Why is it common in some cultures to go by a given name other than your first one?

Your list is almost all kings, which isn’t necessarily representative of naming culture in general.

Nordic name culture from Norse time until the 19th/20th century (and still going for Iceland) was a Given name and a patronymic. Thorkellsdottir is one of those, not a nickname. Sweyn Forkbear was Sweyn Haraldson, Harald Bluetooth was Harald Gormson.

Additional nicknames appear to have been common, although we don’t necessarily know how much they were used and how official they were. Some at least are known to have given by posterity to more easily distinguish prominent people of the same name. And the wealth of them in the records may be both an artifact of how the records are all of prominent people, and how much cooler your saga is if you use a nickname for the characters.

What we have of first person truly contemporary documentation, runic inscriptions, often use only the one given name. I’m not an expert, but the of samples I found on a quick search that use names most use one given name, one uses a patronymic as well, and none include a nickname.

Yes, of course, we have documentation in medieval chronicles mainly for kings and nobles and for very few others.

I wasn’t talking about the 19th/20th century, when names had become far more standardized. Conventions changed over time.

The thing is, originally a patronymic was also a kind of nickname, not a surname as we now know it.

People had one name + some kind of identifier – which may have been a nickname, a patronymic, a place name, or even a matronymic.

e.g. Sweyn Estridsson, King of Denmark, is named after his mother Estrid Svendsdatter, simply because that was the royal line of descent that mattered.

But people could have multiple nicknames, and they were not necessarily fixed throughout the person’s life. It just depended which ones stuck.

I think it’s inaccurate to call patronymics a kind of nickname, although I agree it is also not a surname. And I mentioned the 19th/20th century as the time that overarching pattern of naming culture ended, but sources from the Norse period and forward do show that patronymics were the core additional name used for the whole period.

And simple logic show that that has to be the case. The nicknames we know of are generally personal characteristics and would only have come into use in adulthood. Some of them, we know, were picked by historians after the fact, and it is likely they were context specific and that, like with nick names today, different social groups you belonged to would have used different ones, some of which you never used yourself and wish they’d stop using, and that they changed over time.

Saint Olaf would have been known most of his life and in many contexts as Olaf Haraldsson, and he plausibly had various nicknames along the way, but the main one that stuck was Ólafr digri, Olaf the Stout (or fat). Would he ever have presented himself that way? Possibly, but we don’t really know.

Or put another way:

Up until a few hundred years ago the vast majority of Scandinavians were given one single name by their parents.

But simply by being born to a recognized couple they could, and were, distinguished from others of the same name by adding on a patronymic, when needed.

In addition, various types of personal nicknames, toponymic and occupational nicknames were in use.

In Norse times these were used in a non-literate society with little to no record keeping, but we can see pretty much the same mix for several hundred years after, into and through the middle ages. Patronymics was the chief additional name used, some times with the addition of, or supplanted by, a farm name.

The names my grandparents originally picked for my mother would have left her with the initials JEW, but the local vicar refused to christen her that, so they swapped the names round officially, but called her by her middle name.

That’s Pippilotta Viktualia Rullgardina Krusmynta Efraimsdotter Långstrump to you! :wink:

There is a good reason that so many English people are called Smith, Carter, Thatcher, Taylor &etc.

In Medieval times they would just have been Robert, John, George, or whatever. Then as the population increased, the Roberts would be differentiated by their trades - Robert the Blacksmith, or Robert the Thatcher and so on.

A patronymic isn’t a family name, but in my view, if a family name is a surname then a patronymic is also a surname. So is an appellation like “Lionheart.”

You left out Roger Fuckbythenavele.

The point is that it only applies to one individual. It’s not passed down in a family like a surname.

And then you have people that are always referred to with both first and middle names such as “Martin Luther King” , “George Washington Carver”, and “Grover Cleveland Alexander”. You never see references to “Martin King” - the “Luther” is always included. Would King have considered his first name to be “Martin Luther” if he was filling out a passport application? How was he addressed by family and close friends?

Just preference, I think. A German friend of mine prefers to be called Alex rather than Berndt.

I have a middle name that is the same as my father’s name (he only had one Christian name), so it would be confusing if I used that name. And in the UK we don’t go for the US custom of senior/junior naming or for numbering, as in John Whatamoniker III.

Indeed. And though I wouldn’t call two a pattern, Astrid also has another female protagonist who “secretly” has a ton of given names, Tjorven, whose legal name is Karin Maria Eleonora Josefina Grankvist

That’s the definition of “family name.” A family name is just one kind of surname.

