Why do people not have more unique names than they do?

I notice that consistently, even in other non-English speaking cultures, typically names are reused and limited so that the average person does not have that distinct of a first name. For instance, Muhammad, John, “Kim”, are extremely common causing much redundancy. This is corrected I suppose with surnames, but still creates lots of ambiguity, since people would prefer to address others by their first name as it is easier but “John” becomes ambiguous otherwise.

For instance, in Korea the surnames Kim, Lee, and Park are held by 40% of the population. Surnames that are balanced by other names but still…

It just seems that there would be more distinct names. Are languages that are polysynthetic like the American Indian ones better at creating distinct names? It seems like when it comes to names people are very unimaginative. I suppose a THX style 8124123497 number instead of a name is a step too far, but still.

old habits die hard is a good reason

Remembering names is hard enough already.

I agree. Uniqueness is easily available with the combination of first and last names so common single names just make life easier. Original and uncommon names are unfamiliar to people and easily lead to mispronunciation and misspelling. Notice some people are very proud if their unfamiliar names but it seems far more will go by a nickname that’s less confusing.

For official purposes everyone should have GUID to avoid confusion.

Names are signaling devices and always have been (If I tell you someone’s name is Mackenzie, you already have an impression of them. If I tell you their name is Deshaun, you have another impression.) If names were hyper-unique, then they would cease to be signaling devices and lose one of their major purposes. We like the ability to signal, so parents typically give their children signaling names.

Globalization of communication of media and communication has made everyone more open to variation in names, but if you go back a hundred years or more, people were a lot more limited in their experience and standing out was often less beneficial than it might be today. (If you go back even further the trend might reverse, and some cultures have always named kids with more variability.)

So if you were an Norwegian immigrant kid in late 19th century Wisconsin baptized Gulbrann, and you lived or worked outside the Scandinavian communities, you probably went by Gilbert, and you definitely didn’t follow the tradition of naming your first son after your father Torkjell.

Maybe people like sharing their names with their children.

The Roman gentry used three or more names, but that didn’t always avoid the problem: Gaius Julius Caesar the famous Dictator was the son of another Gaius Julius Caesar, who was the son of another Gaius Julius Caesar, who was the son of another Gaius Julius Caesar. That final Gaius had an uncle Gaius, but his father was Sextus, presumably the sixth-born son.

Scots often name their first son after his paternal grandfather; hence the 3rd High Steward was Walter fitz Alan fitz Walter fitz Alan. The 7th Cambpell Earl of Argyll was Archibald fitz Colin fitz Archibald fitz Colin fitz Archibald fitz Colin fitz Archibald.

In Thailand, surnames are almost all rare and there are many forenames to choose from, especially for women. Thus they could approach name uniqueness. They get around this by calling almost everyone by a one-syllable nickname, some of which are quite common. You might know someone for years while learning neither the fore- nor sur-name on their birth certificate!

For most of history you were exposed to a really limited number of people, so it didn’t really matter that there were a million Johns in the world, it mattered only that there were three in your town–John the smith, John the chandler, and John the cooper, and that is easy to work with.

Of course, it is a no win situation, as when you *do *produce unique names you get made fun of for that. Poor Lemonjello…

An exception is the trend toward distinctive and even unique names in African American culture, including many newly-minted names using prefixes like De- or La- and suffixes like -iqua, -isha, and -ique. For example, I know a young woman whose name is “Unique”.

I have one of the most common English first names, at least in part because my mother didn’t want my name to limit my opportunities in life like “Shaliqua” or something might.
But I wish she’d picked something a little less common. Any environment where there are, say, 15 or more people there’s bound to be someone with the same name as me.

Oh another thing. I live in China.

Picking first names here is done very carefully and usually has to use characters that imply honor, intelligence, grace etc. Accordingly, there are a few first names that are very common.

