Naming Traditions From Around the World

Written by Kathy Moore

We expect names to follow predictable structures, but that’s not always the case. In the United States, we understand names according to the following paradigm:

The first name, also known as a given name or personal name, identifies an individual. It is normally given to a person at birth by his or her parents.

The surname, also known as a family name, last name, or gentile name, is inherited and shared with other members of the individual’s immediate family.

This categorization of names, however, while common in western societies, is not globally uniform. Depending on certain cultures and/or customs, naming conventions can and will vary.


The family name or surname, known as xing”, comes first. The order of family name followed by given name is commonly referred to as the Eastern order. In China, approximately 100 of the most common Chinese surnames make up 85% of the population.

The given name, called “ming”, is almost always one or two syllables. There is more diversity in Chinese given names than in Chinese surnames.

Traditionally, babies are named 100 days after birth. Since it is considered unlucky to name a baby before birth, parents use what is called a ‘milk name’ before a formal given name is chosen. This name is known only by the parents or close family members. One superstitious custom is to select a disgusting ‘milk name’ to ward off evil spirits altogether.

Spain and Latin America

According to Spanish customs, a person’s name can be quite long. When a child is born, they receive two surnames: the first from the first surname of the father and the second from the first surname of the mother. This naming tradition makes it possible for the mother to never lose her maiden surname and therefore her name is carried on to the next generation.

e.g. Teodoro Lopez Corazones + Maria Andujo Melandez = Pedro Lopez Andujo

After marriage, Spanish surnames do not change. Both the bride and groom keep their birth names. It is socially acceptable, however, to refer to the wife as ‘Senora de’ (meaning ‘wife of’) and the husband’s last name.

e.g. Maria Andujo Melandez de Lopez

Zulu of South Africa

Zulu names, like most indigenous names in Southern Africa, are often given regarding the situation of the family when a child is born. This is also referred to as the ‘home name.’ For example, names can denote expectations and encouragement for a baby, reflect how the family relates to others in the community, or describe the weather or setting in which the baby was born.

Zulu children are named even before they are born but after birth, an imbeleko ceremony is performed. Zulus regard it as a must to perform the imbeleko ceremony for every child in the family for the following reasons: to introduce them to their ancestors who live in the spirit world of unkulunkulu, to protect the child from misfortunes, and to provide an opportunity for naming the child. Zulus carry more than one name and each of these can be given by members of the extended family.

People with the same surname once belonged to the same localized clan. The clan name, or isibongo, functions now, in modern society, as the surname.

There are many naming traditions from all around the world. The naming structures in different cultures can vary dramatically. No matter where you come from, however, naming traditions unite families and cultural groups.