A Culture of Names

What does your name mean? I’m sure you’ve considered this question at least once. More than likely you’ve turned to the powers of the internet to provide yourself with an answer to that very mystery. Personally, I know I’ve often found myself curiously pondering over such a query, eager to know just it meant to be called my name. So in spirit of my curiosity, take my name:


Daniel James Mannering


It’s got a pretty nice ring to it, if I don’t say so myself. Thankfully, between the internet and my parents I have found exactly the answers I was looking for. Let us start with my first name. A quick internet search reveals Daniel is of Hebrew origin. Its meaning varies slightly, but generally centres around “God is my judge”, “God is my shepherd” or something very similar. After consulting with my parents it seems the biblical nature of my name played somewhat of a role in its selection, being a good strong catholic name and relating to the story of ‘Daniel in the Lion’s Den’, from the Book of Daniel. It was also tied to family and memory having been chosen, in part, because of my Mother’s fond memories of her Grandfather singing ‘Danny Boy’. Originally written by the Englishman Frederic Weatherly and played against the tune of ‘Londonderry Air’, quite touching really.


The declaration of my middle name, James, turned out to be a much simpler affair. It was chosen modestly, owing to the fact my parents liked it the sound of it, they enjoyed the melody and rhythm it gave my name. James, at one point or another, was potentially to become my first name, but my parents didn’t quite warm to the idea that I may be called Jim one day, no offence to any Jims out there. The final part of the puzzle, my last name or family name, Mannering, remains a little bit more of a mystery. Without some serious digging it is likely to remain so. Surnames are the ties that bind our families together. They make us and our families instantly recognisable and are wholesomely prominent throughout our lives. I have often been told the same is true in China, if your family holds the same last name; it is likely you descended from the same family a long time ago.


What does that all mean? It means that my first name holds some real significance, not just to me, but also to the people who named me. This, in some aspect, varies rather greatly from the methods of selection often undertaken by Chinese parents.  But let us quickly look at the similarities. Some parents may choose their child’s name simply because of the pattern or rhythm; they may solely want their child’s name to possess a nice ring to it or a more melodic feel. Having undertaken mini-interviews with a sample of my Chinese friends and colleagues it appears a generational gap is forming in the means of selection. It appears to be more common place that names are being chosen simply because they sound nice, a practice that has been prevalent in the west for some time, as opposed to, dare I say, a more traditional form of selection. The predominant difference in the meaning of our names lays in the difference in western languages and the Chinese language. The individual letters of my name, for example, are all but meaningless unless they are combined in the correct order. The Chinese language however is expressed in characters, with each character carrying an express meaning. Therefore, a Chinese name is often chosen to reflect the characteristics a set of parents hope their child will grow up to reflect, or things they hope they will possess. Characters indicating things such as beauty, wisdom and wealth for example seem to be popular choices, and why wouldn’t they be? However, it isn’t always the sole choice of the parents, who may seek the advice of someone older and wiser than them or other members of their family to provide a degree of consultancy. Aside from our given or first names, you may have noticed that the family name comes first in China. This is distinctly different from the west in which our surnames rest firmly at the back of our names. Why is this the case? The character in Chinese for family (Jīa) also means home, they are one in the same. Both home and family are central to both the Chinese and their culture, a notion that has, perhaps, been forgotten slightly back home. The fact that the family name comes first is issued to reflect this declaration of the importance of family.


In China, names, it seems, tend to hold greater meaning then we may place upon them in the west. Not only are they a form of identification, but a stamp declaring the sort of person it is hoped you will be. I know in some small way it was hoped  that by giving me a name tied to a more honourable character, I would grow up to possess something of that quality. However if a pair of Chinese parents hoped their child would grow up to be honourable, the character would likely appear directly in their name. Now this isn’t to say names aren’t important in the west, it just seems to me that names here hold more of a direct meaning and importance. In essence, you are your name.


What does your name mean and what does it mean to you?



3 thoughts on “A Culture of Names”

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