License to Name: The press of modernization

Apr 23rd 2009

The first in an occasional series on naming regulations around the world.

A recent New York Times article described China’s battle against its own baby-naming traditions.  In Chinese custom, names are not a special class separate from ordinary words.  Instead, parents have always constructed names out of auspicious combinations of the 50,000 different Chinese characters.  Certain elements such as Mei ("beautiful" or "plum blossom," depending on tone) and Li ("strong" among other meanings) are particularly popular, but many parents have also chosen rare characters drawn from traditional sources like ancient poems.  Until now.  In 2006, China announced plans to ban half of all characters from use in baby names.

The problem was a practical one.  The country was preparing the awesome task of issuing electronic ID cards to 1.3 billion citizens.  To make such a massive database project feasible, some streamlining was required.  The 27,000 least common word characters had to go.  To be credentialed as a citizen you must be tracked in the database; to be tracked in the database you have to bear a modern, efficient name.  The estimated number of Chinese with non-compliant names is 60 million. The plan, as you might expect, has met with considerable resistance.

This data-driven reform sounds like the ultimate 21st-century naming statement.  In fact, it’s a close relation to a naming revolution that took place two centuries earlier on the other side of the globe.

From the days of the Vikings, the Nordic peoples used patronymics—names identifying people by their fathers.  You'll find patronymic-based surnames in many languages.  Jefferson is "son of Jeffrey," McCormick "son of Cormac."  A true patronymic, though, changes with each generation.  So in Denmark, Niels Andersen's son Peder was known as Peder Nielsen, while Peder's daughter Anna was Anna Pedersdatter.

This constant change became a sticking point in the modernizing Europe of the 1800s.  Modern nations were mobile and industrializing.  They operated at a large scale, collecting taxes, drafting armies, even attempting to establish national systems of education.  That all required organization, and a population of shifting, indistinguishable Hans Jensens and Jens Hansens was no help at all.  So one by one, most governments of Scandinavia began to require heritable surnames.  In Denmark, patronymics were simply frozen in masculine form.  Any Hans Jensen of 1828 would find his patronymic immortalized as the surname of generations of descendents, while the form Jensdatter was left to die out.

Do you see a flaw in this plan?  Freezing patronymics made it easier to trace families, but it didn't actually make the populace more distinguishable.  All those Jensens and Hansens were still Hansens and Jensens, and still named their sons Jens and Hans.  Denmark was left with a small and concentrated name pool.  Even today, the top 50 surnames account for two thirds of all Danes.  Meanwhile the need to track and identify individuals increased year by year.

The Danish government responded in the 20th Century with an aggressive move toward personal identification codes, or personnummer.  Each Hans Jensen now has a number that represents his identity, akin to a U.S. Social Security number but more broadly used.  (It's also less private; the number comprises your date of birth, sex, and just three extra unique digits.)  A Copenhagen University guide for foreign students explains that "the 'personnummer' opens Danish society to you."

This naming number crunch happened in Denmark, a nation of only 5 million citizens.  Compare that to China where the surname Li alone accounts for almost 100 million people.  Doubtless, the Chinese government will rely on numeric identifiers as well. Yet the movement toward national IDs that is costing so many Chinese citizens their naming freedom has had quite the opposite effect in Denmark.

Once it became clear that Danish surnames had ceded their practical, legal significance to ID codes, the need to restrict them began to melt away.  In 2006, the government turned back the clock.  21st-century Danish parents now have a freedom their parents and grandparents never had: to name their children with patronymics in the old Viking style.


April 23, 2009 5:47 AM

Wow. Imagine if only common names were allowed in America or the UK, names would become alot less interesting.

Also was it only in Scandanavia that patronymic surnames were frozen, or did it happen in other countries as well? For example did the Welsh Ap Rhys (son of Rhys) become Price naturally, perhpas due to English influences and methods of registartion, or was it a forced move.

By Nina
April 23, 2009 7:54 AM

This will not mean that only common names will be allowed in China. It's just that some characters that are so old that they cannot be typed and that is a problem in the digital era we live in.

But if we would take away the Q and B from our alphabet we could still make original names.

