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Naming Traditions In The United States

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The most important decision new parents must make is what to name their baby. After all, a person’s name can have an enormous impact on his/her life (see “Baby Name No-Nos”).

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Some families have their own traditional way of naming children. For instance, there’s the tried-and-true method of opening the Bible and pointing. If the finger lands on a name, or a word that can be a name (joy, hope), it’s easy, but what if it lands on “needy,” or “barren”? When that happens, parents can decide to use the name of the particular book of the Bible they landed in, such as Matthew, Timothy, or Ruth. Those are fine, but what if it’s Exodus, Deuteronomy, or Revelation? In such a case, using the first name mentioned on the page is acceptable, but if it’s something with a negative connotation, like Herod, the parents might decide to start over. In some families, however, the tradition is so strong, there is no starting over.



  • By law in colonial America, the eldest son inherited his father’s entire estate. He was usually given his father’s name so as to avoid any trouble should his father die without having made a will. As time went by, a father could give all his children the same middle name, which meant that he wanted all of them to inherit a part of his estate. [1]
  • Early in the 19th century, the “Old Jones naming pattern” developed, in which:
    • Sons
      • the first son was named after the paternal grandfather
      • the second son was named after the maternal grandfather
      • the third son was named after the father
      • the fourth son on down were named after the father’s brothers or friends
    • Daughters
      • the first daughter was named after the paternal grandmother
      • the second daughter was named after the maternal grandmother
      • the third daughter was named after the mother
      • the fourth daughter on down were named after the mother’s sisters or friends.
  • As one might expect, there are several variations of the Old Jones pattern:
    • Sons
      • the third son may be named after the father, or the father’s paternal grandfather
      • the fourth son may be named after the father’s eldest brother, or the mother’s paternal grandfather
      • the fifth son may be named after the mother’s eldest brother, the father’s maternal grandfather, or the father’s second eldest brother
      • the sixth son may be named after the father’s second eldest brother, or the mother’s maternal grandfather
    • Daughters
      • the first daughter may be named after the maternal grandmother
      • the second daughter may be named after the paternal grandmother
      • the third daughter may be named after the mother, or the mother’s maternal grandmother
      • the fourth daughter may be named after the mother’s eldest sister, or the father’s paternal grandmother
      • the fifth daughter may be named after the father’s eldest sister, the mother’s paternal grandmother, or mother’s second eldest sister
      • the sixth daughter may be named after the mother’s second eldest sister, or the father’s paternal grandmother.
  • If one parent died, and the other remarried, the first child born to that marriage was often named after the deceased parent.
  • If a child died, another child somewhere on down the line was often named after his/her deceased sibling.


Native American naming traditions varied greatly from tribe to tribe, but the names chosen were usually based on nature, animals, and virtues. Sometimes, a person had a different name for each stage of life: a baby name, an adolescent name, and an adult name. In the Navajo tribe, the given name was used only in ceremonies; otherwise people were simply called by their title, such as “Mother,” or “Son.” Some of these traditions are still used today.


As slaves, African Americans weren’t allowed to name their children; the slave owners did that. Sometimes they received new names on the ships that brought them from Africa. However, parents named their children in secret, and in their own communities they were known by the names their parents had given them. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that African Americans were allowed to name their children, and they began using names that had, until then, been prohibited. They also created names, looking to their African roots for inspiration; this practice became very common in the 1960s, and it helped establish a firm African American identity.


In Hawaii, it was believed that an ancestral god would give the child a name by sending a sign, sometimes in a vision or dream. If that name weren’t used, the child would be cursed, usually by being crippled in one way or another. Traditionally, Hawaiians had a spiritual name, a family name, and a nickname. Christian names are also used, but they have to be altered to fit the Hawaiian language. Find your Hawaiian name at; if it’s not on the list, you can send a request to have it added.


Mexico and other Hispanic countries are very heavily Catholic. In many families, all the girls are named Maria (Mary), after the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ, so they’re called by their individual middle names. Jesus, after Jesus Christ, is a common name for boys, which may seem odd in some cultures. However Joshua, a very common name in English-speaking countries, is derived from the same Hebrew name – Yehoshua – as Jesus. Another naming tradition in Hispanic countries is to name a child for the saint on whose name day they are born.


Though Puritan naming traditions are no longer in practice today, it’s worth taking a look at them if for no other reason than their entertainment value. Puritans gave their children the names of desirable virtues, some of which, like Joy, Hope, and Faith, are still in use today. Others, which have fallen out of use and aren’t very desirable, are Abstinence, Diffidence, Tribulation, Donation, and Wrestling, among others. They also used phrases as names, so some children ended up with the names: Fight-the-good-fight-of-faith, Job-raked-out-of-the-ashes, Sorry-for-sin, and Hate-evil. Flee-fornication was a name given to illegitimate children to remind them not to fall into the same sin their parents had. The first prize winner, however, is If-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned. The Puritans used all names for both sexes.


Knowledge of naming traditions and patterns is an indispensible tool for genealogists. For instance, if one has traced an ancestor back to the early 19th century and hit a brick wall, knowing that he was named after his maternal grandfather can provide the next piece of the puzzle.


Carden, Patricia. "Naming Patterns." Patricia Swallows Carden Genealogy Web Pages. Mar 2008. 28 May 2008 <>.

Cox, Jeanine. "Baby Naming Traditions around the World." Babyzone. BabyZone, Inc.. 28 May 2008 <.>.

Cox, Jeanine. "Baby Naming Traditions around the World." Babyzone. BabyZone, Inc.. 28 May 2008 <.>.


Kaina , Maria. "HAWAIIAN NAMING PRACTICES." Hawaiian Roots. Maria Kaina Associates, Inc.. 28 May 2008 <>.

Rabun , Joanne Todd. "Naming Traditions." The Gene Pool. 31 Mar 1998. 28 May 2008 <>.

"Finding Our History: African-American Names." Family Education. Pearson Education, Inc.. 28 May 2008 <>.

"Native American Naming Traditions." Sweet Grass Traditions. Sweet Grass Traditions . 28 May 2008 <>.

"Puritan Names." 28 May 2008 <>.

"Puritan Names." 28 May 2008 <>.

Author: Madeleine Wieder

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