A name grants a person identity. Yet giving a name to a child is more than just an act of designation or an official registration: names are not superficial phenomena, but are an expression of cultural identity deeply imbedded in sociocultural contexts. Naming is therefore regarded as the social birth of a human being and is frequently carried out in the form of a ritual integration; one example of this is the Christian BAPTISM. In addition to official first names, there are also many informal names, such as nicknames, sobriquets, and pet names.

Identities and a Myriad of Sociocultural References

What is specific to the current culture of naming and trends of the recent past first becomes understandable through a look at historical practices. At the same time, a historical investigation of names can make the past itself accessible, because names reflect important aspects of everyday life, of world views, and of people's social relationships within the family, extended family, and beyond. The practice of naming and the repertoire of names differ in various historical periods and according to cultural and language areas and ethnic and religious affiliation. Even the number of names given to a child is culture-specific, such as the establishment of the middle name during the nineteenth century in the United States. Multiple names are often a sign of social distinction. A concrete name can represent personal memories, general ideas of the past and wishes for the future, social ties or personal preferences, or it can signal conformity or a certain image. To this extent, there is a broad range of orientations that can guide the selection of a name. The following account will concentrate on several relevant criteria for the selection of first names.

Naming results, to a certain extent, in a social placement; with it, parents assume a certain position in their social surroundings for themselves and for their child. Gender-specific differences in naming are manifested at different levels, starting with suitability. For example, so-called theophorous names–names containing a reference to a divine name–are reserved for men in Judaism and Islam and for women in Christianity.

Naming after Ancestors and Saints

An initial classification of names can be established in terms of whether names are new creations or naming is done in honor of other bearers of the name, which is equally characteristic for the East and the West. The significance of naming in honor of someone else develops in periods and societies in which religious affiliation, ties to family, or both have a high value and cohesiveness. This system of naming in honor of someone else has been superseded by increasing secularization and individualization, which began to have a broader impact over the course of the nineteenth century with regional differentiations. Leitmotifs constitute individuality, the wish for more uncommon names, so that the child might step out from ancestral tradition and from the social surroundings. They also represent the wish–inseparably linked to this–for the so-called "free" choice of names. Naming in honor of someone else, on the other hand, is known as a "bounded" choice of names and has the opposite effect: it is a means of integrating the newborn into the family organization or the religious community. This means that the name has a strongly integrative function. In areas characterized as Catholic or Protestant, a tendency that was dominant throughout the modern era was to name children after ancestors and saints, which represents a form of reverence in addition to other aspects. Yet these two reference systems must not necessarily be regarded as competing or alternative systems. They can also be parallel references, particularly with regard to important saints.

A large number of saints' names came into circulation as the veneration of saints intensified in the High Middle Ages. The various helping and protective functions that were attributed to the saints became more important in everyday life, and the names of saints were disseminated through calendars, pictures in churches, legends, pilgrimages, and the cult of relics. In addition, saints' names came into everyday use in many different ways, such as in designating certain days for the veneration of particular saints. The older form of naming a child after someone in the family or after the ruler was supplemented by the idea of placing the child under the special protection of a certain saint, or patron saint, by giving the child that saint's name. Other factors, such as proximity to a calendar date and local and group-specific traditions, also influenced this choice.

In 1566, several years after the Council of Trent (1545–1563), saints' names were recommended for Catholic naming and then prescribed in the Roman Ritual in 1614. This restriction resulted in a high concentration of a few names and widespread instances of identical names, a process that had already begun in the High Middle Ages and that did not undergo a greater differentiation until the nineteenth century. The name Maria or Mary assumed a special position in Catholic areas, reaching an unrivaled peak in the modern era. The process of linking saints and names was accompanied by the propagation of celebrating the feast days of saints as name days. This included everyone with the same name and was celebrated collectively in some places. In certain regions, the name day was more important than an individual's BIRTHDAY as late as the mid-twentieth century. This was the case in strictly Catholic and Orthodox societies, but also in Finland, where the name day calendar is even updated in keeping with changes in the repertoire of names.