Last year in China some children were names Au Yun (that's 2 characters like most first names in China) which means Olympic Games. Not common at all!

By Kam
April 23, 2009 8:41 AM

Au Yun that is great. Well, not the meaning but just the story.

Our friends just had their baby girl. You know on my post awhile back about a sister name for Tr@eton. Well, the moment has arrived and the baby is Ki@na Denae. I think it is nice, not too out there but not crazy common either. Thanks to all of you who suggested names!

April 23, 2009 9:03 AM

Sorry by common names I meant taking away unusual names. Maybe I misunderstood but I assume if you take away some of the old and abscure characters the most obscure names will have to die out. In China this won't be too much of a problem since common characters can still make lots of names. Taking away the letters Q and B from the alphabet would still limit the creative spelling pool though, and if you took away whole parts of names, such as "eg" or "eth" to pick some older sounding ones then surely it would limit the name pool in general.

April 23, 2009 10:49 AM

This is so interesting! Yeah I was thinking that it is probably a consequence of the Chinese character system. Like where in English, we learn 26 letters and we can make any word, you have to learn like a ton of Chinese characters. So similarly, while English printing can make any word from those 26 letters, if someone in China wants to use an old character, they have to make a whole new die or stamp or whatever... teach it to the computer program. (This also got me thinking about the use of apostrophes in names in the US.)

I wonder how much it limits name possibilities. Like Laura said about limited family names in Denmark, I know the same is true in China. And in the Philippines as well, where limited number of family names has led to very creative given names.

April 23, 2009 11:27 AM

i do not know very much about chinese, so please correct me if i am mistaken, but i believe that this change would likely not limit the number of names in quite the way we are imagining.

like robynt said, they have thousands of characters, while we have only 26, however i don't believe each of those characters makes a unique sound. i believe that there are multiple characters that make the same sound. the government is just banning the use of some of the more obscure and archaic characters. however, the same sound could, i think, be achieved with different characters (ones that are more common).

so, unless i'm mistaken, i think parents will likely be able to use whatever name they want--aurally that is. it's more like the government is banning creative spellings. so it wouldn't be quite analogous to omiting the b and the q from our alphabet. we don't really have anything else that can make a "b" sound. i believe the chinese have other options.

some people may or may not find this loss just as sad, but i just thought i would make the distinction.

April 23, 2009 11:40 AM

As a genealogist, I am thankful for the limiting of surnames in the interest of modernization. Great post Laura. It brings my mind around though to the brief discussion we had previously about the pool of male FN's as compared to female ones. If you remember in my March analysis of local births there were 59 boys given top 25 names as opposed to 39 girls. It seems to me that there is a larger pool of names (and sounds to create names with) for girls compared to boys. For instance, although Lee is a boys name, the ending of -ly/lie/ley/etc. is commonly perceived to be for use with girls names. The opposite is generally true for the -en ending. I've always been curious about this. And even more curious about beginning sounds. Does it stem from the naming practices of our elders? Miriam (or anyone) is there a connection to male/female sounds/words obtained from the romance languages like Spanish la vs el articles? If anyone can point me in a direction to any further research thats been done on this it would be most appreciated.

April 23, 2009 11:47 AM

emilyrae: Yes i think you are right that the same sound can be achieved, but with different characters. Like for my Japanese surname, my family doesn't know the correct Chinese characters for it. (Japanese [and Korean] use Chinese characters in addition to having their own phonetic alphabets.) We can come up with some possibilities, but we don't know for sure what characters were originally intended.

It is also really interesting to compare this to kre8iv spellings! It sounds like that is what Laura has explained--people want to go to ancient characters to be more unique.

By claire (not verified)
April 23, 2009 12:28 PM


chinese dialects are all tonal. that means the same phonetic sound (say "ma") can be said with (in mandarin) four different tones and (in cantonese) six or seven different tones.

tones are changes in pitch. try saying "what?" "whatever." "what." and "WHAT!" and you'll get an idea of how one sound can be said in four different tones. but in chinese, one sound said in different tones means different things.

so one "ma" means horse, while another "ma" means mother, and another one means hemp, and another one is a word you put at the end of a sentence to turn it into a question.

here's the key part: each of these different words (same sound, different tone) has its own distinct character and meaning. so, if you remove a character, that word (i.e. the MEANING) goes away. you can still get a similar SOUND (with a different tone) but you can't get that meaning.

it would be like wanting to name your child "horse" but spelling it "whores." or something.

