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#1: Naming Practices

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue.


This article, the first of the series, is on naming practices. The idea here is simply to provide some ideas for patterns of names that you may want to apply to a culture (or characters therefrom) that you’re building for your Traveller campaign; there’s little if any discussion of why the naming pattern exists, or of the origins thereof.

General Naming Patterns: Real Examples

In many Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking areas, it was at one time (and may still be) common for a wife to combine her husband’s family name with her own. There were several patterns for doing this, but in all cases the husband’s name was last—for example, “Inez Maria Rodriguez de Gomez” or “Inez Maria Rodriguez y Gomez” (Rodrigues da/e Gomes, in Portuguese). Sometimes the latter form carried through to children, so that it was theoretically possible for a woman to end up with a name like “Maria Elisabeta Gomez y Rodriguez de Castro y Barilla”—and no, those weren’t separate names; everything from the G to the final A was part of her single surname. Children’s surnames generally were formed by taking the mother’s surname before the father’s in Portuguese practice; in Spanish, the father’s surname comes before the mother’s.

At one time, it was not uncommon (and may still be practiced today) for a German woman to take a feminized form of her father’s surname as her own—so that Georg Blucher’s daughter would have been known as Anna Blucherin. Names were not changed with marital status, though there were usually indicators of such—the equivalent in English would be something like “Jane Jones m. Smith” (m. for “married to”), or “Samantha Brown w. Johnson” (w. for “widow of”). The indicators were only for the purpose of “fine-tuning” identification or tracking genealogical data; her name for legal purposes remained “Anna Blucherin”.

In some parts of Germany, it’s not unusual, even today, to refer to someone not as e.g., “Peter Müller”, but instead as “den Müllers ihr Peter”, or “The Müllers’ Peter” (literally, “the Müllers [genitive case] their Peter”).

Jews were required to take family names at various times in various places. The nature of the names taken depended on where and when; Sefardic Jews took family names much earlier than Ashkenazi Jews. Prior to the requirement of taking family names, however, it was usual for a child to be identified as the son of his father, or the daughter of her mother or father: David ben Moshe, Rachel bat Leah, Sara bat Yosef. Where two individuals had the same name in this form, it was extended another generation (David ben Moshe ben Shmuel, David ben Moshe ben Avram), and in cases where that was still insufficient to distinguish, an additional identifier was added (David ben Moshe ben Shmuel haKohane [David, the priest, son of Moses, son of Samuel], David ben Moshe ben Shmuel haYerushalami [David, the Jerusalemite, son of Moses, son of Samuel]).

Iceland doesn’t use “family names”—you have a personal name, and a patronymic, formed by taking the genitive of your father’s name and adding the suffix “-son” (or “-dottir” for female children). If Eric marries Ingrid and they have a son that they name Ivar, that son is legally known as Ivar Ericsson, and his sister would be Helga Ericsdottir. Foundlings (orphans for whom the father is unknown) were often given divine “patronymics”, generally Şórsson (Thorsson) for boys, and Freyasdottir for girls.

The British royal family does not have a surname, despite the widespread belief that it’s “Windsor”. They are the House of Windsor, true, but when Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, was commissioned in the RAF, it was as “Lt. Wales”, based on his father’s title of Prince of Wales, not “Lt. Windsor”. (It could be argued that it might have been equally, or perhaps more, correct to commission him as “Lt. Cambridge”, based on his own title.) The royal House name has changed in comparatively recent times; at one time, prior to World War I, they were the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, later the House of Hannover, then the House of Hannover-Windsor, and when the Monarch formally renounced the title of Elector of Hannover (which was in abeyance since the Holy Roman Empire was disbanded), it was changed to House of Windsor.

