated with a comma (e.g. Smith, John). For example, most Western libraries use this order.

When East Asian names are transliterated into the Latin alphabet, some prefer to convert them to the Western order at the same time, while others leave them in the Eastern order but write the family name in capital letters. To avoid confusion, some always write a family name in capital letters, especially when writing for an international audience. This habit has become very common also in the international language Esperanto. Japanese names of contemporary individuals and Hungarian names are usually "switched" when individuals who have such names are mentioned in media in Western countries; for example, Koizumi Jun'ichirō is known as Junichiro Koizumi in English, and Puskás Ferenc is known as Ferenc Puskás. But Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese names and Japanese names of historical figures are usually left in East Asian order; for instance, Máo Zédōng is known as Mao Zedong in English.

Names of Japanese or Chinese sportspeople generally follow the above conventions. For Japanese examples, see Ichiro Suzuki instead of Suzuki Ichirō (although he is widely known simply as "Ichiro"), or Hidetoshi Nakata instead of Nakata Hidetoshi. As for Chinese sportspeople, Yáo Míng is Yao Ming and Liú Xiáng is Liu Xiang in the West.

Names of Korean sportspeople may be rendered in East Asian or Western order in Western countries, apparently depending on the sport. For example, names of Korean footballers and athletes are usually left in East Asian order (e.g. Ahn Jung-Hwan, Hong Myung-Bo, Park Ji-Sung, Sohn Kee-Chung, Hwang Young-Cho). Baseball players' names are usually changed to Western order; for example Park Chan-Ho is referred to in the West as Chan-Ho Park. Golfers' names are also typically switched to Western order; the female golfer Pak Se-Ri is known in the West as Se Ri Pak. Confusion can be avoided by noticing that in all the above cases, the words linked by a hyphen are the given name.

Nonhuman personal names

Apart from the Linnaean taxonomy, some humans give individual nonhuman animals and plants names, usually of endearment.

In some cultures, pets or sporting animals are sometimes given names similar to human names. Other cultures, such as the Chinese, give the animals nonhuman names, because it would be seen as offensive and disrespectful to the person of the same name. In Japan, dogs are often given non-Japanese first names, such as "John" or "Charley."

A study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences claims that humans are not the only animals that use personal names. Researchers from the University of North Carolina Wilmington studying bottlenose dolphins in Sarasota Bay, Florida, found that the dolphins had names for each other. A dolphin chooses its name as an infant.

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