My dad wanted to name me Gretta. Greta? In fact, it may have been Gretl—he mentioned that he’d wanted to name me after the littlest girl among the von Trapp children in The Sound of Music—but he must have misremembered her name, and so I grew up believing that I was supposed to be Gretta.
I’m only assuming the name would have had a double t. It seems likely, given that my dad was responsible for my sister’s name, Christeena, a spelling wholly unique that was intended to make the “Christ” pop. (I was raised in the Bible Belt.) Plus, it just feels more balanced visually, which is something that I, an Anna, appreciate.
Anna is the name my mother won out with since my dad got to choose my sister’s name. She selected it—surprise!—for its biblical origins. Anna means “favor” or “grace.”
The figure I was named after apparently has the shortest bio in the Bible. Bible Gateway calls her the “most renowned of Bible widows,” which isn’t very inspiring. She was, however, the first Christian missionary (which feels kind of significant, since I thought I wanted to be a missionary), and she has her own Wikipedia page, formidably titled Anna the Prophetess.
Her only explicit Bible appearance is in the Gospel of Luke, where it is mentioned that she was “very old,” lived with her husband for seven (my favorite number) years before becoming a widow, and then remained single for the rest of her life (probably prophetic).
See how much meaning can be wrung out of a name? We are wired to scour our lives for significance, and one of the most basic ways we do this is through naming the new humans we create. Read on for five interesting baby-naming traditions from around the world.
In India, there are a number of different systems that may be used for naming children. According to Anu, a regional contributor from Mumbai, India, writing for Pocket Cultures, one common system uses the family name.
“This means that the first male child is named after the paternal grandfather, the second male child after the maternal grandfather, and so on, with the girls being named after their paternal and maternal grandmothers. Imagine the confusion this causes—with many children having the same name! In addition to this, in southern India a father’s name is used as a surname—what ensues is total chaos!”
Baby naming may also carry spiritual significance, with names being based on astrology or Hindu gods and goddesses.
“In the northern parts of the country, every star is associated with a letter of the alphabet, and a kid’s name begins with the [letter] of the constellation he/she is born under,” Anu writes. “In the south, the kid is named after the constellation itself (or a variation of the name). This is how I got my name—from the star named ‘Anuradha’ (in the constellation Scorpio).”
As for naming children after Hindu deities, this does nothing to narrow the choices. There are literally millions of them.
In the past, it was common for children in Costa Rica to receive three or four names, often the name of a saint that corresponded to the day they were born. Nowadays, according to Costa Rican Pocket Cultures contributor Nuria, the number of names has been bumped down.
She writes: “When I was born, I got two names, as did my sisters. The three of us received Spanish names, but other children got English names such as Karol, Alexander, Katherine and Johnny. It is very interesting to notice how, through time, the middle names have disappeared. It is now very common to give children only one name.
“My niece is called Tamara and my nephew, Felipe. Middle names are not that common anymore. In fact, children nowadays would be really surprised if they were told that their grandparents used to have three or more names!”
Though this is a traditional practice that is no longer as widespread, some sections of Turkish society still give baby names with religious ceremonies.
According to the Turkish Cultural Foundation: “The name, which has been selected beforehand, is given at a meeting held for the purpose. A clergyman or a respected devout individual gives the call to prayer and whispers the name of the baby into its ear three times. If no imam is present, the name is given by the father or grandfather of the child in the same way.”
One Turkey-based writer notes that the traditional practice of naming children after their grandparents—usually names from Arabic origins—has largely been replaced with the custom of giving more modern and original names.
According to Carrie, a writer from Bali, Indonesia, the naming system in Indonesia is pretty straightforward, with only birth order being the determinant of the name given.
“Wayan/Putu/Gede/Nengah: first born (most common are Wayan and Putu; I haven’t met a lot of people named Gede or Nengah)
“Made/Kadek: second born baby
“Nyoman/Komang: third born baby
“Ketut: fourth born baby.”
“All of the names above can be for either boys or girls. Balinese also often use only one name (i.e., no last name/family name) which means that in documents like a passport, it may only list one name! What this means essentially is that there are a lot of people named Wayan/Putu/Made/Kadek!”
If this sounds like it may get confusing, that’s because it can. In 2001, when the president of Indonesia was about to be removed from office, Slate devoted an explainer piece to the country’s naming traditions, titled “What’s With Indonesian Names?”
Juliet Lapidos, writing for Slate, explores the significance of Nigerian names. Many have likely wondered whether all of them are as loaded as those belonging to some of the country’s higher-profile figures, like former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, his wife Patience Jonathan, and former governor of Edo state Lucky Igbinedion.
The traditions vary greatly by ethnic group. Lapidos writes:
“Goodluck Jonathan is a Christian Ijaw from the southern part of the country. Many Ijaw have names passed down from the colonial era, often biblical ones like Jonathan (which probably started out as a first name for one of his ancestors). Some families prefer anglicized names, others don’t—but either way, names often express the parents’ expectations for the child or the circumstances surrounding its birth.”
The naming traditions of the Yoruba, in the southwest, are similar. According to Rosemary, a Nigerian contributor to Pocket Cultures, Yoruban names often relate to the circumstances in which the children entered the world.
For example, she writes, “Abiodun (boys) or Odunayo (unisex) acknowledges the closeness a child’s birth to celebrations like Easter, Christmas, or the New Year, while Abosede refers to girls born on Sunday.”
For another group in southern Nigeria, the Igbo, names can carry a more deterministic weight. “Traditional names may communicate concern for the kid’s future, like Dumaka, which means ‘Help me with hands.’ (As in, ‘I’m going to need some assistance here!’)” writes Lapidos. “Or faint annoyance, like Obiageli meaning ‘one who has come to eat.'”