However when people later in life need to pick an English name for themselves, it’s much more free-form. Genuinely these are some of the people I know or work alongside (not a cherry-picked list of crazy names): Fish, Cloud, Seven, Macnugget, Wing, Billboard, Gryffindor

Uniqueness in names would soon run out of good choices. I guess it would take a very long time to exhaust ALL unique choices, but all the GOOD ones are a much smaller set. Nobody really wants to be called Aaaaaaa, but even if they were, Aaaaaa and Aaaaaaaa would still be different unique names, right? And while the odd uniqueness of Davyd might attract someone to it, Dtvid and Davrid are probably more like unique-but-useless.

And for every vowel-heavy English name like Aaaaaaa or Eeeeeee, there are far more of the consonant-heavy ones like Bbbbbbb or Npnpgkj.

Furthermore, people will still like signals, so in some families those last two names would be DeBbbbbbb and LaNpnpgkj. :slight_smile:

When someone has a Cre8tiv name, or worse, a familiar name with a weird spelling, I have an impression of their parents, and it’s not all that favorable.

A poor kindergarten teacher I knew once had a morning class back when variations of Brittany were popular, that had something like five girls with the name, all with variant spellings: she had a Brittany, a Britney, a Britni, and Bretagne (seriously-- I remember that one for sure), and a Brittony. She also, to make it more fun, had a Brianna (Bre-ANNA) and a Bretta in the same class, and then in the afternoon, she had a Brianna pronounced differently (Bre-AHNAH), and a Breyona, as well as a boy named Brian.

She was supposed to remember which spelling went with which kid, and the parents got really irate if she mixes them up.

If every girl had been spelled and pronounced the same, and she could have called them by their first name and an initial, it would have been much easier to remember. The human brain works better that way.

Believe me. My parents gave me a name that sounds normal to Jews, but that most gentiles have never encountered. I get one of three different pronunciations, and I just answer to whatever people go with. I also answer to Yiddish speakers who call me “Rifka.” Then my parents went and stuck a phoneme in my middle name that does not even exist in English. People are supposed to look at “Chaya,” and figure out that the “Ch” is like the Ch in “Chanukah,” which everyone in the US pronounces like an ordinary H. Why, oh why, could my parents not have named me “Haya”? Or ever better, something like “Sarah.”

The problem with a name that is unique to its holder, and not a good old standard, is that no one will ever know how to pronounce or spell it, and likely will not remember after being told.

Why have a unique name anyway? What’s the purpose? If your last name is Manson, don’t name your kid Charles, if your last name is Duck, don’t name your kid Donald. (And if your last name is Hunt, don’t name your kid Michael.) But other than sharing a name with someone notorious, or ridiculous (or ending up with a first-last combo that sounds like something you don’t want a name to sound like), what’s wrong with having a name that might not be unique to you? I’m not the only person in the world with my name, albeit, most of the others like in Israel. I don’t care.

Why didn’t you just go by “Rebecca”? I mean, my parents named me “Yehoshua”, but English-speakers - including them - always called me “Josh”. A name can be translated just like any other word.

(Nowadays, almost everyone calls me “Josh”, even Hebrew speakers - but that’s more of a nickname).

Increasing name diversity is actually a long term gradual thing. I may have shared this data on the board before (from BabyNameVoyager)

In 1890, the most popular girls’ name was Mary, and about 5% of girls had it
In 1920, the most popular girls’ name was still Mary, and still about 5% of girls had it
In 1950, the most popular girls’ name was still Mary, and about 3% of girls had it
In 1980, the most popular girls’ name was Jessica, and about 2.5% of girls had it
In 2010, the most popular girls’ name was Isabella, and about 1% of girls had it

Similar pattern for boys, but less pronounced. So the English speaking tradition had a period of being *very *conservative, but has been diversifying for the best part of the last century (I think if you go back to, say, the Puritans, you get some brief spells of creativity there too. The Victorians were particularly stodgy and tradition-loving). Nobody these days would really think of giving their kid a name that one in 20 of their age-mates would have, even if they were looking for a ‘traditional’ name.

If you look down the roll of your average kindergarten class, you’ll see a lot more names different from each other, than in the nursing home.