There’s a family around here with a generations-old habit of swapping the father’s first and middle names for his firstborn son. Thus, Sid Minot Bodge begat Minot Sid Bodge, who begat Sid Minot Bodge. No numerals, just reversals.

And the final wrinkle: in Japanese (and many other cultures worldwide), your first name is your family name, not your personal given name .

I deal with Chinese and Japanese people in an international business context regularly.

What makes it extra confusing is that many Chinese and Japanese people, when dealing with Westerners, “help“ by reversing what would for them be their usual name order. Which of course just has the effect of confusing the position even more because you don’t know whether they have reversed it for you or not.


The definitions you’re using are confusing your point. A patronymic is not a family name. Yes. Your point is correct.

But Naita has a point here that would be made clear if you just recognize a distinction between “family name” and “surname,” by taking the word “surname” literally—an extra name, a name “on top of” your “real” name.

So “surname” would then cover Naita’s meaning here. Originally, everything but your given name was an informal identifier of some kind, a name “on top of” your name, a “sur-name”—Roman cognomens like Caesar or Africanus, patronymics, occupational terms, descriptive terms, place names/locations, and others.

Over time, many of these surnames became family names, but not always. For example in American society, Erik Karlson has a family name of “Karlson” but in Iceland, Erik Karlson would have a patronymic, “Karlson,” that is not a family name.

But in both cases the Karlson has historic origins as a type of surname—an extra name used to help identify someone more specifically.

If we’re going to discuss nicknames and patronymics, we might as well point out that not all the logic and terminology applicable to one culture’s naming conventions is applicable to another (but this has already been alluded to above). There are/have been cultures where a person could be known by different monickers to different people or at different times in their lives. The meaning of some monickers may be acquired through practice rather than through a legal process, yet it would still not be appropriate to refer to it as a “nickname”, its usage being different to a mere pseudonym. Some such alternate names may qualify as an “epithet” - a descriptive word or phrase.

An example is in Scottish Gaelic culture, where it was common to acquire a descriptive word after your first name. E.g. John Ban MacKenzie (famous bagpiper, lived 1796-1864) - “Ban” means fair. He was the piper to the Marquis of Breadalbane, refused an offer to become Queen Victoria’s piper, composed some music, and made bagpipes. This is not a “middle name” any more than a Russian patronymic (E.g. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov = Lenin) is.

Nor was MacKenzie a surname in the modern sense of word. :slightly_smiling_face:

I’m still getting round to writing a post on Scottish names…

Okay, this is long, but I hope you’ll find it interesting.

Scottish names

Scottish names in the past were different in many ways from modern names. There was also a difference between Highland and Lowland naming conventions, just as there were differences in language, culture, and social organisation. In some ways the Highlands and Lowlands were more like different countries than parts of the same country.

Lowland names and land ownership

The Lowlands were simpler than the Highlands in terms of naming. The Anglo-Saxon-Norman culture and the English language (or a dialect of it) predominated, and names were mostly the same as in England.

The only real difference was in the use of estate names. If someone was a landowner, he would go by the name of his estate.

e.g. John Graham of Claverhouse meant that John Graham owned an estate called Claverhouse. He would normally be referred to and addressed as ‘Claverhouse’.

“I spoke to Claverhouse.”
“Claverhouse went here and did that.”
“Claverhouse, would you like a drink?”

The ‘of’ epithet indicated a land-owner, a gentleman, member of the upper classes.

But it was different from both the German ‘von’ and the Dutch ‘van’, in that it was always attached to only one individual, and indicated actual, current ownship of an estate. So if Graham of Claverhouse sold his estate and bought another one, he would be ‘of’ somewhere else, and the current owner would be ‘Claverhouse’. That worked in practice because land ownership was generally very stable and usually passed down by inheritance.

This convention was pretty much universal in the Lowlands, and historical names of landowners are always given as ‘first-name surname of somewhere’. e.g. “James Boswell of Auchinleck” (pronounced Affleck).

This often applied to clan chiefs in the Highlands as well. So, for example, Sir Ewan Cameron of Lochiel was chief of the Cameron clan, and was usually called only ‘Lochiel’. But since clan chieftainships were inherited along with property, ‘Lochiel’ for many generations meant whoever was the current chief of the Camerons (and still does today) - even after the actual seat of the Cameron chiefs became Achnacarry Castle. And ‘Cluny’ is the chief of the Macphersons. So also Glengarry, Keppoch, Glengyle, etc. But it varied by clan, and sometimes over time.

