What’s in a name?

It is fascinating to see out how names work, in different countries and different social situations

The Friedel Chronicles
8 min readNov 3, 2023

Last week I had a very interesting Lunchclub encounter. For over an hour I chatted with Yen Choi from South Korea. The first minute was spent clearing up how I should address him: Yen, he said, that is his first name. He told me that there were 2.3 million people, 4.7% of the population, who shared his surname Choi (which is pronounced “Chay”).

“Wow,” I said, but he told me to hold my horses. “The most common surname is Kim, which over ten million Koreans share—21.5% of the population. You may have heard about one or two. In second place is Lee with over seven million and in third place Park with over four million. Together these three surnames are held by around half of the ethnic Korean population.

China has over 92 million Wangs, 92 million Lis and 87 million Zhangs. They are followed by Liu and Chen, with more than 70 million each. These five surnames account for the same number of people as live in the US.

Aside: Here is an puzzle I often give to friends. What is the most common surname in Britain? The answer: Smith, of course. So what is the second most common surname. This is were they are stumped. The answer is Patel, a Gujarati-Indian name. Actually it is the 15th most common surname in Britain, but everyone knows it. There is bound to be a store close by run by someone named Patel. It is also the name of a very talented British actor of Indian descent.

Dev Patel was born in London, and rose to international fame in 2008 with his leading role as Jamal Malik in the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. Since then he has delivered stunning performances in The Newsroom, the 2012 American political drama television series created by Aaron Sorkin, and the 2015 must-watch British biographical drama film about the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan: The Man Who Knew Infinity.

What comes first

Unlike Korean, in China the surname is written first. Let me give you an example: the name of the strongest active female chess player in the world is Hou Yifan. A lot of people call her Hou, but her given name is Yifan.

I first met Yifan when she had just turned thirteen. It was at a tournament in Holland, and I was eager to get to know this young chess prodigy. She didn’t speak English, so I went to a Chinese trainer and asked him if he was looking after Hou Yifan. “No?! Never heard of him,” he said. I pointed at her and said, “I was told you were her trainer?” He said, ‘Ho Eefan! Yes, of course!’

The point was I had not sung the name correctly! Let me explain. Chinese is a tonal language, with pitch being used to distinguish meaning. The word “ma” can have four different meanings — mother, hemp, horse and scold — depending on the tone you use. Hou Yifan, written 侯逸凡 in Chinese, is pronounced “Ho-ee? Fan!”. You have to speak the first two syllable with a rising tone (2nd tone), as if you were asking a question, the third with a declining tone (4th). Also, Yifan is pronounced EEfan, and it is the equivalent of our first names. In any case my “Ho Yee Fan”, spoken with a flat pitch, was quite unrecognizable to her trainer.

Here’s a video of Yifan and me discussing that meeting, nine years later

Russian surnames and patronymics

You may have noticed that a lot of Russian surnames end in –ov/-ev, or –iy/oy, and the more observant have noticed that women’s surnames end differently: -ova/-eva, or –aya.

Originally the surnames endings -ov/-ev meant ‘of the family’, ‘of the region’ etc. It is akin to ‘van der’ or ‘von’ in Dutch or German. Other surnames with adjectival endings were probably formed along the same lines: to describe places, professions, or characteristics of ancestors.

In Russia your full name comprises a first name (imia); a patronymic (otchestvo); and surname (familiya). A person’s otchestvo is really important to know. My first raw encounter with the system was in the early eighties when I was visiting Moscow with Ken Thompson, the computer chess pionieer scientist who invented Unix. He came in from New York, I from Hamburg, and we were put into different hotels. Since I could not locate him I decided to call our host, ex world champion Mikhail Botvinnik. I tried, but someone spoke to me in Russian.

So I asked my Intourist guide to call for me. “You want to make phone call with great champion Botvinnik?” he asked in disbelief. When I convinced him it was okay he said he would do it, but needed to know Botvinnik’s otchestvo. His what? “What is his father name?” he repeated in clarification. “I don’t know,” I said impatiently, “just call him please.” Why did he want to know Botvinnik’s father’s name?

But my Intourist guide was adamant. He actually went down the street to a bookstore and came back triumphantly with the information he needed to be able to call Botvinnik: Moiseevich, son of Moise (Moses). Without that he simply couldn’t call, it would have been too rude to call him Mr Botvinnik.

