What’s in a name? How did we even end-up having names? It’s thought humans started using very simplistic language about 100,000 years ago when we were hunter gatherers, but language became a lot more complex when we started farming and living in communities. If you’ve read Yuval Noah Harari’s book, ‘Sapiens’, you’ll know that he writes about the first written language of Sumerian. This was spoken in southern Mesopotamia – presently known as Iraq. He mentions a 5,000-year-old clay tablet that seems to have been used for accounting purposes, and on it it’s written that 29,086 measures of barley have been received. It was signed-off by someone called Kushim. This might be the first ever recorded name, although in other languages such as Chinese, symbols are thought to have designated a name. Today we are going to explore nomenclature, in this episode of the Infographics Show, Most Popular Names Around the World.
First of all we should point out that a lot of western names originate in the bible, and are slightly different in each language they are used. The name John, for instance, comes from the Hebrew name of Yochanan. It means ‘Yahweh is Gracious’. Yochanan certainly had legs, becoming John, Juan, Jan, Jóhann, Joan, Jean, Jens, Hans, Janis and more. The name Jack was actually a nickname for John, but later it became a name itself. Religion features in another of the world’s most common given names, and that is Mohamed. It also has lots of similar sounding variants all over the world. It means something that is praiseworthy. Family names took a while to become the norm in most societies, and were mostly attributed to the area a person came from or the occupation of a person. Smith, for example, was someone who worked with metal. Other common examples are Cook, Baker, Knight, Farmer, Glover, Carpenter, and Carter. In Europe, you might also be called after your father, so Williamson was the son of William. Then there are names that seem self-explanatory, such as Savage, which is derived from someone who was untamed, a person of the wild.
Let’s start with the USA. The most common male name over the last one hundred years in the U.S. according to the Department of Social Security is James. The most popular female first name is Mary. The number of James’s born in the U.S. from 1917-2016 was 4,815,847. John, Robert, Michael and William are not too far behind. The number of Mary’s born was 3,455,228, followed by Patricia, Jennifer, Elizabeth and Linda. Both James and Mary are New Testament names, and obviously have staying power. The United States Census Bureau tells us that the most common surname is Smith, and has been for decades. It’s followed by Johnson, Williams, Brown and Jones. While all these names look as though they originated in the UK, they also encapsulate other nationalities whose former name was made to sound more English.
Speaking of the UK, does it have a similar name trend as its former colony? The answer is yes. A 2017 report by data intelligence specialists tells us that the most common given name for a male in the UK over the last century is William, followed by George, Thomas, James and Charles. Mohamed is also very common nowadays, but it’s also spelled different ways. According to the same report only two girl’s names have stayed popular over the last century, and those names are Elizabeth and Sarah. While it seems there are stalwarts on the common names list, things are changing in the UK. The most popular names given to newborns in 2016 according to the online baby name database, Nameberry, are James, Elijah, Jayden, Eliot, and also for girls the names Astrid, Thea, Sadie and Riley. In the UK the most common surname is Smith, followed by Jones, Williams, Taylor and Davies. Another very common name is Li, the Chinese name seen the most.
China has the largest population in the world as you probably know, at 1.379 billion. Numerous sources give different results on common first names in China, but as far as first names go for boys names that appear on many lists are Wei, Chen, Liu and Li. For girls the names that appear are Mei, Xueying, Li, Meng, and Fang. The most common surnames in China are Wang, Li, Zhang and Liu. One difference from how we say English names is that the surname comes first in China, so you wouldn’t be called Wei Zhang, you’d be called Zhang Wei. And yes, many people have the same first and last name, such as the many famous Li Li’s.
Over to the second most populated nation on Earth, India. Again various lists give different answers. It does seem though that in terms of male names the most popular boy’s name in India right now is Aarav. We should say here though that this list is the most popular chosen name for a new born. It doesn’t seem that any comprehensive historical statistics of Indian first names are available. Aarav means peace and wisdom. Following it in popularity are the names Reyansh, Mohamed (all spellings), Vihaan, Ayaan and Atharv. The most popular girls’ names in the same report were Aadhya, Ananya, Shanaya, Fatima and Sri. As for Indian surnames, they usually denote a region, religion, occupation, or even a caste. A caste is a system which designates a kind of birthright. The most prevalent surnames in the country are Singh, Kumar, Das, Kaur and Mandal. Singh means lion, while Mandal means group. Other common names are Sharma, Patel and Khan. India is so ethnically diverse, though, that it doesn’t really have a comparison to the English, John Smith.
Let’s go to the other side of the world now and look at Brazil. The most common name for a man in Brazil by a long way is Jose. The name comes from Hebrew and is linked with the English name Joseph. According to the same 2016 survey, the other most common given names for men in Brazil are Joao (jwow), Antonio, Francisco and Carlos. For women there is a similar disproportion to that of the male Jose, in that Maria is way out in front of all other female given names. Following Maria comes Ana, Francisca, Antonia and Adriana. The name Maria actually accounts for around six percent of the entire population. This means in the English version of the most common couple, that couple would be called Mary and Joseph, which perhaps sounds familiar to anyone who is Christian. As for last names, the vast majority of common last names have Portuguese origin. The most common of which is Silva, followed by Santos, Sousa, Oliveira and Pereira.
What about countries with strange naming customs? Iceland is one such country. There you don’t have a surname relating to family historic lineage for the most part, but relating to the mother or father’s first name. So if the dad is called Jon the boy will be called Jonson. The daughter will be called Jónsdóttir. Sometimes it’s the mother’s name that is used. Singer Bjork’s full name is actually Björk Guðmundsdóttir. Other Fennoscandia countries had this system in the past but most have now changed. According to the Iceland review the most common names in the country, at least in 2014, was Aron for guys and Katrín for girls. Does this mean we can expect a lot of Aronson’s and Katrindottirs in the future?
Thailand is another country with an unusual naming system. Firstly, given names are quite formal and are generally used only for administrative purposes or in formal environments. Almost all the time a nickname will be used, one that was given at birth. This could relate to how the child looks, such as being given a nickname that relates to chubbiness, cuteness, or a small or large size. It might also relate to what the father or mother likes, and so often kids get English names like Art, Beer, Cake and Golf. You might also get the Thai name for an animal, such as Sueu (tiger) or Moo (pig). To make matters more confusing Thais might change their formal given name to get rid of bad spirits and bad luck. This could happen a few times in one’s life depending on how superstitious or prone to bad luck the person is. The name change sometimes happens after a job loss or a broken heart. As for last names, they were only introduced in Thailand by law in 1913. There are lots of them and none of them too common as families were asked to create unique names. Some of them are long and extremely hard to pronounce.
So, do you have an unusual name? If so, where does it come from? And why not let us know in the comments what name you plan to give your own children?