By CB (not verified)
April 23, 2009 1:15 PM

Well, I'm trying to wrap my head around the fact that there will still be about 25k characters to use. These really can't all be distinct words with meanings, right? For me, the question is, are any entire word meanings being banned? (And, can you imagine having to figure out if your chosen characters were permitted or banned?)
I would guess that the more common characters would be permitted - 25k is a large enough number to include all the "ma"s. Would it be more along the lines of permitting Color, but not Colour?
Hip, hip, horray for a 26 letter alphabet!

By Eo (not verified)
April 23, 2009 1:27 PM

RobynT, I'm fascinated by your mention of unusual first names from the Philippines. Could you please give some examples? That country has such an interesting juxtaposition of Asian and Spanish influences...

April 23, 2009 1:52 PM

I had the impression, which is perhaps totally wrong, that what unites China linguistically is its writing system. The ideographs stand for particular words but that the sounds for those words would be totally different depending on which language the speakers used. Is this at all accurate? Can people from distant corners of China communicate by writing but not speak a common language?

April 23, 2009 2:11 PM

robynt- yes, i was actually basing my guesses on what i know of japanese. i studied it for several years in school, and in doing so learned a little bit about chinese characters and their history, but of course japanese and chinese are very different. that's really interesting about your surname though; i suppose you could always pick the one whose meaning you liked best. i actually really enjoy discussions like this. language is endlessly fascinating!

claire- thanks for all the information! i knew that chinese (mandarin, i guess i should say?) was a tonal language while japanese is not, but i didn't know many details about it. i do remember a friend who was learning chinese (as i was learning japanese) telling me about a tongue-twister that existed in the language that solely used the word "ma" several times, but in various different tones, and thus the meaning of the word changed, creating a sentence, which i of course thought was amazing. i had never studied a tonal language.

i guess what i was assuming (but now wondering if i was wrong) that given the thousands of chinese characters, there were multiple characters for a sound, even considering tone. for example, for a particular tone of "ma," that there still might be multiple characters that could express it. however i just don't know enough about chinese to make that call.

however, it does seem, according to this article-- --that it is mostly only affecting the people who are using very obscure names or making up their own. the government doesn't want to program their computers to use a character that possibly only a handful of people (or less) will use. it's unfortunate, but i do see the practicality. unusual names here do not create the same problem. learning to spell "khaytelynne" is a small inconvenience compared to that of having to program your computer to recognize a character that just doesn't exist. we create new names in america, but we don't create new letters (or use defunct letters from old english).

April 23, 2009 2:29 PM

Eo: With many folks of Filipino ancestry in Hawai'i (and many as relatively recent immigrants), they are known for having unusual names. I have had students named Cherry, N3ff, and Sonwr1ght, for example. I had classmates named Genelyn and Nedelyn. I saw an article that talked about how these names come out of poor record-keeping + limited number of last names. So it is much better to have a unique name so your records don't get mixed up with others (like how my nephew Christopher Cook shared a name with someone on the terrorist watch list). The names mentioned in the article were brothers named Hitler, Himmler, and Hess.

Here's a link to the news article:

Elizabeth T: Yes, I have also heard that Chinese languages share the same writing system but pronounce the characters differently.

By Elizabeth in Canada (not verified)
April 23, 2009 2:54 PM


Regarding names in the Phillipines, I believe you're right. I have a Filipina co-worker named Geneline, which was created by combining her parents' names (Gene and something like Caroline). She tells me that new names are created this way all the time - unique first names are very popular.

April 23, 2009 3:57 PM

My understanding is that Chinese pick names by meaning, unlike English speakers who (primarily) pick names by sound.

Also, Chinese characters are often repeated in the extended family by generation. So all the cousins might have the same obscure Chinese character in their names. I believe this would multiply the use of the obscure character.

