About Names

Names are those given to (or adopted by) individuals to help identify them from others. Although naming conventions vary around the world, virtually every single human being has a personal name, known as a "first" name to Westerners. Most individuals also have a "family" name, known as a "surname" or "last" name in Western cultures, that distinguishes them as part of their family or clan. The study of personal names is called onomastics.

Personal Names

Personal names are derived from many sources. In Western nations, the most prevalent personal names have their roots in the Jewish and Christian religious traditions. In Africa, many personal names describe individual personality or visual traits. In Asia, it is common for personal names to be handed down through the generations in families, especially in countries where ancestry plays a crucial role in the social structure.

Family Names

Family names developed as a way to identify members of the same families or clans. In most cultures, family names are patronymic, meaning they derive from the name of either the original father of the clan or from the father of the individual. In most cultures, the family name comes after the personal name; however, this is the reverse in much of Asia. Some nations, including Iceland and Hungary, are particularly known for their unique naming conventions.


Many people adopt a "nickname," or informal personal name. In most Western nations, nicknames come in the form of hypocorisms, or diminutives of their personal names. For example, an Englishman named Edward may use "Ed" or "Eddie" as a nickname; a Latina woman named Juana may go by "Juanita." Many hypocorisms have become personal names of their own, like Frank (from Franklin) and Sally (from Sarah).

Other Names

Many other types of names exist around the world. In many professions, it is common to adopt names used specifically for work – for example, many actors adopt stage names, and writers often choose a nom de plume to use when publishing. Activists and military figures who do not want their identities revealed frequently adopt noms de guerre.

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