Roman naming patters were complex, and the definition of “legal” name changed over time and place. In general, however, most non-academics who have any familiarity with Roman names, as from movies or written fiction, for example, will be familiar with the so-called “tria nomina” pattern. The “core” of the tria nomina pattern is the nomen, which identified the gens (broadly speaking, the entire extended family back to a specific common ancestor (gens is often translated as ‘clan’ or ‘lineage’)). Before this is the praenomen, a personal name (though in later Imperial times its importance was reduced compared to that of the cognomen, to the point where if it were not omitted, it might only be the Latin birth ordinal (e.g., Tertius, Quartius, Quintus, etc.)). The cognomen was found after the nomen, and could be personal, hereditary, or a combination of both. For more complete information on Roman names, one would be well advised to start at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_naming_conventions and be sure to follow links to the separate entries for the various components, including ‘tribal name’, ‘filiation’, ‘praenomen’, and ‘cognomen’. Note that this set of articles can provide additional information, beyond mere naming patterns, for building a culture.

Complexity isn’t limited to Roman names; the naming practices of the Kikuyu of central Kenya are perhaps even more complex. Rather than try to explain them even as much as I’ve explained other naming patterns here, I’ll just quote one of the people that commented on the original mailing list post:

My wife is Kikuyu. In her tribe a first son will take his paternal grandfather’s name, a second son his maternal grandfather’s name. Subsequent sons will carry uncles’ names, in a specific order. It’s the same for girls—first the paternal grandmother, then the maternal grandmother, then aunties. Complex cases sometimes require consulting the old women for advice.

Because the tribe has a legendary founding family (Kikuyu married Mumbi, and his nine sons married her nine daughters ), the same names keep cropping up, particularly for women. There are many male names, so it’s likely the naming convention is a relatively late development for male children.

Infant mortality is high, and girls who are not expected to live, or who have had a number of deceased older sisters will often be named Njeri. We don’t know of a similar use-name for men, though my wife has an uncle Kanugu (monkey) who wasn’t expected to live.

Children named after a relative are though to have some ‘vital force’ of that relative, particularly if that relative is deceased, so a woman might refer to her daughter as ‘my mother’ if the girl is named after her maternal grandmother.

Because of these conventions, large families will have multiple members with the same name, so nicknames are common (my nephew is known as Juju, short for Junior, to distinguish him from my stepson).

Honorifics are also widely used, a common one being Baba X or Mama Y (father or mother of X or Y). The specific name depends on who the person knows you through (I am Baba Kagera to some people in Mombasa who know my stepson; I am Baba George to some in Dubai who know my youngest son). It’s rude to address someone by their given name if you haven’t been introduced to them by their given name. Another common term of address is Mzee (elder, used as a term of respect).

Some outsiders may be given Kikuyu names or nicknames, which they may never learn, as Kikuyu may find it difficult to pronounce their real names; the nicknames are often barbed. I am Wanjohi (one of Kikuyu’s sons, but can also mean The Drinker; much Tusker was poured when I first met my wife’s family and friends).

When in Mombasa or Nairobi, I have to be ready to answer to multiple names: Adiru (the Kikuyu pronunciation of my name), Baba Kagera, Baba George, Wanjohi, or to Mzee or Bwana (sir).

A similar explanation of Kikuyu naming practices is at http://swinkletoes.wordpress.com/2015/07/17/kikuyu-naming-traditions, and other Kenyan tribes seem to follow similar patterns (see http://keemlit.blogspot.com/2014/09/the-naming-system-in-kenya.html).

Most Far-eastern languages place the family name first—Ho Chi Minh (Viet Namese), for example, was “Mr. Ho” or “Chairman Ho”; Roh Tae Woo, Kim Il-Sung (both Korean), Sun Yat-Sen, Deng Xiao-Ping, and Mao Tse-Tung (all Chinese) were similar (Note: I’m not using a consistent Romanization for Chinese names). Japanese is a recent exception; it is increasingly common to use the Western pattern of personal name followed by family name—though the traditional family-name-first pattern is still widely used. In the west, this pattern is also used, in Hungarian—a Hungarian might be known in the US as Istvan Szabo (Stephen Taylor), but would be known as Szabo Istvan at home.

In the past, far-eastern personal names generally consisted of an individual name and a ‘generational’ name. Traditionally, the generational names were taken from a family poem, and all members of the family that were a given number of generations from a specified ancestor would have the same generational name. While some families placed the generational name consistently first or consistently second, others alternated between the positions.

