The Meaning of Names

For parents-to-be, choosing the forename of their baby can be both an exciting and daunting decision. For one thing, forenames have meanings. So, my forename ‘Jane’ is apparently a feminine form of ‘John’, which itself derives from the Hebrew name Johanan, meaning ‘God is gracious’. You can look up the meaning of your forename here.

I’m pretty sure my (non-religious parents) were unaware of its meaning when they chose my forename. I think their choice was more to do with trends and popularity of names at the time. In the 1960s, when I was born, Jane (along with Susan, Julie, Karen, Jacqueline, Deborah, Tracey, Helen, Diane, Sharon) was a top ten name for newborn girls in the UK. In 2013, Jane was not even a top 100 forename for newborn girls.

Names as cultural workhorses: age, sex and gender, and ethnicity and race

Sociologists are becoming more interested in the meaning of names, but not in the sense of George deriving from the Greek word ‘georgos’ meaning farmer, or Charles deriving from German and meaning ‘free man’. Instead, sociologists are interested in the meaning of names in terms of what I call ‘the cultural work’ that forenames and surnames do – what they tell us about a person’s  individual and social identity, and how names relate to people’s experiences and opportunities in society.

One aspect of the cultural work that names do is in terms of age. The fact that forenames wax and wane in popularity means there is an age distribution to forenames. Only 2% of the population aged under 20 have the forename Jane and the average age of individuals called Jane is 69 years old. In comparison, the average age of individuals called Elle is 10 years old. Forenames can be used, then, as a rough and ready guide to ‘age’ a person or to suggest their likely birth cohort.

Another aspect of the cultural work that forenames do is in terms of sex and gender. Invariably, forenames are sex and gender specific. This means they can be used as a robust predictor of an individual’s sex and gender (within particular cultural contexts).  There are very few names that are androgynous: most forenames are either exclusively girls’ names or exclusively boys’ names. Forenames, then, do important cultural work in ‘displaying’ sex and gender and are also important in helping ‘create’ gendered identities in the first place.

Names (forenames and surnames) also do cultural work in relation to ethnicity and racialized identities – and not always with favourable outcomes. Some studies have looked at the links between surnames, ethnicity and job opportunities. In the UK, a 2009 study for the Department of Work and Pensions  tested for racial discrimination in recruitment practices by sending out sets of equivalent applications to job vacancies across the UK, using names commonly associated with minority groups. It was found that, in order to secure a job interview, 74% more applications from candidates with ethnic minority names had to be sent out compared to candidates with ‘white’ names.

So, names are very important cultural workhorses: they can tell us a lot about social and cultural identities. Our forenames and our surnames matter a great deal socially and culturally, in both positive and negative ways.

What does YOUR name say about you?

Find out more

Finch, J. (2008) Naming Names: Kinship, Individuality and Personal Names. Sociology 42 (4): 709-725.

Hanks, P., Hardcastle, K. and Hodges, F. (2006) A Dictionary of First Names, Oxford: Oxford University Press.