Where Did Our Names Come From? The Origins May Surprise You

Posted on Categories Discover Magazine

What makes us human? Many answers would suffice, but in particular, our names offer an overlooked perspective on our humanity. Perhaps this is because names fall on somewhat of a nebulous side of our identity.

Names aren’t etched onto our DNA, and technically, they can be abandoned or customized at the whim of their owners. But for most, a name clings until the end of life and exists beyond death.

To understand how we distinguish one another with names, you would need to sift through unfathomably vast archives of information and decipher every single language. That pretty much defines the mission of anthroponymy — the study of humans’ names. As with any human invention, though, there must be a starting point; before branching cultural variations stretched the scope of naming systems, the concept of having a name first arose from prehistoric civilization. 

When Did We Start Writing Names?

Names have achieved lasting power through the use of the written word. Though oral tradition undoubtedly carried names throughout prehistory, recording them on stone tablets and papyrus scrolls better ensured their immortalization. 

No evidence has confirmed the existence of names among the earliest humans before writing appeared. However, they could communicate with each other in a variety of ways: spoken sounds, hand gestures and maybe even singing to attract mates. Perhaps they had their own version of primitive labels; a human’s hand stamped near a cave painting could be the original progenitor of a name. 

Four budding civilizations around the world — Mesopotamia, China, Egypt and Mesoamerica — revolutionized language by putting words on script. Historians generally believe these cultures developed writing independently at different times, with the first being Mesopotamia’s invention of cuneiform around 3200 B.C. These systems evolved over thousands of years to become the writing used around the world today.

The first person to ever write their name, historians suspect, did so as part of his job. His name might have been “Kushim,” inscribed at the bottom of a Sumerian clay tablet around 5,000 years ago. Alternatively, Kushim could have been the man’s title or the name of his office or a larger institution. As a sanga — the head of an administrative unit in ancient Babylonia — he was responsible for keeping track of barley production. He accomplished this through writing, a skill only known by officials at the time. 

Read More: How Humans Invented Writing — Four Different Times

What Was The Purpose of Names Throughout History?

Attaching names to documents became a crucial part of accounting and record keeping. Several ancient cultures relied only on single names; ancient Greeks, like the famed philosophers Plato (“broad-shouldered”) and Aristotle (“the best purpose”), had no known surnames. 

The Romans, possibly inspired by the Etruscan culture in ancient Italy, followed a more involved naming system in which people had two, three, or four names to indicate lineage and social standing. Early Romans had a praenomen (a given name) and a nomen (a hereditary name based on a family, or gens, with a common ancestor). Later on, they adopted cognomen (original surnames). Some earned an exclusive fourth name, an agnomen (like a nickname), based on accomplishments. 

Consider Gaius Julius Caesar, the iconic Roman emperor. We know him simply by his cognomen “Caesar,” or as “Julius Caesar.” Julius wasn’t his first name, but the name that meant he came from the affluent patrician gens Julia. 

As the Roman Empire crumbled, Europe once again reverted back to mostly single names. Surnames wouldn’t see a revitalization until the early Middle Ages. The Domesday Book — Britain’s earliest public record, completed in 1086 — marked the appearance of several English surnames that have lived on to this day. 

In these early centuries, names were undergoing metamorphosis beyond Europe. During the Zhou dynasty in Ancient China (1046-256 B.C.), aristocracy had clan names that conveyed great prestige. The names lost symbolic weight when the Qin dynasty began in 221 B.C. China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, abolished the old feudal system and built a centralized government, a sweeping change that coincided with non-noble families acquiring surnames. 

Did Names Symbolize Power?

Names have maintained order in civilizations since ancient times, yet their spread across cultures has not always been harmless. Names were often forced upon populations as a means of cultural assimilation, a grim byproduct of expanding empires and colonization.

This is just one way that names have served an implicit role of communicating power dynamics in society. For this reason, they aren’t solely words to scribble on paper; they’ve also functioned as barometers for social conflicts.

Read More: Game Theory Explains Why Popular Baby Names Come and Go

What Are Naming Customs Around The World?

Studying the origin of every single name would probably take an entire lifetime. For the uninitiated, it’s best to start with prevalent naming customs around the world. Here are a few examples.

Western Europe

People from primarily English-speaking countries would be most familiar with the first name-surname tradition in the Anglosphere and many Western European countries. But not every culture follows this same order. 

Eastern Slavic

Eastern Slavic names present a slight variation. They go by personal name, patronymic name and then surname. A patronymic name is based on the first name of the father, and it changes based on the gender of the child. If a father’s name is Ivan, the patronymic would be Ivanovich for a son and Ivanovna for a daughter. 


Arabic names also have a patronymic element. They often go by a personal name, one or more patronymic names (identifying a father, grandfather, so on) and a surname. They may also include additional honorific names and descriptive names that hold religious significance.

East Asia

In certain East Asian cultures (China, Japan, Korea), the naming order is flipped, with a family name addressed first and a personal name second. Chinese personal names have one or two characters that often symbolize aspirations for a child. 

Read More: Your Native Language May Wire the Brain in Unique Ways

What Do First Names Signify? 

Choosing first names opens up a nearly unlimited array of options, although parents can’t name their child just anything. Naming laws in various countries prevent some taboo names and restrict the use of particular symbols or characters. Hundreds of well-established first names, however, have stood the test of time.

Many classic names manage to pack a mountain of historic information into a syllable or two. Take the name John. It lives among numerous forms that have all branched off over the years: Jean, Juan, Giovanni, Evan, Ian. That’s not to mention female variations and related nicknames. 

With so many options, how do parents choose first names? Look at the name Olivia, which has consistently hit the top charts for baby names the past few years. The name was popularized by Shakespeare — who used it for a character in his play, “Twelfth Night” — and came from the Latin word for olive (oliva).

Do parents pick the name Olivia because they are avid Shakespeare fans, or because they adore olive trees? Maybe this is true for some, but these aren’t the reasons why the name continues to thrive. The reason that parents choose names doesn’t have to be so literal; it could be a matter of honoring a family member, conveying religious beliefs or manifesting the latest trends. Just as language itself evolves, the popularity of names changes every decade. 

Read More: How Language Shapes Our Understanding of Reality

What Do Surnames Signify? 

Surnames embody meanings that were bestowed upon our ancestors centuries ago. Multiple types of surnames exist today.

Parental Surname

A parental surname takes influence from a father or mother’s name. Back when surnames first appeared, a man with a father named “John” could have been given the surname “Johnson.”

Occupational Surname

Occupational surnames were originally assigned based on one’s job in Medieval society. Many English-based examples are rather self-explanatory (Smith, Weaver, Potter, etc.). Gender also plays a role in English occupational surnames. The surname “Baker” designated a man who bakes, while “Baxter” designated a woman who bakes. 

Locational Surname

Clues on where your ancestors once resided come from locational surnames, derived from general areas — “Hill” or “Lake” — or more specific towns/cities/regions. 

Descriptive Surname

Descriptive surnames may originate from physical traits. The frequent surname “Brown” might have been used to describe someone with darker-colored hair, clothing or complexion. Descriptive surnames can also be symbolic in nature, referring to one’s personality or other abstract traits.

Some surnames are loosely tied to these categories or not related to them at all, such as ones derived from animals or religious figures. 

Since their inception, names have become building blocks for human identity. They may seem ordinary upon first glance, but look a little closer and you’ll start to go down the most fascinating rabbit hole in all of human language.

Read More: How Names and Words Shape the Way We Perceive People and Things

Article Sources

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