Names

A couple of weeks ago I shared an article about naming customs in Costa Rica. I had written it for my Sitzman ABC language learning blog, which is mainly directed at my students. However, many people who read Sitzblog seem interested in Costa Rican customs, so I shared it here.
I’ve now finished the second half, and it’s about naming customs in the U.S. Most of the people who read Sitzblog are in the U.S.; if that’s you, it still may be interesting to read. Alternately, you can read through it and pick it apart, calling me out on all the mistakes! In any case, if you want to check it out, here it is:

Different Countries, Different Names: The U.S.A.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Well, it took me longer than I imagined, but here’s the second half of our series about naming customs. We recently looked at naming customs in Costa Rica, so today we’ll look at names in the United States.

Generally speaking, the naming customs in the U.S. are sometimes similar to the practices found in Canada and some western European countries, such as the U.K. or Germany. Still, there are variations, especially from generation to generation. Because of that, you should only read this as a subjective explanation of names in the U.S., since it’s based on my own personal observations of people that I have known and met while living there.

Names in the U.S.A.
In the U.S., most people have three names. We’ll talk later about where those names come from. Unlike in Costa Rica or many other countries, there is no national ID card like a cédula. Most people do carry some form of photo identification, like a driver’s license or a student ID card, but carrying an ID is generally not required by law (unless, for example, you’re driving a car, in which case you’d need a license). Now let’s look at an example of two typical names in the U.S., one female and one male:
Sarah Marie Johnson
Matthew William Smith
As you can see, each person has three names. They’re called the first name, the middle name, and the last name. 
First Name: The parents choose the first and middle names of a baby; when they do this, the verb we’d use is “to name.” For example, I can say “My parents named me Ryan.” If the parents give the child the same name as a relative or any specific person, you can say that the baby is named after that person. For example, “John was named after his grandfather.” or “Tina was named after the singer Tina Turner.” My parents named me, but they didn’t name me after anyone–they just liked the way “Ryan” sounds!
Middle Name: There are some people (but not many) who have two middle names, and there are also people who don’t have a middle name at all. Still, it’s most common to see people with one middle name. However, in contrast to some countries (like Costa Rica) most people in the U.S. rarely use their middle names in normal interactions. I almost never use my middle name, and I don’t know most of my friends’ middle names. Most people see a middle name more as a “decoration,” but not a very useful one! There is a notable exception, and that’s when the middle name is abbreviated with an initial, as in “John F. Kennedy,” “Michael J. Fox,” or “Homer J. Simpson.” Perhaps some people write their names that way because they think it makes them seem more sophisticated. Or, maybe they just like the way it sounds. In any case, it’s still not as common as not using a middle name.
Last Name: This is where you can see the biggest difference between names in Costa Rica and names in the U.S. As we mentioned before, in Costa Rica a person normally has two last names; the first one is from the father and the second one is from the mother. In the majority of families in the U.S., everyone has the same last name. My last name is obviously “Sitzman,” and that’s also my brother and sister’s last name, my dad’s last name, and my mom’s last name. How is that possible? Well, the majority of women in the U.S. change their last name when they get married. It’s not obligatory, but it’s still common for a woman to take her husband’s last name after marriage. If a woman does this, the children would also automatically inherit the family’s last name. Let’s examine this a little more:
Names After Marriage
Men: Generally, when a man gets married, he doesn’t do anything to any of his names. It’s theoretically possible for a man to change his last name to his wife’s last name, particularly if her name is prestigious or his is “bad” (if he were named “Peter Hitler,” for example). In practice, this is very uncommon.
Women: When a woman gets married, she has to decide if she’s going to keep the last name she got from her parents (this last name is also called a maiden name) or if she will adopt her new husband’s last name. If she does the first option her name will remain the same with no changes. If she decides to adopt her husband’s last name, she can either eliminate her maiden name, or she can eliminate her original middle name and replace it with her maiden name. Using our names from above, if Sarah Marie Johnson married Matthew Smith, Sarah could become either “Sarah Marie Smith” or “Sarah Johnson Smith.” From what I’ve noticed, the second option is more common.
A third possibility is for the woman to “hyphenate” her last name. If she “hyphenates,” then she uses her maiden name and her husband’s last name, connected with a hyphen. Using our examples above, if Sarah married Matthew and wanted to hyphenate her name, she’d be “Sarah Marie Johnson-Smith.”

