The given name may be single, or several names may be given (the latter are known as middle names). In the latter case, one of them, generally the first, is commonly used while the others are mostly used for official records (Order of names is no longer as important).
A child's given name or names are usually assigned around the time of birth. In most jurisdictions, the name at birth is a matter of public record, inscribed on the birth certificate or equivalent. In some jurisdictions, mainly civil law jurisdictions such as France or Quebec, the functionary whose job it is to record acts of birth may act to prevent parents from giving the child a name that may cause him or her harm, such as a bizarre or obscene one (in France, by referring the case to a local judge).
In many European countries, "given name" is synonymous with first name, forename, and (for Christians) with Christian name, but these terms do not apply internationally. For example, the Hungarians traditionally have given names placed after the family names, as do all East Asians and the Vietnamese. The practice of placing given name last in these Asian countries and Hungary has been considered by some a manifestation of the importance of familial collective over individualism.
The etymology of given names includes:
- Aspiring personality traits (external and internal), for example, the Japanese name Miko means child of beauty.
- Objects, for example rock (Peter), spear
- Literary characters, for example Wendy
- Physical characteristics, for example Calvin (means the bald king)
- Another name, for example Pauline (especially to change the sex of the name)
- Surnames, for example Ralph
- Places, for example Brittany
- Day of the week of birth, for example Kofi Annan Kofi = born on Friday etc
- Combination of the above, for example Ashley (means by the ash wood)
Of course there are also names of unknown or disputed etymology, for example Keisha.
However, in many cultures, given names are reused, especially to commemorate the dead (namesake), resulting in a virtually limited repertoire of names that sometimes vary by orthography. And those namesakes, in turn, were often named after Biblical characters, except for the name Jesus, which is almost always considered taboo or sacrilegous when used as a given name in English-speaking regions. In the Spanish-speaking world, however, "Jesús" is a very popular name, without any negative implications.
On the other hand, Mary is almost universally popular among Christians, especially among Roman Catholics.
Most common given names in English (and many other European languages) can be grouped into broad categories based on their origin:
- Hebrew names are almost always from the Old Testament. Some have elements meaning God, especially 'el'. Examples: Joel, Michael, Rachel, Joshua, Joseph, David, Jeremy, Rebecca, Adam, Elizabeth, James, Anne, Mary, Sarah, Daniel, John, Susan. There is also a handful of popular Aramaic names e.g. Thomas, Martha.
- Germanic names often are warlike in nature, or have roots meaning glory. The -bert element common in many such names comes from -beraht, which means bright. Examples: Albert, Norbert, Robert, Alfred, Adelaide, Edward.
- French forms of Germanic names. Since the Norman conquest, many English given names of Germanic origin are used in their French forms. Examples: Richard, William, Charles.
- Celtic names are sometimes anglicised versions of Celtic forms, but the original form may also be used. Examples: Caitlín, Ashley, Brian, Brigid, Bríd or Bride, Mòrag, Niamh, Conor, Allen, Guinevere, Fionnghuala, Donovan, Malcolm, Eoghan, Ian, Eoin, Owen, Rowan, Kaylyn, Bronwen, Gwendolen, Seán. These names often have origins in Celtic words, as Celtic versions of the names of internationally known Christian saints, as names of Celtic mythological figures, or simply as long-standing names whose ultimate etymology is unclear.
- Greek and Latin names can be derived from the Greco-Roman gods, or may have other meanings. Many are derived from the New Testament and early Christian traditions. Greek examples: Stephen (from Stephanos), Alexander (Alexandros), Andrew (Andreas), Peter (Petros), George (Geôrgios), Christopher (Christophoros), Melissa, Margaret, Catherine. Latin examples: Laura, Victoria, Mark (Marcus), Diana, Paul (Paulus).
- Recent names come from English vocabulary words. These are usually feminine names, derived from flowers, birds, gemstones and aspiring traits. Examples: Lily, Mavis, Amber, Serenity.
- Recent coinages and variants are created by parents who want to give their child a new version of an old name. Names which are currently in fashion tend to be varied the most. Also, many masculine names have had feminine versions created, especially by adding the suffix -a. Pet forms are informal forms of longer names, usually made by adding -y. Shortenings reduce the size of a long name, for example: Vicky, Pauline, Bob, Tony, Mike. Names may be diminutized, especially in child hood nicknames. In English Robert may be shortened to Bob and then changed to the diminutive Bobby or the name Randall shortened to Randy. In German the names Johannes and Margarethe are diminutized to Hänsel and Gretel.
Other languages provide other names: for example, the name Belle comes from French, so the above should not be thought of as the only sources of names.
Frequently, a given name occurs in different language varieties. For example, the English name Susan from the Old Testament also occurs in its original Hebrew version, Susannah, and in its French version, Suzanne.
