What’s Your Name?

What’s your name?

Not a particularly difficult question, generally speaking. In English, when we say name, we usually mean a person’s given, or first, name. Things can be a little more confusing when you have to switch to dealing with French though. I’m currently living in Belgium, and routinely get momentarily confused by forms which ask first for nom, and then prénom. My instinct is to write my first name in the space for nom, until I remember that in French, nom means surname, and prénom means first name.

It can feel quite illogical when you’re used to English. It’s interesting how the two languages treat names differently. The word surname comes, ironically, from the Anglo-French sornom, meaning above name, therefore seeming to prioritise given names, identifying them as the most important of the two names, by awarding them the word name. Whereas in French, the word nom seems to prioritise surnames, with the prefix pré- suggesting that one’s first name is secondary to one’s family name. Yet while it’s true that in Francophone countries, bureaucracy will often place one’s surname in capital letters before one’s first name; in common usage, French speakers use names much as English speakers do, so if you are thinking of taking up French, or moving to a French-speaking country, the nom/prénom confusion should only be a minor one.

In Spanish though, things can be a little more complex. Spanish speakers still put their given name first, but confusion can arise by the fact that people usually have two surnames: their father’s first surname, and their mother’s. Usually the father’s is placed first, but this is no longer obligatory. I’ve been occasionally been confused by this at work. Sometimes a Spanish-speaking student would only supply one surname, or at least only one would be recorded in the computer system. This is usually ok, until it gets to the summer and family groups arrive, with sometimes each family member being recorded as having a different surname.

Things get even more complicated when you throw María into the mix. It’s quite common to name a girl María to honour the Virgin Mary, with the name usually followed by a shrine, religious place, or concept, e.g. María de los Ángeles (Maria of the Angels). In such cases though, the María is usually dropped, and the woman will simply go by Ángeles, Dolores, Pilar etc. María is often added to male names too, as in the case of golfer José María Olazábal, or former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, though in such cases it’s often abbreviated to M.

Another curiosity that’s always intrigued me about the Spanish language is the popularity of the name Jesús compared to other languages. I can understand why countries strongly influenced by Christianity would avoid using it as a name, as it’s often considered to be breaking the Fourth Commandment, forbidding taking God’s name in vain. Historians are divided as to why this is so. Some have suggested that it began during the Moorish occupation of Spain. As there was no taboo among the Muslim Moors about naming their sons after Muhammad, some Spanish apparently began to name their sons after Jesus, either in emulation or defiance of the Moorish tradition. Others suggest that the name originated from people having de Jesús added to their names, to honour Jesus, as in José de Jesús, with the original first names gradually being dropped. Others point to the fact that the Biblical Jesus has often been referred to as Jesucristo, thus meaning that Jesús alone was less controversial.

So while names are pretty straightforward in English, it’s always worth considering these linguistic differences when dealing with people from other backgrounds. And that’s not even getting into pronunciation, which I think I’ll look at tomorrow…

8 thoughts on “What’s Your Name?

  1. Interesting! In the Netherlands our last names were officially documented when Napoleon made us a province of France (long long ago) and so there are some really crazy surnames around here. Most names are quite normal like Pieterzoon (son of a guy named Pieter) or Koopman (a guy who was probably a merchant when he had to document his last name), but there’s also Naaktgeboren (literally translates: born naked). There are also quite some last names that have what we call a ‘tussenvoegsel’. This is usually the word ‘van’ or ‘van der’ which means that the person is from the place that is behind the ‘tussenvoegsel’.

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    • As you write, most hereditary surnames in the Netherlands date only the beginning of the 19th century. So – I’m thinking – some Dutch surnames in the USA, which became hereditary earlier are not found in modern Netherlands, e.g., Roosevelt, Schuyler, of New Amsterdam. Am I correct in believing this?
      The same may be true also of some Afrikaner names of South Africa.

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      • I don’t know much about Dutch names in the USA, but I think Schuyler can be German as well. Personally, I think that hereditary surnames come from before the 19th century. It was only in that time that they were officially documented. Take the surname ‘Bakker’ for example. This name suggests that the guy was a baker and that was probably a family thing, so in a way that family was always known as the baker family. I’m not sure if I’m correct, but that’s my guess 🙂

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  2. In China ,it is different .i mean the family name is before the given name .maybe we emphasis affectionate relationship .you know ,here we are extended family .the links between families are strong .

    Liked by 1 person

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