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6 Ways to Choose a Cultural Baby Name

Incorporating a name that represents your culture can help bridge the gap between your child's heritage and their personal identity.

I thought choosing my personal Instagram handle was hard, and then I got pregnant and had to decide on a name for my daughter. Not only did I have to choose a name, but it had to be one that my husband also chose which made it basically impossible.

I like classic names. He likes unique names.

I like names that can easily be shortened. He likes names that don't have built-in nicknames.

I like the same names I've liked since high school. He likes names he recently discovered.

We had our work cut out for us, and out of the handwritten lists, Pinterest posts, and family history searches, my husband and I agreed on one name for our first daughter. One.

And then less than two years later, we found out we were expecting another little girl, and I honestly thought we would never find a name. The one name we had agreed on was already used. Now what? Again we went through the listing process, and by some miracle agreed on one name.

With all of our children, we relied heavily on our cultures and family traditions to find names that our kids could make their own. So, if you're compiling lists for baby names, here are six ideas on how you can incorporate some cultural relevance. These ideas can help foster curiosity and appreciation in your children for their family heritage as well as encourage them to learn more about the meaning behind their name and why you chose it.

1. Middle Name

First names are a major part of an individual's identity. It's the first thing your child will use to introduce themselves to others and serves as their title for their entire lives. This puts a lot of pressure on parents when deciding what to name their children.

Naming your child is a personal choice between you and your spouse/partner. If you don't feel that a cultural name is the right direction for your child's first name, consider using one for their middle name. It will still be a part of their identity without being quite as public.

When naming our second daughter (L), we wanted to incorporate a Japanese family name but weren't sure if a first name would be the right choice for her. Japanese culture is just one part of L's heritage and a slightly distant one at that. If she introduced herself as Emiko or Sakura, people would assume a closer connection to Japan and might expect that she speak Japanese, read kanji, and has at least visited Japan. We didn't want that for L, so we opted for a more American-sounding first name with a cultural family middle name and it suits her!

2. Family Name

Family names can create a special connection between your children and their ancestors. After all, who doesn't want to learn more about the person they were named after to see if they have more in common than just a name?

When looking for a family baby name, a good place to start is immediate family members with whom you have personal memories. Siblings, parents, grandparents, or anyone else that has had an impact on your life are great name generators, plus you'll have some fun stories to share with your child about their namesake.

Of course, you can also branch out by looking even further up your family line. You'll find unique names that are relevant to era and location but still have a personal connection to your family.

With our daughters, we took to our family tree and utilized to look at ancestors that were great-great-greats to find names that we liked. Eventually, we decided on the women who were the first immigrants to the United States. M is named after her Danish great-great-great-great-great grandmother and L is named after her Japanese great-great-grandmother. Both women were trailblazers in our families and have an immediate connection to the cultures we are working to celebrate in our children's lives.

3. Name with a Twist

While looking at the most popular baby names for last year, there was an interesting blend of modern and historic names that topped the list. These combination baby names give families a great opportunity to make changes to traditional names, creating classic cultural names with a twist.

Consider taking a cultural name you like but adapting the spelling. This is a great idea for names with pronunciations that don't translate well across cultures. After all, many alphabets don't carry over phonetically from one language to the next. If you're worried about mispronunciations, you can run a test by plugging the spelling into a text reading program and have it read the name out loud. This is a good indicator, especially for a unique name or unique spelling, of how people will say the name the first time they see it written down (think Dr.'s offices, the first day of school attendance, and job interviews).

If we had had another girl, I would have pushed for a cultural name with a twist and named her Emilia. While the name is classic British and American, it would have a hidden meaning for our family with Emi being a Japanese family name meaning "beautiful blessing".

4. Tradition

Some cultures have a naming pattern that's passed down from one generation to the next. Your name might even be the result of a family tradition like:

  • Using Junior/Senior

  • Having a designated relative choose the name

  • Using a family surname as a first name

  • Including the mother's maiden name

  • Being named after a saint and/or receiving a religious baptismal name

These traditions are often practiced by an entire culture, so there might be pressure on your family to follow them. Remember that you need to do what's best for your family and that choosing your baby's name is your decision!

My mom and I have the same middle name, so I felt some pressure to use it for my first daughter's middle name. In the end, my husband and I decided not to continue the tradition, and everyone was fine with it. Then, with our son, my husband's family has the custom of using the father's name as the first son's middle name. We decided to continue that tradition, and everyone was fine with it too. Whether or not you follow a family naming practice, even just considering it can show your respect for the tradition.

5. Geographic Locations

Where are your families from? Geographical locations have become popular baby names that provide both uniqueness and cultural connection. Think about the names Siena, Austin, Georgia, Dallas, and London. There's a good chance you know someone with one of those names that originally were names of places, not people.

If you loved where you grew up, you can look for baby names by searching for geographical areas near your hometown starting big and getting more detailed. A good chain of thought is looking at the names of your home State → City → Landmarks (parks, rivers, forests, etc.) → Neighborhood → Street. You can follow the same pattern while looking for a geographical name that represents your family history.

The great thing about choosing a geographical location for your baby's name is that they will be more inclined to visit the location for themselves. They'll make new memories in a place that means so much to you/your ancestors.

6. Nickname

If you can't decide on an official name for the birth certificate, you can always opt for a cultural nickname. Most children end up with a nickname anyway, and it takes the pressure off of choosing a cultural name at birth. You can also add or adapt nicknames to let your child's growing personality determine what they'll be called.

Another great thing is that nicknames are often used as terms of endearment and are known by those with close relationships. Having a cultural nickname can help the bond between your children and their family members as well as start positive associations between their name and their culture.

Choosing your baby's name can be stressful since it's such a large commitment. But, luckily, it can also be a chance to provide a lifelong connection to their cultural heritage. While it might be tempting to pick a name that's trending right now, we hope that you take the time to consider a name with a deeper meaning and a stronger cultural connection.

Who knows, while looking for a baby name that's significant to your family, you might learn something about your own history or ancestry!


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