A given name (also known as a first name, forename or Christian name) is a part of a person's personal name. It identifies a specific person, and differentiates that person from the other members of a group (typically a family or clan) who have a common surname. The term given name refers to the fact that the name usually is bestowed upon a person, normally to a child by his or her parents at or close to the time of birth. A Christian name, a first name which historically was given at baptism, is now also typically given by the parents at birth.
In informal situations, given names are often used in a familiar and friendly manner. In more formal situations, a person's surname is more commonly used—unless a distinction needs to be made between people with the same surname. The idioms "on a first-name basis" and "being on first-name terms" refer to the familiarity inherent in addressing someone by their given name.
By contrast, a surname (also known as a family name, last name, or gentile name), which is normally inherited, is typically shared with other members of one's immediate family. Regnal names and religious or monastic names are special given names bestowed upon someone receiving a crown or entering a religious order. Such a person then typically becomes known chiefly by that name.
The order given name – family name, commonly known as the Western order, is used throughout most European countries and in countries that have cultures predominantly influenced by European culture, including North and South America; North, East, Central and West India; Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines.
The order family name – given name, commonly known as the Eastern order, is primarily used in East Asia (for example in China, Japan, Korea, Malaysian Chinese, Singapore, and Vietnam, among others), as well as in Southern and North-Eastern parts of India, and in Hungary. This order is common also in Austria and Bavaria, and in France, Belgium, Greece and Italy, possibly because of the influence of bureaucracy, which commonly puts the family name before the given name. In China and Korea, part of the given name may be shared among all members of a given generation within a family and extended family or families, in order to differentiate those generations from other generations.
The order given name – father's family name – mother's family name is commonly used in Spanish-speaking countries to acknowledge the families of both parents. Today the order can also be changed legally in Spain and Uruguay using given name – mother's family name – father's family name.
In many Western cultures, people often have more than one given name. One of those which is not the first in succession might be used exclusively as the name which that person goes by, such as in the cases of John Edgar Hoover and Mary Barbara Hamilton Cartland.
A child's given name or names are usually chosen by the parents soon after birth. If a name is not assigned at birth, one may be given at a naming ceremony, with family and friends in attendance. In most jurisdictions, a child's name at birth is a matter of public record, inscribed on a birth certificate, or its equivalent. In western cultures, people normally retain the same given name throughout their lives. However, in some cases these names may be changed by following legal processes or by repute. People may also change their names when immigrating from one country to another with different naming conventions.
In certain jurisdictions, a government-appointed registrar of births may refuse to register a name that may cause a child harm, which is considered offensive or which are deemed impractical. In France, the agency can refer the case to a local judge. Some jurisdictions, such as Sweden, restrict the spelling of names.[i]
Parents may choose a name because of its meaning. This may be a personal or familial meaning, such as giving a child the name of an admired person, or it may be an example of nominative determinism, in which the parents give the child a name that they believe will be lucky or favourable for the child. Given names most often derive from the following categories:
The most familiar example of this, to Western readers, is the use of Biblical and saints' names in most of the Christian countries (with Ethiopia, in which names were often ideals or abstractions—Haile Selassie, "power of the Trinity"; Haile Miriam, "power of Mary"—as the most conspicuous exception). However, the name Jesus is considered taboo or sacrilegious in some parts of the Christian world, though this taboo does not extend to the cognate Joshua or related forms which are common in many languages even among Christians. In some Spanish speaking countries, the name Jesus is considered a normal given name.
Similarly, the name Mary, now popular among Christians, particularly Roman Catholics, was considered too holy for secular use until about the 12th century. In countries that particularly venerated Mary, this remained the case much longer; in Poland, until the arrival in the 17th century of French queens named Marie.
Most common given names in English (and many other European languages) can be grouped into broad categories based on their origin:
Frequently, a given name has versions in many different languages. For example, the biblical name Susanna also occurs in its original biblical Hebrew version, Shoshannah, its Spanish and Portuguese version Susana, its French version, Suzanne, and its Polish version, Zuzanna.
