The Name Game

In Genesis, Adam spent a great deal of his first days, naming everything that he saw. This is a good thing. Asking for the “whatcha-ma-call-it” can present some amazing results. Existence can be broken down into discrete objects. It is a tree, or a bush. It can also be a redwood, or a primrose. This does not come with genetic evolution. It is entirely conceived by humans thinking, and breaking things into manageable chunks. Fish swim, birds fly… uh oh.

Okay we do have flying fish, and penguins swim, but these are exceptions. And sometimes birds walk, and fish walk… more exceptions. Structured naming is still a difficult process. A little historical background…

In pre-history people seemed to function with one name. The name could be passed down from generation to generation. It could be an object, an animal, a characteristic, or possibly even a place name. Sometimes the culture was large enough that further naming was necessary to differentiate one individual from another. Often this was done by adding the father’s name as a second name. This became a classic standard in the Scandinavian naming pattern. My name is John, my father’s name is Edwin, so I could be known as John Edwin to be set apart from all those other Johns. Except that in the Scandinavian system the addition of “son” would be added, so I would be known as John Edwinsson, my brother would be Robert Edwinsson. My sister could be similar, or she could also be Gayle Fargo, because she was born on a farm in Fargo. Girls would generally use “datter” or “dotter”, so it would be Gayle Edwinsdatter. Then, shorter constructs were used, like “sen” or “son” for boys and “dtr” for girls.

This went on for hundreds of years until sometime in the late 1800s the patronymic style of naming in Scandinavia faded away. The “last name” became fixed. Today, only Iceland still uses the patronymic system.

The European and American naming system often uses three names, first name, middle name, and last name. The last name is the family name. The middle name could be anything, but often it is remembering a relative, or close friend. The first name could also be a family tradition. Many German families rotate two names from brother to brother, Frederick William, and then William Frederick. This doesn’t sound very organized but the source for most of the three name patterns was very organized. It was the Roman naming system.

In fact, the tri-nomen pattern was the most obvious sign of Roman citizenship. It started as a bi-nomen system with less than twenty different names used for the personal name, the praenomina. This identified each member of even large families with a personal connection. The second name was the nomen, or the family name, sometimes called the gen. This looks very similar to a standard that we have now. But even the nomen was limited.

As Rome grew, and the republic turn into the empire, Romans added a third name, the cognomen, a very complex name that served many purposes. The cognomen was at first a nickname, then it became hereditary and the aristocracy used it to further differentiate their families from others.

What is interesting is that generally, there were no more than twenty male names, and twenty feminine versions, that were used in combination for all Roman citizens. A scribe, or a clerk, knew everything about the individual by knowing the “nomens”.

Today we pride ourselves in knowing the “trinomial nomenclature.” of botany. Rome lives on!

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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