Highland Clans

Next we turn to the ‘clan system’ up to the mid-18th century.

People today generally don’t realise just how ‘tribal’ life was in the Highlands, and how little it had changed since very ancient times. ‘Clan’ is simply the Galic word for ‘tribe’. In English ‘clan’ has come to mean something smaller than a ‘tribe’, but it’s useful to think of clans in terms of tribes, really no different from Mohawks, Apaches, Zulus, Xhosas, etc. except in size.

Names like MacDonald, Campbell, McLeod, Macintosh, Cameron, etc. were originally the names of the tribes / clans, like Sioux, Blackfoot, etc. There were frequent feuds, battles, and raids between the clans.

The clan chief had absolute authority of life and death over the members of the clan, and the right to call on members of the clan for military and other service. Celtic tribes or clans also had an inherited aristocracy. A duine-uasal or duniewassal (normally translated into English as ‘gentleman’) was of a far higher status than an ordinary clansman.

Land ownership among the clans was complicated, with a semi-feudal system of ‘tacksmen’ below the chiefs. To simplify a messy, inconsistent sytem varying by region and over time, land belonged in general to the clan as a whole rather than to individuals, though there was a system of rents, service, and inheritance.

The name MacDonald meant that you belonged to Clan MacDonald, with a close reciprocal relationship within that social structure, and it meant that the chief had authority over you.

The larger clans had sub-clans, called ‘septs’. We normally talk of ‘the MacDonalds of Glencoe’, but we could just as well call them ‘the MacIains of Glencoe’ (that’s a capital i in there, not a small L). MacIain was a sept of MacDonald, living in the valley of Glencoe. So the MacIains were MacDonalds. An individual could call himself either ‘Colin MacDonald’ or ‘Colin MacIain’, depending on whether he was emphasising the larger or the smaller grouping he belonged to. His name was was both MacDonald and MacIain.

(To put it another way, all the MacIains were MacDonalds, but only a few of the MacDonalds were MacIains. Similarly, all the MacCrimmons were MacLeods, but only a subset of MacLeods were MacCrimmons. MacCrimmon was sept of Clan MacLeod. There are hundreds more examples.)

The chief of the MacIains was simply referred to as ‘MacIain’ with no first name. Every chief of the MacIains was ‘MacIain’, whatever his personal name. But he was not called simply ‘MacDonald’, because that would indicate chieftainship of the whole wider clan. He was, of course, a MacDonald.

Lowland 'Clans’

Certain lowlanders (a small proportion) were considered to be ‘clans’ too, even though they were English speaking and of Saxon-Norman heritage and culture. (In Gaelic, ‘Sassenach’ = ‘Saxon race’). They owed a feudal allegiance to a lord, indicated by their name.

The Duke of Montrose was the lord of the Grahams. That meant that if your name was Graham (like John Graham of Claverhouse), then the Duke of Montrose had a right to call on you for military service, and you had a right to go to him with a problem or grievance, and he had some kind of obligation to do something about it. A patron-client relationship in other words, something like a Mafia Don (but entirely legal, open, and above board). This survived far into the 18th century and even the early 19th century.

Similarly with the Drummonds and the Earl of Perth, the Murrays and the Duke of Atholl, the Gordons and the Marquess of Huntly, the Campbells and the Duke of Argyll (the Campbells were originally a Highland clan, but became integrated into Lowland culture), and others.

If, say, a Graham changed his allegiance and became a retainer of the Earl of Peth, he would change his name to Drummond to indicate that. And if your name was Drummond, the Earl of Perth had some kind of claim on you - whether you liked it or not.


That was why, when the name MacGregor was banned by King James VI after Battle of Glen Fruin in 1603, it was considered to be a harsh and serious punishment. Today it would be meaningless to outlaw a surname, but then it had serious and practical consequences. The MacGregors unofficially kept their name and clan allegiance, but officially they were forced to take other names. That meant they were officially part of other Highland or Lowland clans, and therefore under the authority of their chiefs.

The famous Rob Roy MacGregor had the official name ‘Robert Campbell of Inversnaid’, and later ‘Robert Campbell of Craigroystan’ when the property he owned changed. (‘Roy’ means that he had red hair.) His official name had its positive side too, because after he was outlawed, the Duke of Argyll (the chief of the Campbells) tacitly protected him and allowed him to live on Campbell land.

So that’s the general overview. I hope it all makes sense!