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A new great-granddaughter has just been born. Her parents called her Juniper. I thought it was a beautiful name, but I was curious because it is a type of tree. I spoke to my grandson who said that several of their friends called their children by names of trees, wanting to be environmentally sensitive. They mentioned friends who named their sons Oak and Ash and a daughter named Willow.

It got me started thinking about the different categories that people’s names fall into like flowers, gems, months of the year, colors etc. Over the years, people have named their daughters Rose, Daisy, Violet, Iris. In French, a daisy is called a daisy, hence Margaret. Then there are names of gemstones such as Amber, Opal, Pearl, and Ruby. There are names after the months of the year, April, May and June; a popular name in France is Auguste. I was interviewed once by someone named January Jones. There is also a name representing the time of day, Dawn.

Then there are common surnames referring to the colors, like Miss White, Mr. Black, Ms. Brown, Gray, Green, Gold or Silver. My parents had a neighbor named Ben Blue, and I had a student whose last name was Orange. As a redhead, I was often called Red. I know someone named after the planet Venus and someone else called Starr.

There are also naming conventions. For example, in Spain children have both their mother’s and father’s last names, hence Pablo Ruiz Picasso. In Jewish tradition, a newborn son should be named by the name of his father or grandfather, but only if he is deceased. In Christian tradition, boys are often named Junior or third or fourth. There are cases where a child’s first name is the last name of an ancestor.

In the past, surnames represented professions such as baker or tailor. There are patronymic names such as Johnson, son of John, although no one remembers someone called John in the ancestral line. In Arabic, the prefix Bin (as in Bin Laden) or Ibn (Ibn Saud) also means “son of”. The same is true in Israel for the prefix Ben, as in Ben Gurion. The Mac or Scottish Mc, like McGregor, and the Irish O, like in O’Brien, also represent heritage. However, in Greece, instead of a prefix, they use a suffix such as Dimitropoulos, son of Dimitrios. Interestingly, all of the above names were sons of, not daughters of… In other words, the lineage is only on the male side. Parents often hope that a boy has the last name.

In France, the prefix of or originally designated the place where we come from, as with one of our commentators: Lisa des Jardins, which translates as “Lisa des jardins”. In Japan, the last name comes first, followed by the first name, indicating the importance of the family. In China, names are also in this order and the first name is often a trait that the child is hoped to have.

According to Russian tradition, my name at birth was Natalia Mironovna, or daughter of Miron, which was my father’s first name, while my brother’s name was Alexander Mironovich, son of Miron. However, over the generations, all of these names have lost their original intent.

Names also go through fashion cycles. I remember a few generations ago Biblical names were popular and I knew Noah, Joshuas, and Adams. Nowadays, it is popular for girls to have traditionally male first names or non-sexist first names like Robin, Jordan or Alexis. However, it is not common for boys to be given names of girls.

We also use diminutives. For example, Elizabeth is often referred to as Beth, Betty, Betsy or Liz. Then there are endearing nicknames such as Honey or Sugar, or even some animal names such as Kitten or Monkey. You should also check the way the initials are spelled; for example, Sally Ann Davis, comes out as SAD, or Mark Anthony Dixon, whose initials spell MAD. Recently, women who get married tend to keep their maiden name or cut their last name, using both their young daughter’s and their husband’s last name.

The names given to us at birth reflect our heritage, culture and family ties as well as how we see ourselves and how we are seen in the world.

Natasha Josefowitz is the author of 21 books. She currently resides at the White Sands Retreat Community in La Jolla. Copyright © 2021. Natasha Josefowitz. All rights reserved.


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