Naming Names-Downton Abbey and Beyond

This is not scholarship, but rather some random thoughts that invade my brain as I am watching television. In Downton Abbey, the “upstairs” people are known by their first names: Lady Mary, Lady Edith etc. Downstairs, the male servants are referred to by last names (Bates, Carson) and by first name if they are women (Daisy, Ivy, Anna) except for the cook who is known as Mrs. Patmore.

(Does anyone know the whereabouts of Mr. Patmore?)

I also watch figure skating and notice in Asian countries people are called by their surname followed by their first name: Kim, Yu-Nah, Chen, Lu. I suppose that in these cultures you are a member of the Kim or Chen families first and an individual second.

In Russian tradition everyone is known by their first name, patronymic (father’s name) and last name. Thus when President Putin holds a press conference the questioners address him not as Mr. Putin or Mr. President but as Vladimir Vladimirovich (Vladimir son of Vladimir).
This can be both formal and informal.

No one in Russia is addressed by first name only except by close friends and then only by nickname or diminutive name: Misha for Mikhail or Sasha for Alexander. To me, this is totally mystifying.

In this country we have our own traditions. When fathers and sons have the same names the son may be distinguished by adding “Junior” or succeeding sons may bear the same name followed by numerals I,II, III ad infinitum or for as long as you want to perpetuate an illustrious name. The French use pere (father) and fils (son) as Alexandre Dumas pere and Alexandre Dumas fils.

In Arab-speaking countries, Mahmud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, is sometimes called Abu Mazen, which means “father of Mazen.” Friends and neighbors often use this address which is more informal. To further confuse things, you can also be called Ibn Mussa or Ibn Farid or Ibn Saud which means “son of.”

In Jewish tradition you can only be named for relatives after they are dead. I am not sure of the origin of this custom but it certainly avoids confusion.

In Israel immigrants often shed their old life and start a new life in a new country with a new name: Gryn can become Ben-Gurion, Shkolnik is transformed into Eshkol, Meyerson is Hebraized into Ben Meir and Epstein can choose to be Eilat. Some people deplore this custom which wipes out history but it must also be pointed out that in Tsarist Russia, Jewish sons often changed their last names and became “only sons and support of their mother” to escape long years of military service.

Further ramblings…I observed that today’s French parents like to give their sons English names: Brian, Patrick, Kevin, Gavin or Dylan. I hope that does not mean the end of the line for Marcel, Jean and Pierre. Americans, on the other hand, like French names for girls, Michelle, Monique, Denise, Jacqueline.

When I was going to school, the French way was to call us by last names only, sometimes preceded by Mademoiselle or Monsieur. I don’t think they knew our first names.
I believe this is also the custom in British public schools.

I think I have only scratched the surface on this topic…hopefully others will contribute more name lore.



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  1. There is something about nicknames that interests me. For instance, I have never been called Elizabeth, except on legal documents. “Libby” has been my name for as long as I can remember.

    I wonder how nicknames came about!

    Altogether, in my eyes, names can be very confusing. I used to have several international students living with my children and I. We never had less than 3 students living with us at the same time. The most difficult ones to keep straight, with regard to names, were the young men from the U.A.E! They so often had the same first names.

    Perhaps because they were young, they were never addressed formally. Only by first names. However, I once had an older student from Korea. He was addressed by all of us as “Mr. Kim.” In that sense, how one was addressed had to do with age.

    We had many adventures and some cultural mishaps. One young man from Turkey took offense at a gentle young student from Finland, who mentioned that he would like to meet the Turkish student’s cousin. There was almost a physical fight, which a Korean student nipped in the bud, thank goodness! But, this is all another story!

  2. I think this is particularly amusing given that we call you Grandma Measle, a name which as far as I’m aware has no known origin or any relationship to your name.

    I also have the habit of calling my staff Mr. (first name) even though, of course, traditionally it would be Mr. (last name). Somehow to me it feels both slightly formal, with the “mister” while at the same time being friendly and using their first names. They never use the same construction on me, however, calling me either Zac or Mr. Cramer. The latter of which, I frown upon.

    Anyways, just some more musings on the topic above. I never realized how different each culture is in this respect.


  3. The person who cleans my house is Jose and he is from Mexico. He always calls me Miss Simone, like in the south, I guess.
    As for Measle it was bestowed upon me by Grandpa David. Nicknames do have funny and obscure origins. What I find funny is that people here carry their nicknames into adulthood whereas in other countries they are discarded after childhood,

  4. Talking about nicknames, when I was a very young child and asked my name, I would always say Sashi because I could not pronounce my real name. Although my mother started to call me that, once I could pronounce my real name, I no longer wanted to have anything to do with the name I had given myself. Too bad, since now I think that would have been a rather nice nickname.

  5. When I was liitle I was called “CJ,” a nice diplomatic compromise since Carl and Jay were the names of my grandfathers, except I was supposed to choose my favorite someday. Let the kid take the heat! Although I don’t really think that is what my parents were thinking.

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