This is how the system works:

  • If you are from the West and you don’t know him well, call the legendary world chess champion Mr Kasparov;
  • If you are Russian and in a formal situation you’d better know that his father was Kim, so you call him Garry Kimovitch;
  • For friends it is of course simply Garry.

I use Kimovitch on Garry in mock reproach (“You’ve got to get your act together, Garry Kimovitch!”) or if I am really, really impressed by something, like when he has just finished a successful keynote address in front of a thousand computer experts in Barcelona.

Russians of course know how to build patronymics, which simply mean “son (daughter) of” and are formed by adding a suffix to the father’s name: -ovich/evich for a boy, -ovna/evna for a girl. I would probably be Frederic Aloisovich.

Patronymics in general

Patronyms are used in Greece, and can tell you from which region a person comes: e.g. Petropoulos (son of Petros). In Crete it’s “akis”, e.g. Petrakis (son of Petros); in Asia Minor “oglou”, e.g. Petroglou (son of Petros). This is also used by the Turks. The Iranian -zadeh means son of, as in Moshrefzadeh.

In the Arab world fathers will sometimes proudly attach the names of their sons. “Abu” means father of, and Umm means mother of (Ibn means son of, and Bint means daughter of). Abu Bakr and Abu Hamid mean”father of” a son named Bakr or Hamid. This should help you understand why in news reports you will often hear a Palestinian negotiator referred to by name, followed by the additional information, e.g. the Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas — commonly known as Abu Mazen…

Icelanders are named after their fathers. Magnus Ragnarsson’s father’s first name would be Ragnar. If Ragnar also had a daughter, her last name would be Ragnarsdottir. Ragnar himself would be named after his father, something like Ragnar Gunnarsson. So people tend to identify each other by first name and even entries in telephone directories would typically be based on first names rather than last names.

The Welsh ap or p is a patronym builder. Pritchard comes from ap Richard, son of Richard, and the common Welsh name Pugh is derived from ap Hugh.

In English we have Johnson, Jackson, Peterson, etc. Fitz- also denotes “son of” (as in Fitzgerald, son of Gerald). But this prefix was frequently used for illegitimate children of aristocrats (e.g. Fitzclarence = son of the Duke of Clarence) and royalty (Fitzroy = son of the king). So Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Grafton, was the bastard son of Charles II. Fitz is the Norman form of the modern French fils = son.

Indian names

Viswanathan Anand is a five-time world chess champion. He was named “Anand” at birth, and as a good South Indian Brahmin the name of his father was tagged on, to distinguish him from the hundreds of thousands of other Anands that walk the land. The system is simple: you get a name, one name, and add it to your father’s name.

Anand’s father, an affable Railway executive, was Viswanathan. So it became Viswanathan Anand, which translates roughly to Viswanathan’s son Anand. The ‘s’ is usually pronounced “Vish..”, which is why the name is sometimes misspelled Vishwanathan. The stress (if any) is on the first syllable: VISH-wah-nah-thaan — with all the ‘a’s as in ‘arm’.

Now the correct way to address Anand is as follows:

  • If you are a stranger and want to show respect call him Mr Anand;
  • If you are a friend or in informal circumstances (in a gym or at a chess tournament) call him Anand;
  • Never call him Mr Viswanathan. That would be simply silly — an unexpected mention of his father.

When Anand first came to visit and stay we all called him Anand (what else). He was 17 at the time. Some years later I first heard someone refer to him as “Vishy”. I thought this was quite rude and asked Anand about it. “No, I’m cool with that”, he said. So Vishy it became, and over the years people started calling him Vishy Anand.

When Anand got married his wife Aruna became Aruna Anand. I don’t know why in the case of women it appears to be that way around, but I have also heard Anand being referred to as Anand Viswanathan, so maybe it is interchangable. The polite form of address is Mrs Anand, if you know her well you can call her Aruna. (Interestingly her father’s name is Ananth, so before her marriage she was Aruna Ananth — talk about minimizing the change!).

Mr and Mrs Anand

When they are together Aruna calls him Anand, as in “Aaanand, tell him to stop teasing me!” When she talks about him to other people she may call him Vishy, probably because she knows they will otherwise be confused. A common friend once expressed surprise when she called him Anand. “Why is she calling him by his surname?”

Footnote on the title quotation

What’s in a name? In 1881 Punch magazine propagated the following jingle, printed as a caption to a caricature of Wilde within a giant sunflower, the symbol of the Aesthetic Movement:

Aesthete of Aesthetes!
What’s in a name?
The poet is WILDE,
But his poetry’s tame”.



The Friedel Chronicles

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.