Despite the uniformity of Chinese surnames, Chinese given names can be fairly original because Chinese characters can be combined extensively. Unlike European languages with their Biblical and Greco-Roman heritage, the Chinese language does not have a particular set of words reserved for given names: any combination of Chinese characters can theoretically be used as a given name. Nonetheless, a number of popular characters commonly recur, including "Strong" (伟, Wěi), "Learned" (文, Wén), "Peaceful" (安, Ān), and "Beautiful" (美, Měi). Despite China's increasing urbanization, a great many names – such as "Pine" (松, Sōng) and "Plum" (梅, Méi) – also still reference nature.
Most Chinese given names are two characters long and – despite the examples above – the two characters together may mean nothing at all. Instead, they may be selected to include particular sounds, tones, or radicals; to balance the Chinese elements of a child's birth chart; or to honor a generation poem handed down through the family for centuries. Traditionally, it is considered an affront and not an honor to have a newborn named after an older relative, so that full names are rarely passed down through a family in the manner of American English Seniors, Juniors, III, etc. Similarly, it is considered disadvantageous for the child to bear a name already made famous by someone else, although Romanizations might be identical or a common name like Liu Xiang might be borne by tens of thousands.
In many Westernised Asian locations, many Asians also have an unofficial or even registered Western (typically English) given name, in addition to their Asian given name. This is also true for Asian students at colleges in countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia as well as among international businesspeople.
Most names in English are traditionally masculine or feminine, but there are unisex names as well, such as Jordan, Jamie, Jesse, Alex, Ash, Chris/Kris, Hilary/Hillary, Kim, Leslie/Lesley, Joe/Jo, Jackie, Pat, Dana, or Sam. Often, one gender is predominant. Also, a particular spelling is often more common for either men or women, even if the pronunciation is the same. Predicting gender using names in the US or Europe is about 99% accurate.
Many culture groups, past and present, did not or do not gender names strongly, so that many or all of their names are unisex. On the other hand, in many languages including most Indo-European languages (but not English), gender is inherent in the grammar. Some countries have laws preventing unisex names, requiring parents to give their children sex-specific names. Names may have different gender connotations from country to country or language to language.
The popularity (frequency) distribution of given names typically follows a power law distribution.
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 England and Wales in 1994 were Emily and James, with 3% and 4% of names, respectively. Not only have Mary and John gone out of favour in the English speaking world, the overall distribution of names has also changed significantly over the last 100 years for females, but not for males. This has led to an increasing amount of diversity for female names.
Education, ethnicity, religion, class and political ideology affect parents' choice of names. In the United States, popular names tend to be chosen by parents with more education. Politically conservative parents choose common and traditional names, while politically liberal parents choose the names of literary characters or other relatively obscure cultural figures. Devout members of religions often choose names from their religious scriptures. For example, Hindu parents may name a daughter Saanvi after the goddess, Jewish parents may name a boy Isaac after one of the earliest ancestral figures, and Muslim parents may name a boy Mohammed after the prophet.
There are many tools parents can use to choose names, including books, websites and applications. An example is the Baby Name Game that uses the Elo rating system to rank parents preferred names and help them select one.
Popular culture appears to have an influence on naming trends, at least in the United States and United Kingdom. Newly famous celebrities and public figures may influence the popularity of names. For example, in 2004, the names "Keira" and "Kiera" (anglicisation of Irish name Ciara) respectively became the 51st and 92nd most popular girls' names in the UK, following the rise in popularity of British actress Keira Knightley. In 2001, the use of Colby as a boys' name for babies in the United States jumped from 233rd place to 99th, just after Colby Donaldson was the runner-up on Survivor: The Australian Outback. Also, the female name "Miley" which before was not in the top 1000 was 278th most popular in 2007, following the rise to fame of singer-actress Miley Cyrus (who was named Destiny at birth).