General Naming Patterns: Fiction

The family-name-first pattern was also used in fiction in H. Beam Piper’s Paratime series, by the First Level civilization—Verkan Vall and Hadron Dalla were married for a while, and called each other “Vall” and “Dalla”; Tortha Karf, Chief of Paratime Police, was known professionally as “Chief Tortha”, and when Verkan Vall took over the position, he was professionally known as “Chief Verkan”. It should be noted that John F. Carr doesn’t seem to get this, in the sequels he’s written to “Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen”, which is connected—by Piper—to the Paratime stories.

Also in Piper’s Paratime stories, in “Last Enemy”, all family names on the “out-time” parallel world are locative—Piper rendered them in English, as “of Roxor” or “of Starpha” or “of Bashad”, et cetera. Additionally, there was a notable pattern in personal names as well; male names all had an interior -irz- or -arn-, and female names all ended in -itra or -ona. Verkan Vall, while operating on that parallel world, called himself “Virzal of Verkan”, and Hadron Dalla was known as “Dallona of Hadron”. It was apparently not uncommon for a father to give his son his own name, merely changing -irz- to -arn- or vice-versa (so that Garnon of Roxor’s son would be Girzon of Roxor).

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller have woven a rich tapestry in their Liaden Universe, and hidden in one of the internal-chronologically earliest stories is an interesting nugget—by inference, many Liaden family names—not clan names—are originally occupational: The name “yosPhelium” is given to mean “courier pilot”, and a comment in the same story suggests that “yosGalan” is also a pilot, with a different duty (other than courier). Most names have no meaning given, but the pattern is suggestive: ”deaGauss”, “deaJuden”, “venDeelin”, “sigRadia”, “yoVala”, and so on.

In Cordwainer Smith’s world of the Instrumentality of Mankind, (legal) underpeople were named to indicate their animal derivation, with a prefix of the first letter of the original animal followed by an apostrophe—C’Mell (cat), B’Dank (bull), T’Ruth (turtle), A’Gentur (ape), E’Ikasus (eagle), D’Joan (dog), et cetera. Smith may not have completely thought this out, as underpeople of several derivations would share a single indicator letter (e.g., bull and bear derivations both used B’ as a prefix).

The Jao from Eric Flint and K.D.Wentworth’s Jao Empire books do not use family names, but they do use kochan names (a kochan is most equivalent to the idea of ‘clan’ in human terms, but it’s definitely not an exact match). There are two groups of kochan: root kochan and affiliated kochan. A member of a root kochan is named using the personal name followed by indicators of membership in the kochan and whether from the main breeding line or a cadet line—Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak is Aille, member (krinnu) of Pluthrak, from the main (ava) breeding line. A member of a cadet breeding line would use nao instead of ava. For members of affiliated kochan, the breeding line is not indicated, but the root kochan to which the individual’s kochan is affiliated is indicated, prefixed by vau—Nath krinnu Tashnat vau Nimmat is Nath, of the kochan Tashnat, affiliated to the root kochan Nimmat. The distinction between root and affiliated kochan is historical within the story universe, and beyond the scope of this article.

Name Changes

Although it’s almost a “default assumption” to consider a name to be permanent and unchanging, the reality is that names can be changed for many reasons, both by the holder and by others. In most Western cultures, it is not considered remarkable when a person chooses to change his or her name. The most common example of this is the taking of a spouses surname as one’s own upon marriage, but it is not considered particularly noteworthy if this option is declined, or if some other arrangement, such as a hyphenated combination of the two names, is chosen. Somewhat more unusual, but again, not particularly noteworthy, is a legal change of name for other reasons, such as “I've always hated the name Matilda; I want to be known as Sharon instead.”. Another reason that has occasionally been prominent in the news has been when a notable person comes out publicly as a transsexual, such as George/Christine Jorgensen, Walter/Wendy Carlos, or Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner. This reason is far more common than most people believe; many transsexuals choose to keep it to themselves. You may know more such people than you think; I personally know that I know at least six (who have chosen not to conceal it in certain social settings in which I am a member, but who do not broadcast it to the world as Ms Jenner has). Adoption of extremely young children may result in the child’s given name being changed, especially in cross-cultural adoptions; the older the child is, the less likely. Other reasons for name changes might be for safety, if one is in a “witness protection program”; to evade notoriety for past actions; to evade debt (this is generally illegal—but it does happen); and other reasons.