Children: As mentioned above, it’s most common for the children in a family to have the same last name as their mother and father, that is, the father’s last name. Using our example of Sarah and Matthew, if they had a kid, they might decide to name her “Emily Rose Smith.”
Another, less common possibility is to incorporate the both the parents’ last names with a hyphen. If they do this, the child’s last name would start with the mother’s last name first and the father’s last name second (in other words, the opposite order from Costa Rican last names). So the girl’s name would be “Emily Rose Johnson-Smith.” This is maybe less common because it’s more complicated to decide what happens to a hyphenated last name if its owner gets married. (See this article for an interesting perspective on all this.)

Ways to Address People

It’s sometimes a little difficult to know how to address someone if you’re talking to them for the first time. If you’re asking for someone on the phone, it’s usually no problem if you want to use the person’s first and last name, as in “Could I speak with Emily Smith, please?” If you know a person’s title (such as Doctor or Professor), you should usually include those. If you’re talking to someone face to face, it’s often best to use a title and his or her last name as a show of respect. You could say “Hello Mr. Miller” or “Good morning Professor Johnson.” Very often, people find this a bit formal, so the person you’re talking will say something like “Please, call me Jane.” If the person doesn’t say that, it’s still best to be cautious and use a title.

Titles for Men: Titles for men are usually not as complicated as titles for women. For most men, if you say Mister and his last name, as in “Mr. Smith,” you’ll be OK (or he’ll ask you to simply call him by his first name). There are a few exceptions. If you know that the man is a doctor, you can and should address him as “Doctor Smith,” and if he’s a professor (meaning a teacher at the university with a doctorate degree), then you should call him “Professor Smith.”

Titles for Women: There are three main titles specifically for women: Miss, Mrs. (pronounced “missus”), and Ms. (pronounced “miz”). Here are some guidelines:
Miss: Used for unmarried and/or young women, and generally followed by the maiden name
Mrs.: Used for married women, and generally followed by the husband’s last name
Ms.: Used for married or unmarried women. If you don’t know if a woman is married or not, this is a safe choice. Also, some women choose to use this as their title since it’s really nobody’s business but their own if they’re married or not, and the title “Ms.” allows them to keep that information private.
As with men, if you know that the woman is a doctor or professor, use the appropriate corresponding title instead of Miss, Mrs., or Ms.

For men and women, there’s really no corresponding title to “Don” or “Doña” in Spanish, since those are used with a person’s first name. For example, no one would call me “Mr. Ryan,” since Ryan is my first name.

One major difference that I’ve noticed as a teacher is how my students address me. When I taught classes at the university in the U.S., my students generally called me simply “Ryan” because I asked them to (I was only 24 or 25 at the time and “Mr. Sitzman” sounded strange to me). When I was teaching German a few students called me “Herr Sitzman” semi-ironically, but that’s a different story. None of them called me “Professor Sitzman,” though, since I’m not a professor (I only have a Master’s degree in German). In Costa Rica, though, my students all call me either “Teacher Ryan” or simply “Teacher.” It’s pretty weird and annoying. I’ve eventually gotten used to it, but I still call my students “Student” until they address me as “Ryan.” I don’t even want to try “Mr. Sitzman” since my last name seems to give most people here nightmares!

So, I think that’s it for now! Thanks for your patience if you made it to the end of this article! When researching for these two articles I came across some interesting statistics related to names, so I’ll try to write a shorter post about that in the near future.

If you have any comments or questions, or if you’re from the U.S. and your name doesn’t follow these patterns, I’d love to hear from you. Thanks for reading, and have a great day!

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