Catholic naming outside America

I read Jenny’s explanation of her kids’ names ages ago over at her blog Mama Needs Coffee, and this bit has stayed with me ever since:

“… while traveling in Italy (the first time) we chatted up a capuchin Franciscan from Poland in a restaurant in Assisi of all places, and as he bounced 7-month-old Joey on his knee, we proudly told him that his middle name was Kolbe “for Father Max.” The happy friar shot us a look of horror and asked in disbelief You took his family name?! So I guess the American trend of assuming surnames is not kosher the world over.”

I think I’m pretty knowledgeable about how to honor beloved saints within the landscape of the American baby naming scene, but I’d never really considered the idea that names that are okay here might be problematic elsewhere. I mean, certainly there’s a limit to how much parents should worry about such things, unless they’re planning to live abroad with their children, and being Catholic helps I think, because our saints come from every country. Biblical names also seem like a safe bet, since we all use the same Bible. But still I wonder …

Do any of you have any insights into what Catholic names to avoid if you’re worried about international opinions/sensibilities? Off the top of my head, certain categories of names that might cause issue are: surnames (as illustrated above), place names, and names traditionally given to one gender being used by the other. Do any of you have stories like Jenny’s?


19 thoughts on “Catholic naming outside America

  1. in France (where I am from) a lot of your suggestions would be more difficult: we don’t use nicknames the same way (you wouldn’t really be able to decide it on advance as they are only used in very informal circumstances), you would probably have the same look of horror for using a surname as a name, and alternative spellings are frowned upon! You would have your work cut out!
    However, in England (where I live), the American way would work just fine. 😄

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  2. Dear Isabelle:

    It used to be that in France you could name your child only from a list of government- approved names.
    Is that list still in force?

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    • No, but I think you’re still not allowed to call your child anything offensive or purposely ridiculous. I’m not sure how they decide which names fall under these categories! 😄

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  3. This fascinates me! As one who was raised in a Polish-American family, I admit I am a little surprised at the reaction, however, I am definitely more American culturally, than Polish. And when I really think about it, all of my Polish relatives have first names that are definitely squarely in the first name category, not surnamey at all. Of course, in the English-speaking world, surnames are a pretty recent thing, and first names and surnames often were used interchangeably (with perhaps a modification of a first name to make it a surname). I know in Medieval Norway (and I imagine this still affects their culture to some extent?) this was true too… for example, the famous trilogy “Kristin Lavransdatter.” Lavransdatter = “daughter of Lavrans” (Lavrans being her father’s first name).. and of course, a woman like Kristin would often name a son “Lavrans” after her father, and thus, he would sorta get both a first name and a surname (his mother’s maiden name) as an honor name. If you’ve never read that trilogy – do it! 🙂 The forward and first several pages makes for an interesting introduction to naming in the Middle Ages in Norway. 🙂 And I imagine Norway wasn’t the only culture to do this (thinking of the English surnames like “Jackson” = “Son of Jack”).

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  4. Dear Isabelle:

    I just found out that the official French name list was done away with in 1993, but a registrar can still refuse a name that is too odd or offensive in his opinion.

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  5. In Iceland, surnames are almost always patronymic, so if your name is Sigrid and your father’s name is Bjorn, your name is Sigrid Bjornsdottir and your brother’s last name is Bjornson. Because the emphasized relationship is between fathers and children, rather than between husbands and wives, the wife does not change her name when she marries. And since there can be up to 4 different surnames in the same nuclear family, phone books, class rosters, and so on are organized according to first name rather than surname. It is also considered formal in Iceland to address people by their first names, rather than saying Mr. or Miss/Mrs. so-and-so. This is even true with children who are addressing their teachers!

    If you want to get REALLY into it, there is another patronymic form that honors someone’s grandfather. So, say your paternal grandfather is Kjartan. If your parents were extra formal, your name might be Sigrid Bjornsdottir Kjartansonur. (Sigrid, daughter of Bjorn, son of Kjartan.) This is apparently not used much anymore because most parents would rather use a given middle name.

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    • LOL I said all that without coming to my point. Iceland has very strict rules regarding first names. They actually do have a list of approved names, and anything other than this must be specially approved–after all, your given name will be passed down via your surname for generations! For instance, they do not allow unisex names, and all “foreign” names must conform to the Icelandic alphabet and pronunciation.

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      • I’ve never heard it explained that way — that “your given name will be passed down via your surname for generations” — it makes more sense to me to consider that aspect. Fascinating!!


  6. This is such an interesting topic to me too. I’ve never loved having a surname name (though the fact that it’s a family name makes it better, and as far as surname names go, I like mine). When I was studying abroad in England, I remember going out to a pub with some girls from my (US) university, and chatting with a couple of local guys, who commented laughingly upon meeting us, “Taylor, Kelsey, and Brittany…you sure are American!” Sigh. It’s my intention to use names that travel well for my future kids!

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    • That’s really interesting! One of my very favorite name styles is “pan-European” — I love names that have a version in every European country. Fortunately many/most saints’ and biblical names fit that category! (I like Taylor a lot too, and I love that it’s a family name for you!)


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