It is nearly universal for a person to have a name; the rare exceptions occur in the cases of mentally disturbed parents, or wild children growing up in isolation. A personal name is usually given at birth or at a young age, and is usually kept throughout life; there might be additional names indicating family relationships, area of residence, and so on. The details of naming are strongly governed by culture; some are more flexible about naming than others, but for all cultures where historical records are available, the rules are known to change over time.
Common components of true names given at birth include:
- Given name: Universal. In most of Western culture, the given name precedes the family name; some other cultures place it after the family name, or use no family name.
- Patronymic: The given name of a relative, usually the father or mother, or a name derived from this. Many family names are derived from patronymics.
- Family name: A name used by all members of a family. In Europe, the common use of family names started quite early in some areas (France in the 13th century, and Germany in the 16th century, but it often didn't happen until much later in areas that used a patronymic naming custom, such as the Scandinavian countries, Wales, and some areas of Germany. The compulsory use of surnames varied greatly. France required a priest to write surnames in baptimal records in 1539 (but didn't require surnames for Jews, who usually used patronymics, until 1808). On the other hand, compulsory surnames in the Scandinavian countries did not happen until the 20th century (1923 for Norway). Before the use of family names, people were often referred to by a description or nickname, their place of birth or residence, their occupation, or their parent's name.
- Middle name: Least common. In royal or aristocratic families, several middle names honoring ancestors, relatives, or political allies are commonly given. In many families, single middle names are simply alternative names, names honoring an ancestor or relative, or, for married women, occasionally their maiden names. Many Catholic families choose a saint's name as their child's middle name or this can be left until the child's confirmation when they choose a saint's name for themselves.
Some people (called anonyms) choose to be anonymous, that is, to hide their true names, for fear of governmental prosecution or societal ridicule of their works or actions. Another method to disguise one's identity is to employ a pseudonym.
The Inuit believe that the souls of the namesakes are one, so they traditionally refer to the junior namesakes, not just by the names (atiq), but also by kinship title, which applies across gender and generation without implications of disrespect or seniority. In Judaism, someone's name is considered intimately connected with his fate, and changing a name (e.g. on the sickbed) may avert a particular danger.
Depending on national convention, additional given names (and sometimes titles) are considered part of the name.
In contemporary Western society (except for Iceland), the most common naming convention is that of a given name, usually indicating the child's sex, followed by the parents' family name. In earlier times, Scandinavian countries followed patronymic naming, with people effectively called "X son/daughter of Y"; this is now the case only in Iceland.
Different cultures have different conventions for personal names. This is a list of articles about particular cultures' naming conventions.
Since a name is made up of several parts, the order in which those parts are arranged can be significant. The order family name, given name is known as the eastern order and is used in East Asian cultures such as China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Vietnam, as well as in Hungary. The order given name, family name is known as the western order and is used in the Americas and Europe.
When East Asian names are transliterated into the Latin alphabet, some prefer to convert them to western order at the same time, while others leave them in eastern order but write the family name in capital letters. To avoid confusion, some always write a family name in capital letters, especially when writing for an international audience.
Nonhuman personal names
Apart from the Linnaean taxonomy, some individual nonhuman animals and plants are given names, usually of endearment.
In some cultures, pets or sporting animals are sometimes given names similar to human names. Other cultures, such as the Chinese, give the animals nonhuman names, because it would be offensive and disrespectful to the person of the same name; even cultures that give human names to animals sometimes do so to an ugly animal to insult the bearer of the name. For examples of nonhuman names,
- An emperor during the Three Kingdoms period, Liu Bei's horse was called "Dilu" (的盧), meaning "Truly Dark," which might be metaphorically named for the ill fate it supposedly brought its previous owners.
- Liu Bei's general, Guan Yu's horse was "Chi Tu" (赤兔), meaning "Red Hare," reflecting on the amazing speed of the horse.
In bonsai, some plants are given adjectival names, such as "The Cloud of Joyful Memories."
Personal Name Trivia
- Teller, of the magician duo Penn and Teller, has no given names. (He was named Raymond Joseph Teller by his parents but removed the inital names by deed poll.) In offical government documents (such as his driver's license) his given name is listed as NFN, meaning "no first name".