It is common for Chinese immigrants to western countries to take a local ‘use name’ (ostensibly to make it ‘easier’ for the Westerners), with no necessary connection between the ‘use name’ and the Chinese name—so Hom Chi-Leung might be known as “Ted Hom” in the United States, and may even take that as a legal name (though it is not mandated). The ‘use name’ is not treated as a nickname, even if it would normally be so viewed (e.g., ‘Jim Wong’ is not a nickname for ‘James Wong’, if ‘Jim Wong’ is the ‘use name’ of a Chinese immigrant).

Roman Catholic and Coptic popes select a “regnal name” upon being elected to their respective papacies. The Roman Catholic Popes often choose their regnal names from the list of names of their predecessors, and the choice is often symbolic of the newly-elected pope’s views on the governance of the Church. It should be noted that the present incumbent has broken with that tradition, and taken his regnal name from that of a saint instead.

Some English monarchs, including Victoria and her successor, have used a name other than their “real” given names as their official names during their reigns. It is speculated that Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, might choose a name to reign under other than Charles III, due to certain connotations of the name Charles for monarchs in British history. (His Royal Highness has not chosen to comment publicly on this matter.) This option, though rarely used, exists for other European monarchs as well.

Many British nobles, and all of the titled British and Scottish heralds, can (and some do) use their titles as though they are legal names, and in some views, they are legal names. [That is, the Duke of Normandy (titular noble of the Channel Islands) may identify himself in non-official contexts as “Normandy” or “de Normandy”, and if he holds a military commission, is likely known as “Colonel Normandy” (or whatever his rank is), much as Prince William served as “Lieutenant Wales” [although it would also have been proper—possibly more proper—for him to be “Lieutenant Cambridge” instead, as he is the Duke of Cambridge]. The head of the British College of Arms, the Garter Principal King of Arms, may issue a personal cheque, not connected with his duties as a herald, and sign it “Garter”. The head of the Scottish College of Arms, Lord Lyon King of Arms, may do the same (signing “Lyon”), as may lesser titled heralds in both colleges, using their respective titles (e.g, Portcullis, Rouge Croix, Lancaster, Clarenceux, and so on).]

Many oriental monarchs are not known by their names-in-life after their deaths. While for most countries, this is not widely known, and for many, it is strictly a historical phenomenon (their monarchies having been overthrown and abolished), it is very evident among the Japanese, where the father of the current Emperor is now universally (in Japan) called Showa, the same as the era-name of his reign. (In most Western writings, his given name of Hirohito is still used.) In Japan, the name of the reigning Emperor is never used; he is universally called 天皇陛下, (Tennō Heika, “His Majesty the Emperor”), 今上陛下 (Kinjō Heika, “His Current Majesty”), or just 天皇 (Tennō, “Emperor”), though in most Western writings, his given name as Crown Prince (Akihito) is used.

Some underdeveloped cultures have been noted as avoiding the use or mention of the name of a deceased person either permanently or for a period of time. Living members of those societies who have the same or similar names often change their names.

There is a trope in speculative fiction where, if the “focus society” is meant to resonate with such Terrestrial cultures as the Native American tribes, a child entering puberty—or attaining some other significant age where he transitions from being a child to being a responsible adult of the society—goes on what might or might not be called a “vision quest”, and upon its completion, gives him/herself a new name, by which he/she is henceforth exclusively known. In the Star Trek novel Uhura’s Song, by Janet Kagan, the Enterprise landing party finds that they need to do this, along with a couple of the native children, to get information and assistance from the first-contact world of Sivao, whose natives are closely related to the inhabitants of Federation member world Eeiauo.

(It may be noted that names among both Sivaoans and Eeiauoans in that story are locative; on Sivao, the form is ‘to-<location>’ (e.g., to-Ennien, to-Srallensre), and is chosen by the person (and may be changed by choice) to represent where s/he will go to ‘celebrate Festival’ (no additional information is given). On Eeiauo, the form is ‘of <location>’ (e.g., of Ennien, of Srallensre); no reason, other than a hypothetical by Lt. Uhura, is given for the difference.)

