Giving a child a name. Is it different for immigrants?

We all have a name, at least 2 these days, to identify us in society. Surnames give us a means of retaining family lineage and heritage. First names traditionally have a story too as they can give an indication of what part of the world you come from or perhaps which religion you were born into.

It’s interesting to see what happens to first or ‘given’ names when people move to different countries. Migrant parents who have children in their newly elected country have to make a choice. Do they give the child a name that’s traditional to their culture and homeland that they have left behind or do they choose a name that may be more traditional or known in their new country. Depending on where in the world they have moved from and to, this can have a significant impact on a child. A name that people know and can get their tongues around has no real impact, positive or negative, but a name that’s unknown and difficult to pronounce sets the child up for a lifetime of corrections and explanations.

Now of course, there will always be people who want their kids to have special different names to make them stand out from others – from Orange and Ocean to Treetop and Bat-Tarzan and so on. Good for them and good luck to them. I’m talking more about ordinary people, let’s say, the mainstream.

I’ve noticed that many Vietnamese immigrants who have children in Norway have given European names to their children – Henry, Helene, Simon and so on. Vietnamese names tend to be so radically different to European names that they have made a choice to go local so it will help their children to fit in as they grow up here. It is the same with many Polish who have settled here and then had children, a father Przemyslaw and mother Agnieszka may have children with names like Martin, Anna, Arthur, Sophia and so on. So they may not go Norwegian specifically, but certainly, more Western European than native Polish names.

Some cultures appear to be more inclined to make this change and adaptation than others. The name Mohammad was the most popular name for boys in Oslo in 2016. And also in 2015 and 2014. Of course, it’s not a name that’s native to this country, the increase in prominence comes from the immigrant community. Mohammad has strong religious significance as the name of the prophet of Islam, and there are fewer names that give an immediate view of religious alignment just by hearing the name alone and nothing else.

There are very many Mohammads (or variants like Mohammed or Muhammad) in my son’s school. We know a Pakistani family here with 2 Norwegian-born sons, Mohammad Qusan and Mohammad Joseph. I’ll admit I found it hard to get my head around it when the two brothers appeared at the door one day asking our boy to come out to play. I knew the little brother but then big brother said the same name when I asked him. Had I misheard, maybe they were not really brothers. But they were and according to a Muslim friend, this is not uncommon. It’s a blessing to give babies the name of the prophet, as well as endow a strong connection with their religious heritage. When it comes to mitigating confusion, the full double-barrel first name or perhaps just the second name is used in everyday life.

So it’s a religious and cultural thing. To Muslims, the name Muhammad is a symbol of love and peace that will bring happiness and bounty. The name is prevalent in Islamic culture, regardless of where people move to in the world.

My mother’s name is Mary and my parents were going to call my older sister, their first born, the name Maura, which is Irish for Mary. In a Catholic country, it is not difficult to figure out why Mary, as the mother of Jesus, would be a popular name. My parents were not very religious but this was seen as a way to protect the child in some sort of sacred divine way, in a conservative society with strong church influence. Apparently, it was the local priest who intervened and told my mother, there are enough Marys and Mauras in this family (between my mom and dad, there were already three with the same surname), give her another name, he said, and let her have her own identity. Astonishingly pragmatic input from a Catholic pries, they took his advice on board and changed the name, possibly because they had the church’s blessing to do so, in fairness.

So newborn babies are cherished everywhere and parents want to do all they can to protect them and set them on their merry way for life, be this in a physical, religious, spiritual or any other way. Choosing a name clearly comes into this as well.  Where immigrants have radically different first names from those known in their host country, it’s that other side of integration that’s invoked where the locals need to adapt to new customs and habits of incomers. So at a school like ours, teachers clearly have to adjust to having many kids with the same name, even in the same class.  In terms of Muslim names, the pool seems to be much shallower than for Western cultures, where traditional country boundaries have been increasingly torn down due to TV and social media. Think of all those Britneys, Chelseas and Justins out there…

And names play an important role for immigrants also. Norway is still fairly new to immigration, certainly from outside Scandinavia. The buoyant oil economy is only 20 years old and with that the flood of immigrants that a thriving economy brings is relatively recent.

It’s well known here among adult immigrants that it’s hard to even get an interview for many jobs when you have a foreign name and you’re competing with Scandinavians.  The perception very often is that your first round elimination starts with your strange non-Scandinavian name on your CV but to me, logic suggests that it’s not just that, it’s the strange name combined with a lack of recognisable education or work experience in Norway.

The one exception to this that I’ve come across, is some foreign women I have spoken to who moved here because of a Norwegian partner/husband.  They cite considerably greater success in terms of ‘being seen’ in the recruitment process when they married and took their husband’s name. It clearly means to recruiters that they already have some understanding of Norwegian culture or maybe it goes back to that famous premise of trusting their citizens to do the right thing – if a Norwegian married a foreigner, then the wife surely must be alright too. It’s just one of those things and I bet it’s no different in Ireland, Poland, Sweden and many other countries.

So what’s in a name… well frankly, a lot.  And then it can mean even more for immigrants as one more differentiator between the immigrant and the society they are desperate to integrate into.  However, the impact is of course diluted with each new generation that’s born and/or raised in their new country. As immigrant kids grow up, their names and cultures are normalised and blended into society. It’s the first generation immigrants who will always struggle the most as they are unknowns. By the time their kids are grown, regardless of what their given names are, to some small or large degree, they have it all sussed and any barriers are gone.


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