“What does his name mean?”

Every time I tell a Chinese person what my baby’s name is, they invariably reply: “What does it mean?”. This question reveals a very obvious difference in the way Chinese and Western people choose names for their children, and I think it is a very interesting difference.


In western countries, we tend to choose names from a pool of existing names and most of those names have been around for a long time. We choose names based on how they sound and we don’t mind that there are other persons with the same name. In most cases, names are not chosen for their meaning. For example, my Classic Greek teacher in high school once told us that he didn’t understand how the name Alexandra could be given to females, when it literally means “to drive men away”. For most names, we don’t think about their original meaning anymore. Marta, my name, comes from Aramaic and meant “lady/mistress of the house” (“mistress” as in the female form of “master”). I don’t think my parents were thinking about this meaning when they chose it for me!

But in China it’s different. In China, there isn’t a predetermined list of given names to choose from. Parents can select any existing Chinese character for their child’s name. Some parents want their baby to have a unique name and choose such an uncommon character than it is not included in the standard computer’s language pack (and, also, most native Chinese speakers might not know how to read it as they may have never seen it before). It is also interesting to note that there are very few surnames in China compared with other countries and almost 85% of the population shares only 100 surnames, so the parents that choose unusual characters might be trying to avoid that their child shares a full name with someone else. However, for other parents this is not a priority and they might choose a character that is popular lately. According to this graph I found, in recent years 子 (son) and 轩 (high) are two popular characters in boys’ names, and 雨 (rain) and 涵 (include, contain) are often chosen for girls.



In Spain, the most popular names in recent years are a mixture of traditional and new names. For boys, in the traditional side there are names like Lucas, Mateo or Marcos, all of them biblical names but that were not popular when I was a child; also traditional are Carlos, Antonio or José, but these have always been popular. Some of the new names that are now trending in Spain are Izan (which seems to be a “Spanishized” version of Ethan), Liam (which has never been a name in Spain) and Enzo (same situation as Liam). For girls, Lucía has been the most chosen given name for years, María is also still very popular, and traditional names like Jimena and Candela that only grandmas had when I was a child came back in full force in recent years. Some popular new names (or at least they sound new to me) are Vega and Alma.

So, when Chinese people ask me what my baby’s name means, I just tell them it was the name of a Catholic saint. I’m not a practising Catholic anymore, but I like traditional names.


If you are interested in the etymoloy of names, check out Behind the Name!