Characters from fiction also seem to influence naming. After the name Kayla was used for a character on the American soap opera Days of Our Lives, the name's popularity increased greatly. The name Tammy, and the related Tamara became popular after the movie Tammy and the Bachelor came out in 1957. Some names were established or spread by being used in literature. Notable examples include Pamela, invented by Sir Philip Sidney for a pivotal character in his epic prose work, The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia; Jessica, created by William Shakespeare in his play The Merchant of Venice; Vanessa, created by Jonathan Swift; Fiona, a character from James Macpherson's spurious cycle of Ossian poems; Wendy, an obscure name popularised by J. M. Barrie in his play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up; and Madison, a character from the movie Splash. Lara and Larissa were rare in America before the appearance of Doctor Zhivago, and have become fairly common since.
Songs can influence the naming of children. Jude jumped from 814th most popular male name in 1968 to 668th in 1969, following the release of the Beatles' "Hey Jude". Similarly, Layla charted as 969th most popular in 1972 after the Eric Clapton song. It had not been in the top 1,000 before.
Kayleigh became a particularly popular name in the United Kingdom following the release of a song by the British rock group Marillion. Government statistics in 2005 revealed that 96% of Kayleighs were born after 1985, the year in which Marillion released "Kayleigh".
Popular culture figures need not be admirable in order to influence naming trends. For example, Peyton came into the top 1000 as a female given name for babies in the United States for the first time in 1992 (at #583), immediately after it was featured as the name of an evil nanny in the film The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. On the other hand, historical events can influence child-naming. For example, the given name Adolf has fallen out of use since the end of World War II in 1945.
In contrast with these anecdotal evidence, a comprehensive study of Norwegian first name datasets shows that the main factors that govern first name dynamics are endogenous. Monitoring the popularity of 1000 names along 130 years, the authors have identified only five cases of exogenous effects, three of them are connected to the names given to the babies of the Norwegian royal family.
Where births are required to be officially registered, the entire name entered onto a births register or birth certificate may by that fact alone become the person's legal name. The assumption in the Western world is often that the name from birth (or perhaps from baptism or brit milah) will persist to adulthood in the normal course of affairs—notably throughout life for men, and until marriage for women. Some possible changes concern middle names, diminutive forms, and changes relating to parental status (due to one's parents' divorce, or adoption by different parents). Matters are very different in some cultures in which a birth name is for childhood only, rather than for life.
The French and English-adopted terms née and né (/neɪ/; French: [ne]; from French né[e], meaning 'born')[a] have been used to indicate maiden or married names. The term née, having feminine grammatical gender, can be used to denote a woman's surname at birth that has been replaced or changed. In most English-speaking cultures, it is specifically applied to a woman's maiden name after her surname has changed due to marriage. The term né, having masculine grammatical gender, can likewise be used to denote a man's surname at birth which has subsequently been changed or replaced. The diacritic marks (the acute accent) are considered significant to its spelling, and ultimately its meaning, but are sometimes omitted. According to Oxford University's Dictionary of Modern English Usage, the terms are typically placed after the second surname (e.g. 'Ann Smith née Jones' or 'Adam Smith né Jones'). Because they are terms adopted into English from French, they do not have to be italicized, but often are.
In the last century and well into the present one, grown-up British people, with rare exceptions, addressed each other by their surnames. What we now call first names (then Christian names) were very little used outside the family. Men who became friends would drop the Mr and use their bare surnames as a mark of intimacy: e.g. Holmes and Watson. First names were only generally used for, and among, children. Today we have gone to the other extreme. People tend to be on first-name terms from the moment of introduction, and surnames are often hardly mentioned. Moreover, first names are relentlessly abbreviated, particularly in the media: Susan becomes Sue, Terrence Terry and Robert Bob not only to friends and relations, but to millions who know these people only as faces and/or voices.quoted in Burchfield, R. W. (1996). The New Fowler's Modern English Usage (3rd ed.). p. 512. ISBN 978-0199690367.
Laws have existed since the French Revolution stating that 'no citizen can use a first name or surname other than that written on their birth certificate' – but many official organisations address both partners by the husband's surname.