What’s in a Name?

Our name is one of the biggest parts of our individual identity. Almost every person on Earth has a name. But how does our identity interact with the customs and the cultural aspects of the place we live in?

When were surnames created?

English-speaking countries began registering surnames around the year 1400. Before that, patronymic names were mostly used. Johnson, for example, means “son of John.”

There are almost 1,800 surnames officially registered in most countries throughout the world.

How Are Surnames Given?

In Western countries, the general assumption is that a personal name consists of a given name and a family name, in that order. However, this is not always the case in other parts of the world.

There are three structure sets for personal names:

  • Western order: Given Name(s) followed by Surname
  • Eastern order: Surname followed by Given Name(s)
  • Tribal order: Given Name only

Needless to say, there are many exceptions to these rules. In situations that involve lists (a roll call, for instance), the Eastern format is commonly used, even in Western countries.

When transliterating some Eastern-ordered personal names — from Japanese, for example – it can be difficult to recognize the correct order, as it can be in either Western or Eastern style.

Other common practices in English-speaking countries is that children take on their father’s surname and spouses adopt their husband’s surname after marriage. While this is often the case in non-English-speaking countries as well, in countries like Turkey, Croatia, Albania, Western Europe in general, Thailand, and some French-speaking this assumption would be incorrect.


For the most part, Indian surnames follow the U.K. system. However, in the South of India, there are many exceptions to this rule. In fact, the following name structure is a common one: your father’s given name followed by your own given name.


In Russia, a person’s full name structure is: Given Name + Patronymic + Surname. The patronymic is based on the father’s given name, with a suffix attached indicating “son of” or “daughter of.” Similar systems are used in Poland, Hungary, Macedonia, Iceland, and Greece.


If a spouse chooses not to take on a common surname, they must appoint a special ehename or “family name,” which their children will inherit. 

West Africa

The Akans of Ghana and Ivory Coast name their children after the day of the week and the order in which they were born. A famous example is the current Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Atta Annan, named for being born on a Friday (kofi), as one part of a set of twins (atta), and as the fourth born (annan). To complicate things further, Ghana has 47 recognized local languages.