A new component of naming that arose in the wake of the Counter-Reformation was the increased spiritual importance of the office of GODPARENT. The greater role of the godparent was expressed, in part, by naming the child after the godparent. The criteria for choosing godparents reveal information about social relations and forms of organization in a society, depending on which generation they come from, whether or not they are close relatives, whether or not the parents and godparents are social equals, and whether or not there are several godparents for one child. Through godparent patronage, new social relationships, alliances, and networks are created, or existing ones are reinforced; the relationships involved may be reciprocal or one-sided.

In Protestant regions, naming a child after non-biblical saints gradually decreased as a result of the Reformation, whose proponents objected to the exaggerated veneration of saints. Reformed Protestants most frequently followed the maxim of giving only biblical names. Names from the Old Testament–such as Abraham or Isaac, for example–thus came into use again in this context, especially in Puritan England and America, where biblical names constituted over 90 percent of the given names in the seventeenth century. People there additionally attempted to transpose biblical names into their own language in keeping with the original literal meanings.

Prescripts and Regulations

Another distinguishing characteristic of naming, which has already been alluded to, is the standardization of naming. On the one hand, there are cultures in which naming is not regulated either by religion or by the state, and thus it is left up to the parents entirely; on the other hand, there are cultures with normative specifications for naming. Names in the former cultures are naturally less uniform. In the latter cultures standardizations consist of limiting the choices through prescripts determining which names are acceptable at all. The non-acceptance of certain names results from historical religious regulations against blasphemy; contemporary legal restrictions, on the other hand, primarily focus on the wellbeing of the child and are intended as protection against ridiculous, offensive, or unreasonable names. The extent to which unusual names–or names that stand out from the conventional repertoire of names in a social environment—may be accepted or rejected by the bearers of the name themselves, regarded with pride, hate, or indifference, depends on the personal situation and the social environment. In some restrictive societies of Western Europe, children born out of wedlock were given very specific names that stigmatized them as such. (For example, in the 1830s and 1840s in France, priests often gave the name Philomene–after Saint Philomena, who was associated with virginity–to illegitimate girls, thereby marking their status.)

In conjunction with naming a child after members of the same family, in some regions there were also relatively strict rules for naming within the family, depending on BIRTH ORDER and the sex of the child. For example, the first son, to whom the regulations tended to apply most strictly, had to be named after the paternal grandfather, the first daughter after the paternal grandmother, the second son after the maternal grandfather, the second daughter after the maternal grandmother, and so forth. Conversely, in societies that worshipped ancestors, a practice associated with Confucianism, it was forbidden to name a child after a family member still living. In the Catholic faith a child given the name of a saint was christened on the feast day of that saint. However, a kind of taboo applied to naming a child after a saint whose feast day had already passed in the calendar year. Nevertheless, it could be seen as a kind of obligation to name a child after a recently deceased sibling or relative.

In the context of migration and naturalization, but also in bicultural marriages and relationships, different logics and paradigms of naming can result in legal regulatory difficulties and lead to tensions between personal identities and conformity if the different systems are not compatible. With regards to the conditions for changing first names later in life, the procedures are widely divergent in different countries and cultures. In comparison with many European countries, Anglo-American naming procedures are relatively liberal. A name change can signal a break or a new phase of life, whether it is a self-created nickname or one that is granted as a new official name, for example, when entering a convent. A practice of this kind is also familiar in Japan: there, especially in the early modern era, people changed their names usually between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five to demonstrate transition and taking over property. Finally, names also function as incantations–a magical identification between a name and the bearer of the name can be made in either a positive or a negative sense.

