What's in a name?
Posted on 2018-Oct-24 at 12:08:29 by Phil
In most US-centric computer/web forms, you see “First Name”,
“Middle Initial”, and “Last Name” fields for your name.
The problem is, this doesn’t fit in well with naming conventions around
- In East Asia (China, Japan, Korea, etc.) the convention is to give the
family’s name first. “Mao Zedong” was the son of Mr. and Mrs.
Mao, not Mr. and Mrs. Zedong. Asking someone from East Asia, especially if
they’re still there or have just arrived in the West, for their
“First” and “Last” name can be confusing and ambiguous.
“Surname” and “Family name” may be better to use than
- Icelanders still frequently use the old Norse practice of giving the
father’s given name plus “son” or “dottir”
(daughter) as the “family” name. Say your father’s name is
Erik Johansson (“Erik, son of Johan”) and you are Leif and your
sister is Hallveig. Your name would be Leif Erikson and your sister would be
Hallveig Eriksdottir (and will usually keep her name upon marriage). A surname
like Johansson would not be passed down from generation to generation. That
must make genealogy and mail delivery quite interesting!
- Spaniards (and their culture elsewhere) traditionally give a child a
surname of the father’s first surname (patronymic) followed by the
mother’s first surname (matronymic). Thus, a family name may not be fully
handed down from generation to generation, but the father’s part may
- What to call the “first” part (non-family) name, that
distinguishes you from your parents and siblings? “First name”
could be confusing to East Asians (is the reference to the physically first
name, which is the family name, or to the second name?). “Given”
name is fairly safe, although it probably goes back to being
“given” at a baptism (Christian practice), and therefore may be
offensive to some. “Christian” name should be avoided unless
you’re sure the person is Christian — it’s likely to be
highly offensive to non-Christians. “Forename” is sometimes used,
but most people would have no idea what it means.
- “Middle” name usage is all over the place. Germans don’t
seem to be particularly fond of them, while across the North Sea, the English
use them with abandon. A child there may be given a half dozen middle names,
but day-to-day use at most one. In the US, one middle name seems to be very
common. Anyway, take this into account if you’re thinking about making a
Middle Initial mandatory input — will someone with no middle name still
be required to enter something, and what’s someone with multiple
middle names supposed to enter? And finally, how should a middle name like
“van de Bogart” be initialized?
- Some cultures (e.g., Indonesian) frequently only use a single name for a
person, although formally they may have a family name, too. At least be
sensitive to that.
Unless you need to separate out parts of a name, why not just leave
one single, long, name field? If you’re mailing a letter or package to
someone overseas, you’re just going to end up gluing the name back
together to address it. If you really need the separate pieces for some reason,
it may be best to use several labels for each, in the manner of a passport:
First name/Given name/Forename, and Last name/Family name/Surname.
If given in that order, it may be annoying to East Asians, so consider flipping
it around to Last, First, MI.