Baby Naming Customs and Culture

There is an apocryphal saying, "When someone loves you, they say your name differently. And you know your name will be safe in their mouth."

A kind of inheritance

The notion is compelling, that a name might not be safe. The idea that a name can somehow be abused when spoken implies that a name is an important possession, one that is worth protecting. This can be seen by the fact that parents often choose names for their babies from their family trees, and some more primitive cultures choose names from totems. Such names are specific to a particular family's ancestral line. This makes a name a kind of inheritance, no less than a prized piece of Steuben crystal, or a Hepplewhite chair, handed down from generation to generation. As far back as the Bible, we see that Noah's first task was to name the animals, which tells us that the practice of naming has long been considered a grave responsibility.

Pride and unification

The Shona people of Zimbabwe have, since the beginning of their culture, named babies according to 25 identifiable family totems. Each baby has a totemic name plus a 'praise name,' a name chosen from among some 60 such names. The totem name is often that of an animal. It is the praise name that associates a child with a specific clan for sometimes clans share the same totem. The added praise name prevents incestuous relationships. Totemic names express tribal pride and unification.

In some Chinese populations babies receive a two character given name, the first character representing the generational name. It is considered rude in this culture to refer to someone by his generational name, as this name is not the name which distinguishes the person's identity from that of his relatives. In China, what the Western world thinks of as surnames, are written and pronounced before the given name. The Chinese are sometimes given an additional name at marriage, and still another name in later years that is a type of formal nickname.

A kind of rebirth

In Christian thought, the baptismal ceremony is thought to be a kind of rebirth for the soul. Baptism is a sacrament that initiates a child into the church. The name under which a child receives his baptism helps to link the baby to an identity along with his place in society.

In Judaism there are two sets of naming practices. In the Askenazic tradition, babies are named after deceased relatives as a kind of memorial. Sephardic Jews name babies after living relatives to honor them. Jewish thought links the name to the qualities of the soul. Thus, a child named, for instance, Adin, meaning delicate, would be expected to display a delicacy of character.


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