Honorific Name Changes

Although English uses separate titles, not made part of a name, it is not unknown in other languages/cultures for a name to change because the bearer attains noble status. In Traveller itself, an Imperial character that attains the social standing and noble title of “Count” may prefix his family name with “hault”; the Zhodani indicate noble status with a suffix to the name.

Historically, German nobility was often signalled by a prefix of von, zu, or both (von und zu), while the use of de was not unknown in Dutch (along with van and ten), French, and Spanish.

Both Japanese and Korean use suffices to indicate some relatively common honorifics.

Going somewhat farther afield, there are occasions where there is an actual name change that fit the broad definition of honorific:

Male Sikhs generally take the name “Singh” as a surname or ‘pre-surname’ upon formal induction to the Khalsa; females similarly use “Kaur”. Normally, this is used as a pre-surname, but it is common to reject the caste system, which is “embedded” in family names, and those who do reject the caste system often discard their family names (this is not only true of Sikhs, but of northern Indians generally).

There are similar examples in fiction; the one that most immediately comes to mind is in the universe of Miles Vorkosigan (by Lois McMaster Bujold), where if the Emperor of Barrayar makes you a Count (the highest level of noble), you prepend Vor to your family name—Kosigan→Vorkosigan; Patril→Vorpatril; Barra→Vorbarra; et cetera.

Such honorifics need not be solely for nobility; in the Hell’s Gate series by David Weber with Linda Evans and Joelle Presby, veterans of the Imperial Ternathian Army are entitled to use chan before their surnames; this extends even to the Imperial family: The Grand Princess Andrin, who is yet too young to serve, even if the ITA allowed women to serve, is “Andrin Calirath”, but her elder brother, who served in the Army, was “Janaki chan Calirath”. On the other side of the war in those novels, the two highest castes in Mythalan society, the shakira [mages] and the multhari [warriors], similarly used vos and mul, respectively, and those members of lines that were both shakira and multhari were entitled to use “vos and mul”.

In the Klingonaase of John M. Ford’s The Final Reflection, joining the Klingon starfleet allowed the viewpoint character to change his given name from Vrenn to Krenn. (The same novel also showed us that the “line name” was not used as we might; he was Captain Krenn, rather than Captain tai-Rustazh. One assumes that Kang, Koloth, Korax, Kumara, et alia, were similar usages.) The importance of the line, or of the individual within the line, is indicated by the prefix to the line name, ranging from tai- for the lowest “noble” lines, up to epetai- for the highest. The tai- series of prefixes were also used as prefixes to the title zan, which was of neutral honor with no prefix, roughly equivalent to modern English/American “Mr”—“Zan Vrenn” was a respectful way of speaking to Vrenn without according any particular honor; one could be referred to as epetai-zana, roughly equivalent to “Most Highly Honored Sir”. Using this sort of construction with one who was not actually entitled to use the epetai- prefix carried implications of insult and great sarcasm.

In the Known Space universe of Larry Niven, names and their changes among the Kzinti truly follow achievement of honor (and social status). A low-status Kzin will have no name, and will be known only by his job title (e.g., Speaker-to-Animals, a diplomat to aliens; or Telepath, obvious). When he gains sufficient status, he will be granted a personal name, which is used in combination with his job title (e.g., Chuft-Captain; ‘Chuft’ is the personal name). Finally, a Kzin of sufficiently high status as to not need to work will use the personal name only (e.g., Ch’mee).



Eric Flint, K.D. Wentworth, David Carrico: Jao Empire Series: https://www.baen.com/categories/books-by-series-list/jao-empire-by-eric-flint-and-k-d-wentworth.html

Cordwainer Smith: The Instrumentality of Mankind

John M. Ford: The Final Reflection https://amazon.com/Final-Reflection-Star-Trek-No/dp/0671038532

Larry Niven (et alia): The Man-Kzin Wars https://www.baen.com/categories/books-by-series-list/man-kzin-wars-created-by-larry-niven

(There are some notes at about this article’s level of detail on other names at http://devresearch.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/International%20Naming%20Conventions%20Guide%20-%20Final%209-14.pdf)