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The name riddle

4 September 2007
Photo of Dominique de Villepin.

Above: Dominique de Villepin
Prime Minister of France
(31 May 2005 to 15 May 2007).

When Mr Villepin was elected, there was widespread confusion about what was the correct way to write his name, as reported by the BBC.

Photo used with permission, © David Mendiboure - Service photo de Matignon / Service photographique du Premier ministre.

What do you use every single day, but never pay for? What is truly yours but came from somewhere else? What is very personal but shared with everyone?

The answer? It's your name.

Your name is intimately associated with your identity. For this reason, it's rare not to be asked for it when filling out a form.

However, it's actually quite hard to accommodate diversity when collecting a person's name. This is because the structure and usage of names varies considerably from one culture to the next. For example, Indonesia's first president was Sukarno: he had just one name, as is the custom for Javanese. Alternatively, the fifth king of Saudi Arabia was Fahad bin Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman Al-Sa'ud: eight words comprising his given name, his father's name, his grandfather's name and his family name.

Clearly, a form that forces the user to supply a single given name and a single family name will not suit many people. Moreover, in our global world, knowing that the user lives in a Western country and/or speaks English is not enough to assume they have a name that fits this structure.

An unsuitable form design is not only inconvenient, it may lead to offence if the data it yields is used in a way that is culturally inappropriate. For example, in some cultures a person's given name can be used almost immediately to create a sense of connection. For other cultures, use of a given name is insulting in all but a few very specific circumstances.

So what is the poor forms designer to do? Be aware of the different ways that names are structured and used around in different cultures. This article cannot be a comprehensive examination of diversity in names around the world but hopes to at least describe some main variants.

Please note, we have attempted to use reputable sources to ensure this information is accurate. If you think something is incorrect, please let us know by emailing us.

Structure

Here is a cross-section of the different types of structure - sometimes called "naming patterns" - that occur in different cultures:

Single Name
  • India (historically)
  • Java.
Two or three names
  • China, Japan, Korea & Vietnam: family name, sometimes a generational or clan name, and a given name.
  • Malaysia (ethnic Malays): given name followed by father's name.
  • Iceland: given name followed by name based on father's name, known as a patronymic, or a name based on mother's name, known as a matronymic.
  • Poland, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Ireland, England, Australia: one or more given names followed by family name.
  • Fiji, Burma: two given names.
  • Spanish-speaking countries: given name followed by two family names.
  • Russia & Bulgaria: given name, patronymic name and family name.
  • India: varies according to region.
  • Philippines: first given name, second given name and family name.
More than three names
  • Arabic countries (e.g. given name, one or more patronymics, description of the person and other descriptives).
  • Portuguese-speaking countries (e.g. two given names and six family names).

It's also worth remembering that names can:

  • Be as short as one or two letters (e.g. Wu Yi is China's Vice Premier and Minister of Health).
  • Be very long (e.g. Matthew Featherstonehaugh is a historical Scottish figure).
  • Be hyphenated, but still need to be considered as a unit (e.g. Jean-Michel in French or López-Fernández in Spanish).
  • Contain separate words that need to be considered as a unit (e.g. Ghulam Hussein in Pakistan which means "slave of [the Islamic martyr] Ghulam").
  • Contain words starting with a lower case letter (e.g. Bartholomeus van der Helst).
  • Contain non-alphabetic characters (e.g. the apostrophe in O'Flannery).
  • Contain non-latin characters (e.g. Ж, ङ or 賂).

Usage

Here is a cross-section of the different types of address recommended for use in formal or business-related contexts:

Title followed by (only) family name (which, remember, may come first)
  • Australia
  • Bolivia
  • Canada
  • Czech Republic
  • China
  • Egypt
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Philippines
  • Russia
  • Thailand
  • Most of Western Europe (e.g. Denmark, France, Germany and Finland).
Family name followed by title
  • Japan
  • Pakistan.
Title followed by patronymic (first) family name
  • Most Spanish-speaking countries e.g. Argentina, Chile and Spain.
Title followed by given name
  • Malaysia (Ethnic Malays)
  • India.
Title followed by occupation
  • Poland.
No title, just occupation
  • Turkey.
No title, just last family name
  • Belarus.

Recommended method for collecting names in forms

Given the diversity in names, asking the form-filler to enter their name in full, in a single free-text box (see Figure 1 below, from Project Greenlight), is likely to be the best approach.

Field label of “name” followed by single text box.
Figure 1: This form has just a single field for collecting name; users can enter their name however they like.

This could be followed by a question asking what the person would like to be called (again, using a single text box).

This approach:

  • Garners the required identifier for the individual (e.g. Jessica Enders).
  • Garners a name to be used in communication (e.g. Jessica).
  • Is flexible enough to suit most (if not all) types of names.
  • Allows the form-filler to enter their name in exactly the way that suits them.
  • Minimises the chance of causing offence by making assumptions (e.g. calling the actor Chow Yun-Fat "Mr Yun-Fat").

There's also a good chance that users will deduce — from the pair of questions — that the first question gathers their name for identification purposes whereas the second gathers the name for communication purposes.

If this approach cannot be adopted, the next best alternative — in English- speaking countries at least — is likely to be a single text box for given name(s) followed by a single text box for family name (see Figure 2).

Separate fields for given name(s) and family name.
Figure 2: If you need to collect given and family name separately, be sure to use these as your field labels and present the fields in this (logical) order.

Note that:

  • The order of these two questions deliberately reflects the natural order of speech in countries for which English is a first language.
  • "Name(s)" allows the user to choose how many names they wish to provide.
  • "Given name(s)" is more inclusive than "Christian name", "first name" or "forename".
  • "Family name" is more inclusive than "surname" or "last name".

References

Sources are listed alphabetically by family name.

Flynn M., Perkins J. & Zijderveld G. A White Paper: Cultural Considerations for Successful International Events.

Henning J., (1996). Gymnastics of Onomatics. Model Languages newsletter, Volume 1, Issue 3.

Ishida R. (2007). Personal names around the world 1. Blog of Richard Ishida, Internationalisation Activity Lead at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Morrison T., Conaway, W.A, Borden, G.A. (1994). "Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands". Adams Media Corporation, Massachusetts.

Tan P. K. W. (2001). Englishised names? Naming patterns amongst ethnic Chinese-Singaporeans. English Today, Volume 17, Issue 4, October 2001, pp 45-53, published online by Cambridge University Press, 24 October 2002.

Arab Names. Entry on Arab.net website.