So, to try to give an English analogy, say I gave my daughter the middle name Niña. (I don't know if this will show up, but there is a "tilde" over the second n.) The tilde indicates that it is pronounced NEE-nya, not NEE-na. This throws all of the American goverment forms off because no one knows how to type the tilde into the keyboards. But it's not just a problem with my one child's name because the tradition in my family is that all of the cousins have to follow my lead. So now all of my children get the middle name Niña and all of their cousins also get the middle name Niña. So it becomes a big headache for the local government. That's my understanding of the traditional naming practices in Chinese families. (Of course it's not actually middle names, it's one of the characters in the first names.)

By Eo (not verified)
April 23, 2009 4:21 PM

Thanks, RobynT and Elizabeth in Canada-- very interesting. My favorites from the BBC correspondent's article were the politician named "Joker Arroyo", and the reporter's daughter's kindergarten teacher, "Wednesday". Such a rich, many-layered culture... I like that the article mentions that naming, while unconventional, is also informed by a good dose of Philippine humor.

By Alr (not verified)
April 23, 2009 6:27 PM

Funny story for all you NEs. We visited my DH's grandma (82 yrs old) a couple of weeks ago and the topic of baby names came up. She said, "You know, I read the births and obituaries in the newspaper everyday. Yesterday, there were 7 birth announcements and 3 of them were named 'Logan!!' What kind of name is that, anyway?" About a week later Grandma found out (as did the rest of us) that the newest great-grandbaby in the family, due to arrive in September to my brother and sister-in-law, will be a girl.... named Logan!!! I wish I could've seen Grandma's face.

By Anna (not verified)
April 23, 2009 6:30 PM


Not only are patronymic surnames allowed in Denmark since 2006, MATRONYMIC surnames are too.

By JenniferPW (not verified)
April 23, 2009 7:22 PM

I have a question for all of you: What are some names that could use May (or Mae) for a nickname? So far, I have:


Any others? Thanks!

By CB (not verified)
April 23, 2009 7:44 PM

JenniferPW -


(although, the last two are themselves nicknames)

April 23, 2009 8:07 PM

Chinese is an orthographic language. There is no alphabet as we think of it. Each word is a symbol or a couple of symbols and symbols are often inter-related (eg. the symbol for kitchen might be built upon the symbol for home ... I don't know if this particular example is true, I'm just making an example). So most of our analogies from English naming don't really make sense. The nearest I can think of would be, say your name is Petal, but the symbol for petal is disallowed. You could use Peddle, which sounds similar, or maybe you would rather use Flower. Neither Peddle or Flower look at all similar to Petal though.

An interesting book on reading and the reading mind that has some quite interesting sections on the Chinese language is "Proust and the Squid".

By Birgitte (not verified)
April 23, 2009 9:41 PM

Zoerhenne, have you ever tried tracking down forebears in Denmark? I have. It is virtually impossible unless you have a lot of information, especially with a lastname like Hansen (the most common). I finally managed it, due to my great grandfather's slightly uncommon first name (Viktor).

In Norway it is slightly easier because a LOT of people kept the name of the farm they lived on as a last name. Like my maternal grandfather who, when he moved to my grandmother's farm, changed his last name to reflect the move.

April 23, 2009 9:59 PM

Birgitte-I have not ever searched for ancestors in Denmark. I feel your frustration. I imagine it would be like having an ancestor named John Smith. However, there are struggles in all nationalities. I have Polish ancestors whose name (because of pronunciation issues I'm guessing) were misspelled several different ways. In most cases, you need more than a name-unique or not.

By NicoleM (not verified)
April 23, 2009 10:00 PM

Interesting that Denmark went back. I have a good friend who is Icelandic. She always runs into questions or trouble with school registration etc as she, her husband, her two sons and her daughter have different last names ending in dottir or son. Of course, in Iceland, first names have to be government sanctioned. She worked on a labor and delivery floor here in the US and was amazed that we can pick whatever weird moniker we want :) Her boys both have the middle name Thor.