Slavic names are often of a peaceful character, the compounds being derived from word roots meaning to protect, to love, peace, to praise (gods), to give, and so on. (For a more complete list see List of Slavic given names.)
The Chinese and Korean given names are virtually all unique, because meaningful Hanzi and Hanja characters can be combined extensively. However, some less educated parents recycle popular given names as well. The names of famous and successful persons are also reused occasionally. Nevertheless, most Chinese and Korean parents invest a tremendous amount contemplating the names of their newborns before their birth, often with comprehensive dictionaries or with religious guides, formal or informal. Sometimes, especially in traditional families, paternal grandparents are the name-givers.
In more Westernised Asian locations like Singapore and Hong Kong, many Chinese also take on an English given name in addition to their Chinese given name.
Many Japanese women's names, such as Yoko Ono's, used to end in ko (子), which means "(girl-)child" in Japanese. This fell out of favor in the 1980s, and has remained outdated since. As a result, while the vast majority of Japanese women born before 1980 have names ending in ko, it is relatively rare for the younger generation.
Most names are either masculine or feminine, but unisex names can be either. Often, one gender is predominant.
Popularity distribution of given names
The popularity (frequency) distribution of given names typically follows a power law distribution. This frequency distribution commonly occurs among collections of symbols instantiated and used in a similar way, for example newspapers ranked by circulation, movies ranked by box office receipts, Internet web sites ranked by visits.
Since about 1800 in England and Wales and in the U.S., the popularity distribution of given names has been shifting so that the most popular names are losing popularity. For example, in England and Wales, the most popular female and male names given to babies born in 1800 were Mary and John, with 24% of female babies and 22% of male babies receiving those names, respectively. In contrast, the corresponding statistics for in England and Wales in 1994 were Emily and James, with 3% and 4% of names, respectively. Better understanding this change might provide insights into symbolic economics increasingly important with the rapid development of information and communication technologies.
Influence of Pop Culture
Popular culture appears to have an influence on naming trends, at least in the United States and United Kingdom. Celebrities and public figures who are well perceived influence the popularity of names. For example, in 2004, the names "Keira" and "Kiera" respectively became the 52nd and 94th most popular girls' names in the UK, perhaps due to the popularity of British actress Keira Knightley. There is some risk to naming people after celebrities and sports figures, as careers can crash in an instant.
Even characters from fiction can influence naming. After the name Kayla was used for a character on an American soap opera, the name's popularity exploded. The negative connotations of fictional characters with the names "Ebenezer" and "Tess" probably hurt the use of those names. A few names invented by authors, "Vanessa" being the most popular example, were established or at least spread by being used in fiction.
Most parents who choose a name which has recently received a great deal of publicity in the popular culture are probably not naming their child "after" the celebrity or fictional character in the sense of honoring that person. It is more likely that they simply have decided that the name sounds like the "different but not too different" alternative many modern parents are looking for. This is shown by the fact that some names that have obviously been influenced by the media are actually the names of horrific characters. For example, the girls' name "Samara" tripled in use in the United States after it was featured as the name of such a character in the film "The Ring."
In some cultures, twins may be given distinctive pairs of names. There are a number of web sites dedicated to the naming of twins, including Western  and Hindu lists. The United States Social Security Administration publishes lists of popular twin names in the US.
Twin names are sometimes similar in sound, for example boy/girl twins named Christian and Christina or twin girls named Sudha and Subha. The names may have a thematic similarity such as Jesse and James (named for the American outlaw) or Matthew and Mark (named for the first two books of the New Testament in the Bible).
The term Given name is rarely used in the United Kingdom; Forename or Christian name predominate, with the former now used almost universally on official documentation.
People may change their names for a variety of reasons. Often times, an official procedure or paperwork must be done to make it official.
Popular reasons for changing one's name include:
- too common or uncommon
- too hard to spell or say
- too long
- too "foreign-sounding"
- is unisex
- is not unisex
- conflicts with one's spiritual belief (popular in Asian countries)
Related articles and lists
- Most popular names in many different countries and cultures
- List of first name etymologies
- List of Biblical names
- List of common German first names
- French names
- List of Indian given names
- List of Irish given names
- List of Persian given names
- List of Scandinavian given names
- List of Slavic given names
- List of Portuguese given names
- List of names referring to El
- List of people by name
- List of Roman praenomina
- Other types of names
- Social Security online - Baby Names - United States Social Security Administration provides a website where people can search the popularity of names and naming trends in the United States.
- Given Name Frequency Project - Analysis of long-term trends in given names. Includes downloadable datasets of names for persons interested in studying given name trends.
- U.S. Census Bureau: Distribution of Names Files Large ranked list of male and female given names in addition to last names.
- Behind The Name Name etymologies