AfriGeneas Africa Research Forum
Nigerian Naming Patterns-article
GENEALOGY: Nigerian ancestry offers complex, interesting family naming traditions
Nigeria, in West Africa, was an area that lost population to the slave trade. Many black Americans have Nigerian ancestry. This week, we’ll look at their complex and interesting family naming traditions.
In Nigeria, most children are given at least three names, and sometimes four, at birth — all by different family members. The child’s father and mother each give the child a name, and other relatives, such as the maternal grandparents, give the child a third and perhaps fourth name.
Each name tells something about the child and the family. The first name is the child’s personal name and may reflect the circumstances of the family. The second name is a descriptive name that expresses the personality of the child, expresses what the child might become, or is an attribute that the child is hoped to acquire. The third name relates to the child’s kinship. It could be the name of the earliest ancestor, a famous ancestor, or the name of items that are sacred to the family.
There are no family surnames as we know them. However, the child’s adult name does reflect the pattern of family relationships.
When Nigerian children grow up, they choose two of the names given to them at birth and add to that their father’s, grandfather’s, or great-grandfather’s name, according to their family custom. This becomes a kind of surname. A complex pattern emerges: Akpan Udo Okon (name of the child’s great-grandfather), Sunday Akpan Udo (the child’s grandfather; he took the names Akpan Udo from his own father), Effiom Sunday Akpan (the child’s father; he took the names Sunday Akpan from his father), Peter Effiom Sunday (the son coming into adulthood; he took the name Effiom Sunday from his father).
A second naming pattern can arise with a family who is descended from a well-known warrior or famous hero. In this instance, the entire family would use the warrior’s name as a surname that would be chosen in each successive generation: Okonkwo (the famous great-grandfather), Okafor Ojo Okonkwo (the grandfather), Okeke Okoro Okonkwo (the father), Okechi Obi Okonkwo (the son).
When a Nigerian woman marries, she no longer uses her two maiden names, but takes the two family names of her husband.
This would result in a naming pattern like this: Eno Sampson Ekim (her father), Comfort Eno Sampson (the daughter’s maiden name), Monday Akpan Udo (her husband), Comfort Monday Akpan (the wife’s new married name). The couple’s children could be John Monday Akpan for a son and Eilzabeth Monday Akpan for a daughter, each child also taking the father’s two names at adulthood.
Family researchers would have to be careful to record each name and set of names that the person used in his/her lifetime.