By Marjorie (not verified)
April 23, 2009 10:38 PM

For JenniferPW - For May or Mae nickname you could use:


April 23, 2009 10:54 PM

For May or Mae: Megan/Maygen/Maegen

Just heard from my mom of a 20-month-old girl named Jordan (not sure about spelling), family lives outside San Francisco, she has two older brothers whose names start with J but my mom didn't know what they were.

By CB (not verified)
April 24, 2009 12:20 AM

On further investigation, I have found that even the most erudite of Chinese scholars rarely know more than 15k characters, the average college grad 5k, and the average Chinese newspaper reader 3k. I really can't see that limiting character choices for names to 25k characters would be a very big deal, especially if the characters choosen as acceptable were based purely on frequency of use, etc.

By Buttercup (not verified)
April 24, 2009 2:29 AM

The "Lovely" situation:

I know it's been a while since I've posted...I want to thank everyone for their help and suggestions on alternatives for the name Lovely and nn Lovie.

My cousin had a beautiful, healthy baby girl and named her... Luella Vian (vee-ann), Luvi for short. It's NMS, but both mother AND father were able to agree on Luella, so everyone is happy (plus I've been given permission to call her Lue, which I think is adorable).

Again, thanks for all the feedback. It really opened up a line of discussion between my cousin and her husband, which ultimately led to a happy ending.

By Amy3
April 24, 2009 8:34 AM

@Buttercup, congrats to your cousin and her husband! Luella is nms either, but they both agreed and can get the nn mom wanted. I love Lue, though. That's really cute!

April 24, 2009 8:38 AM

Buttercup-Congrats! Always glad to hear about happy endings!

By CB (not verified)
April 24, 2009 9:19 AM

Buttercup - how sweet! Congrats all around.

By Guest (not verified)
April 24, 2009 9:29 AM

My husband is Chinese, and my children have Chinese middle names to use as their first name when we go to China. It's indeed true that the meaning and form of the character are the primary consideration when choosing a name, not the sound. Also, most characters are constructed of combinations of simpler characters, which is quite important as well. So, it was significant for our soon-to-come daughter that the character we chose had within it the character for metal, symbolizing strength, and also that it formed an expression in combination with my son's name meaning they'll have a brilliant future. The sound of the character was never a consideration. Sound would really only come into play in that you don't want a name to sound the same as a negative word (death, pain, etc).

Limiting future naming possibilities, though, doesn't seem to be the most problematic part of this story. It's the people who in the middle of their lives are now being told their name is unacceptable and they have to change it. I sure wouldn't be happy about that either!

April 24, 2009 9:48 AM

guest-- i definitely agree. who would like that? and thank you for sharing about your children's middle names; it's so interesting.

April 24, 2009 10:30 AM

Laura, fascinating topic, thank you!
And thanks to all the people who helped explain Chinese, it helps to get a sense of what this means to people. The Petal, Peddle, Flower example makes a lot of sense to me.

The Denmark issue is fascinating to me as well. We have a Nancy E. Smith at my job and she is the second one in the organization so the other Nancy's email is Nancy.Smith@ and our Nancy's is N.Smith@. There is still a ton of confusion though and our Nancy has gotten some high profile emails that weren't meant for her. I can only imagine if Smith were a bigger portion of the population! Does anyone have examples of the new ln's being used in Denmark? Are people doing Patronymic and Matronymic naming?

This also gets me thinking about naming in the US. Is there a limit to how many names you can give in the US? I was just thinking about how if they can change last names in Norway we also can change last names when we marry here, or hyphenate them when we have kids. Most people I think don't pass on more than one hyphen to their children but potentially if Kim Smith-Brown marries Joe Jones-Burke they could have a kid named Aiden Smith-Brown-Jones-Burke. Don't know WHY they would, you could if you wanted to, right? I know that for multiple mn's people just use them when the forms allow and ignore them when they don't.

@Buttercup- I'm so glad that all worked out!! It's great that they were able to come to a name both felt happy with and I like Luella (Vian reminds me of Viand (meat) though, haha). I think that's a great way to get Luvi and Lue is adorable!

April 24, 2009 10:31 AM

Interesting finds in local announcements:


Mrs. D-Saw Leisel with a Z today (Leizel) that's a thought!