I credit, as well as DavidR’s ‘less limited social contexts’ point, the fact that previous generation used to surname everyone, and we don’t. It really doesn’t matter if your 5 co-workers are all called John if you’re actually going to call them Jenkins, Smith, Thomson, Jones and Abercrombie

Mijin your Chinese coworker names are kind of hilarious but very different from what I’ve found studying alongside large numbers of o/s students. My Chinese classmates (who’ve chosen English names) seem to tend to have what I’d call typical 80’s names - Cindy, Linda, Connie, Kevin, Stephen … that sort of thing

In Hebrew without a Yiddish accent, the voiceless pharyngeal(?) fricative in “Chaya” and “Chanukah” is at least as close to “h” as to any random consonant people mispronouncing it might substitute (e.g. “ch” as in “church”), so just spell it “Haya”. Problem solved! :slight_smile: Repeat the exercise as necessary when you go to Russia or China.

Translating names is a whole other kettle of fish. Sometimes it could work, but often the results may sound weird; better to leave Yehoshua/Josh/Jesus as such, also names like Philip, 三朗, etc.

Philip K. Dick, who translated his name to Horselover Fat.

Obviously, I’d never translate someone’s name without their permission. I’m just saying that if you want, it can make things much simpler.

I tried that once. When I first came to Indiana, I enrolled in high school as Rebecca. I wasn’t living in the middle of a bunch of Jews anymore, and I thought the goyim would deal with Rebecca better. Then I found out, that at least in Indiana, if your name is Rebecca, 2 in 3 people will call you “Becky” without asking if that’s OK with you, and get annoyed if you don’t answer.

If I could slam that sun into the moon like throwing an egg at that house that gives away toothbrushes on Halloween, I could still not express how much I hate the name Becky.

The Puritans were very deliberately trying not to give their children Catholic names, so they used names from the Tanakh (the so-called “Old Testament”), and character names, like Prudence, Faith, and Increase (a name you might give a child born in the Autumn of a very good harvest, especially after a bad one the year before, as a way of giving thanks to the All Mighty).

Some of the Tanakh names were sort of obscure. Zebulon is easy to get, Ruby maybe not so much, but it comes from Proverbs: “Who can find a virtuous woman? Her value is far above rubies.”

Anyway, any name like Richard, Catherine, Christopher, Helen, George-- way off limits to the Puritans. They even avoided the names Joseph and Mary, Matthew and John, because the Catholics loved them so much.

In the military, you call everyone in you rank cohort by their last name (by that, I mean, a slick sleeve private could call an E-4 that, and not need to say “Specialist Smith,” and Sergeants of various ranks can call one another just by last names, even when one outranks the other; lower ranking officers can all just “last name one another,” so a Captain could call a Major that, but a Captain would call a General “General Nuisance”).

I wonder if people (and by that, I mean men) used to do that because it used to be very common for men to have done a stint in the military. Up until about the time the Baby Boomers were in high school, something like 90% of men without a disqualification had served 2 or 4 years between high school and entering the job market, or, if they went to college, either before college, or else were in the ROTC, then served after college as an officer.

That’s what I tell people to say, “Haya.” Spelling it that way is problematic, though. These days, having a lot of different spelling of your name floating around can lead to suspicions that you are up to something.

I just transferred some stock from one brokerage company to another: most of it is stock I bought with company A, but some of it is stock I inherited, and is with company B, the one my relative used. My relative (unmarried and childless, which is why I inherited quite a bit from him) had not revised his will since I married, and so the stock was under my maiden name. I managed to register it under “Rivkah Maidenname Marriedname,” but in order to make the transfer, I had to get notarized papers that stated that Rivkah Maidenname Marriedname, and Rivkah Marriedname, with identical SSNs, were one and the same person.

Chaya means “Life.” Life is not a name in English speaking countries. I suppose I could change it to “Vivien,” or something-- in fact, I think that’s where my parents got it-- my mother’s best friend when I was born was named Vivien. “Rivkah Vivien” sounds weird. And at 51, I really don’t feel like starting over as “Rebecca Vivien,” especially fighting the tide of “Becky.”

My father was a pharmacist, and he noticed in our small town that the girls’ names tended to be more creative than the boys’ names, and he realised that a lot of the girls’ names came from tv shows, so tended to be more faddist. In fact, he said that with new women customers, he often could guess her age within five years just from the first name, without actually seeing her.