Even if you haven't read up on different naming customs, you've likely heard tell that in East Asia, given names and family names are reversed. Maybe you even know that upper-class Romans could have double-barreled family names, or that the Icelandic ditch surnames totally in favor of patronyms. As with most components of culture and language, it turns out there's an astonishing amount of variability across the globe, and even within Europe the familiar naming syntax is varying degrees of new.
A name at its fundament is just a way to distinguish someone from others to those who care about their identity. In simple societies, one name is often enough - this is how plenty of indigenous communities manage and even the norm in Europe during the Middle Ages. There are some universals among such systems - for the sake of originality names are typically constructed from normal words, or the names of flora, fauna, and locations, often representing physical or personal traits, time or order of birth, or just good aesthetic value.
In preliterate Indo-European societies it was common to compound two nicely-connotated nouns or adjectives - the name Edward actually comes from the Old English eād weard, meaning "wealthy guardian," and Sophocles got his name by a simple smushing of σοφος κλῆος sophos kleos, "wise glory." Other traditions might construct whole phrases. Hebrew יוֹחָנָן Yokhanan, source of all variants of John, is a contraction of a phrase יְהוֹחָנָן meaning "God is gracious," and the famous Hawaiian queen Lili'uokalani had a name meaning "scorching pain of heaven." We still, by the way, use some names referring directly to abstractions or nature in English (cf. Lily or Faith). It can seem unusual because language exchange and distance of time have obscured the elemental origins of many modern names, but most are simplistic at their origin. The name देवी Devi, popular across India, simply means"goddess" in Sanskrit and Claire is just a French word meaning "clear" or "bright."
|Wealthyguardian Goodpeace, noted Indo-European bard|
Roman history is a great window into all points on the spectrum of development. Ancient Italic societies gave just one name to each individual, but sometime around the founding of the Republic the notion of family names (nomina) caught on, and later in the Empire when connections became politically important people began adding more and more cognomina - statements of heredity, adopted lineage, and clientela - onto the ends of their names, unto the point of the ridiculous megalomaniac emperor who at the time of his assassination in 192 AD was bearing the handle Caesar Imperator Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus Augustus Herculeus Romanus Exsuperatorius Amazonius Invictus Felix Pius Pacator Orbis Dominus Noster. At the same time, the dwindling pool of given names got drowned out by the ever-expanding sea of cognomina and people's names eroded from the front as they stopped bothering with the increasingly meaningless first names. When the Empire finally collapsed people essentially just picked their favorite cognomen and returned to a mononymic system, and then stuck by it for the next millenium. Wild times.
|Caesar Imperator Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus Augustus Herculeus Romanus Exsuperatorius Amazonius Invictus Felix Pius Pacator Orbis Dominus Noster strikes a pose for the artist.|
Do you have or know of a name with interesting origins? Put it in the comments! In Part 2 of this post we'll get into the specifics of different types of names - given names, surnames, family names, clan names, courtesy names, patrilineals, matrilineals, toponyms, teknonyms, nomina, nasab, all that good stuff!
Fantastic reference guide by Interpol
Meaning of Names Reference
Roman naming conventions
Just for funsies:
Name days (Latvian name day calendar in honor of my current location)