Individualization and Secularization

Just as the concrete practices of naming only gradually changed during the upheaval of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, naming in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is marked by synchronicities and mixed forms of elements of continuity and transformation rather than radical breaks with earlier notions. Instead of naming children after family members, godparents, and saints, parents began naming their children after figures from novels, opera heroes, actors and actresses, musicians, singers, athletes, friends or acquaintances, and monarchs and other illustrious personalities from public life. At the same time, however, a name of this kind can still be linked with individually defined wishes based on older patterns. The central difference is that the meaning of the individual name is no longer connoted in a collectively recognizable way but is instead highly individualized. The delay in individualization and secularization in naming was due, at least in part, to the fact that the Catholic Church, even in the first decades of the twentieth century, often refused to accept new names for which there was no corresponding saint or made giving these names more difficult.

In other ways as well, the gradual shift from using grandparents, parents, godparents, and saints as naming models requires further examination. Important personal references, such as the names of grandparents, are not entirely dropped but frequently made second or third names. The practice of naming sons after family members occurs more frequently and is upheld longer than with daughters in all social groups and in different European cultural regions. This phenomenon is especially characteristic when the continuity of the male line, often in relation to inheritance, is presumed to have a certain significance. A greater need for continuity through names can also be related to migration and the living situation in the country of immigration: a higher residential concentration of Jewish immigrants in comparison with Italian immigrants might result in a strong concentration of traditional names. Subsequent to wars, there is also a stronger tendency to name children after fallen family members.

Despite the irreversible effects of individualization and secularization, changes in naming practices are not linear processes that are directly parallel to changes in society. In addition, it happens that names and types of names that have been out of fashion for decades are rediscovered.

Name Fashions

Since this break in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which resulted in a massive decrease in exemplary names that had previously been central, tendencies and fashions have alternated with increasing rapidity. Politically motivated names have repeatedly played an important role, especially in nationally charged periods and in conjunction with language purism aspirations. Restrictive prescriptions and registrar interventions are documented for the Nazi era, as well as naming practices marked by fanaticism. Political statements also have been made programmatically in the form of names in keeping with revolutionary actions, as expressions of certain non-conformist attitudes or sympathies. The French Revolution of 1789, for instance, led to a trend in liberal-secularized naming practices in France and in particular, the increased usage of names derived from the ancient Roman tradition; the subsequent boom of the name Jules exemplifies this.

An increase in the repertoire of names may be noted as a more recent tendency at a general level; this phenomenon is due primarily to the use of variants of names and the inter-nationalization of the spectrum of names based on the free and individual choice of names. Whereas 80 to 90 percent of the boys and girls born in the eighteenth century made do with only a few names, 80 percent of the children born in Munich in 1995, for example, were given a name that otherwise occurred at most only four times. At the same time, regional and language-specific characteristics are taken into consideration in annually published statistics of the most popular names, indicating an increasing concentration on certain types and patterns of first names. While this may seem paradoxical in terms of individualization, it documents the presence of a certain spirit of the times behind the individual choice.

The "free" choice of names also leads to the increasing importance of the aesthetic component. For this reason, some speak of "preference names" that have replaced "tradition names": the sound, the pronunciation of the name, or the way it harmonizes with the last name have become more important than the name's origin and meaning. Sounds in common–number of syllables, abundance of vowels, soft consonants–can thus also form name groups.

The social experiences of the parents with their own names or with the bearers of other names also have a more or less conscious effect on the choice of names. The mass media, too, play an important role, specifically as both a reactive and an influencing instance: names chosen for main characters, titles of television series, and feature films intended to reach a broad audience are already in fashion or at least popular. At the same time, however, they can also trigger or strengthen trends on their part. One prominent example that is frequently cited is the film Home Alone, which was followed by a significant increase in usage of the name Kevin, the film's main character, in name statistics. Demographic changes must also be taken into account as well: the decrease in the number of children is accompanied by a "staging of childhood" (that is, the orchestrating of childhood as if it were an opera or a play), and this begins with naming. Changes in gender relations have also influenced names, as in English-speaking countries the names given to girls especially have become more androgynous.


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