By Aybee (not verified)
April 24, 2009 11:09 AM


Funny you bring up the hyphenation-- one of my friends, I'll call him Jason Hall-Rhodes, just got engaged. I wonder about his wife and future kids..will they keep the hyphenation (for his parents) or come up with a new hyphenation to reflect the wife's last name? Or do a string like the Aiden example... hmm

April 24, 2009 11:39 AM

zoerhenne- Coy- that's a funny one!I wonder if they parents realized what it means (apart from the carp, I mean)!

By guestgirl (not verified)
April 24, 2009 12:26 PM

How much do I want someone to name a girl Jensdatter? It sounds like Jen’s Daughter to me! How would the J be pronounced?

There’s something pleasingly ultrafeminist about using ‘datter’!

By Nina
April 24, 2009 1:29 PM

The thing is that many of these obscure characters were not used for names in a long time and they have only recently become more popular by parents wanting to be original (like the "creative" spelling in the US).

Also, imagine having to spell you name every time in Chinese. It's not like with our alphabet and because there are characters with exactly the same pronounciation but different writing when you say your name and they want to write is down you for example say: "the Mei of beautiful" so they know which character to write for your name Mei. With an obscure character this is impossible.

April 24, 2009 1:58 PM

guestgirl- normally Jensdatter would be the daughter's last name if patronymics are used (Jens' daughter). Her brother's last name would be Jensen (Jens' son). This is the same system as is used in Iceland, so the wife, sons and daughters would all have different last names!
I believe Jens is pronounced Yens.

Obviously a similar system once existed in England, which is how we have Johnson, Watson, etc. For some reason, the daughter thing doesn't seem to have caught on. I think those Scandinavian women may have been more forceful characters than us English!

April 24, 2009 4:40 PM

guestgirl- I have a friend named Jens and he and his wife are TTC... maybe I should suggest this when the time comes.

By Mirnada (not verified)
April 24, 2009 5:38 PM

Really fascinating post. Thanks for that!

I have a challenge for the group. I was recently thinking that it might be good to think of some stronger, feisty girl name options. A lot that come to mind for me are oddly in the diner waitress category in my mind (Stella, Roxanne...). What strong not too soft and "pretty" but still appealing sounding girl names come to mind for you?

April 24, 2009 6:50 PM


I really love Penn Jilette's daughter's name, Moxie. It's adorable and has a wonderful, feisty meaning. This is also true of her middle name, CrimeFighter, but IMO it's a little out there (but hey, it's a middle name anyway).

By toothfairy (not verified)
April 24, 2009 6:55 PM


as for feisty girls, I'm currently digging

Trixie (Beatrice if you want something formal)

Feisty, but not necessarily my style:

Actually, we're really into Eliza at the moment for our #3 arriving in October. (gender still unknown) We've always liked Amelia ("Millie"), but I'm wary of it's skyward trajectory on the name rankings.

By CB (not verified)
April 24, 2009 7:09 PM

Mirnada, I tried to think of literary figures with that fiesty, pretty quality. So far I have

Dewey Dell

Also, for whatever reason, the -een names come to mind for me (although they also conjure up beehive hairdos for me, too), like Maureen, Irene, etc.

By Liz & Louka (not verified)
April 24, 2009 8:08 PM

I do think my daughter's name, Louka, is quite feisty, but I'm probably influenced by her namesake in GB Shaw's play Arms and the Man.

By Amy3
April 24, 2009 9:41 PM

@Mirnada, I'd suggest my daughter's name, Astrid. My husband and I find it spunky, beautiful, and strong.

By Austin (not verified)
April 24, 2009 11:37 PM

This is a fascinating topic. I would think that sound still plays an important role in creating a Chinese name, even if the meaning is more important. I'm a big fan of double-entendres, which you can only appreciate if you know the spoken language. Still, I can see why some people would get mad if they are told they have to change the look of their name because of an obscure character. I had never thought about the look of the Chinese name until now since names are translated into English according to sound.

April 25, 2009 7:37 AM

To me feisty names are names like Scarlet and Ruby. Maybe Matilda aswell. Plus anything that has an x in it, like the already mention Roxie, Trixie. Also: