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Reprinted from the May and September 1976 issues of European Scientific Notes, a publication of the Office of Naval Research Branch Office, London.

The Name Puzzle
by David K. Cheng

IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY, if we do not know the appropriate words for pleasantries or the proper way to skoal, we will usually be excused. But if we call our host by a wrong name, the embarrassment may be excruciating for both the host and ourselves. Different traditions and conventions often make some names appear puzzling. The name puzzle often is a real problem for people (Office of Naval Research, London staff included) whose normal duties require them to meet foreign friends in different countries. In this note I will try to clarify a few important cases where the structure of names differs from conventional American usage.

As we all know, most names consist of two essential parts; namely, a family name (or surname) and one or more given names (forenames). We address people formally by their family names; but are we always sure which part of a name is the family name? It is safe to call John Jay Doe Mr. Doe, but it is not safe at all to address Jean Van Bladel as Ms. Bladel. As a matter of act, Professor Van Bladel is the Director (not Directrix) of the Laboratory for Electromagnetism and Acoustics at the University of Ghent in Belgium and is the author of a highly acclaimed book, Electromagnetic Fields.

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Van is quite commonly a part of Belgian and Dutch family names. Of course, we have heard of Van Dyck and antenna engineers have heard of Lester Van Atta. It is similar to von in German names such as von Karman and von Neumann except Van is usually written with a capital V.

Analogous but somewhat more complicated are Italian names containing the word di. A famous name in that category is Professor G. Toraldo di Francia, currently the Director of the Research Institute for Electromagnetic Waves of the Italian National Research Council at Florence. It is quite wrong to address him as Professor Francia or Professor di Francia. Toraldo di Francia is his family name and people in his Laboratory call him simply Professor Toraldo.

Spanish names are of a unique structure which call for special attention. More likely than not, people who do not know this structure will address a Spaniard incorrectly. In general, a Spanish name is composed of three parts: the first part is the given name, the second part is the father’s family name, and the third part is the mother’s family name. Thus, Angel Cardama Aznar, who is the Associate Dean for Research of the School of Telecommunications at the Polytechnic University of Barcelona, should be addressed as Professor Cardama, not as Professor Aznar. However, there are exceptions. When a person’s middle name (father’s family name) is very common, he may use his last name (mother’s family name) as his surname. For example, Jesús Sánchez Miñana, who occupies the Chair of Antennas and Wave Propagation at the Polytechnic University of Madrid is addressed as Professor Miñana, not as Professor Sánchez because the latter is a very common name in Spain.

All this is quite confusing! With a view toward minimizing this confusion, many Spaniards simply drop the third part of their names when they are abroad. Hence, Professor Cardama, who obtained his PhD degree from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island used Angel Cardama (without the last name, Aznar) for papers he authored and published in the United States. For this reason few people know that the full name of Pablo Picasso was Pablo Picasso Ruiz.

Just when we think we are all straightened out on names, we see one like Neuyen Tuong Viet who is a researcher from Vietnam working at the Institute of Fundamental Electronics at the University of Paris XI, Orsay, France. It turns out that Neuyen Tuong is his family name and Viet is his given name. People at the Institute simply call him Dr. Viet, which is in a way similar to calling Alexander Frederick Douglas-Home, the former British Prime Minister, Sir Alec.

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Chinese names may also appear puzzling sometimes. Chinese names are generally composed of two or three characters, each of which translates into a single-syllable Latinized word to simulate its pronunciation. In its original form the first character is always the family name and the second character is the given name. In case of a three-character name, both the second and third characters are given names. A girl adds her husband’s family name in front of her own after marriage. Thus Miss Chan Lin Lee becomes Mrs. Wang Chan Lin Lee after she marries a man whose family name is Wang. However, Miss Chan often writes her English name as Lin Lee Chan (family name last) to conform with the Western custom. When she marries a man named Wang, her name becomes Lin Lee Chan Wang.

In writing their names in English, not all Chinese switch their family names to the last position. This nonuniformity makes life more difficult for others, because it is not possible for others to tell from Chan Lin Lee whether the family name is Chan or Lee, or from Lin Lee Chan whether the family name is Lin or Chan. There is a tendency to hyphenate the given names. This practice would eliminate much confusion, there would then be no question about identifying the family name whether it is written as Chan Lin-Lee or as Lin-Lee Chan. In fact, by looking at either version it is possible to tell that it is a girl’s name; but this requires an advanced knowledge of the Chinese language.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose…” When we speak of people as famous as Confucius, or Copernicus, or Michelangelo, or Galileo, we do not always wonder what their full names were. However, it would certainly avoid embarrassment if we could address our living, foreign friends correctly.

(Chen Keun, also known as David K. Cheng.)

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Arabic Names and Arabic Numerals
by David K. Cheng

IN THE LAST ARTICLE, I tried to clarify the puzzle associated with some foreign names whose structure is different from conventional American usage. For people who make courtesy or liaison visits to various foreign lands, it is important to know which part of a person’s name is the family name in order to address him (her) properly. This often is not as simple as it may be assumed.

Recently I visited several institutions in Egypt and found some interesting variations in the structure of Egyptian (Arabian) names. For one thing, some Arabs do not even have a family name, and it is quite natural for a father and son to have different last and different middle names. Other Arabs do have a family name. Examples are those whose last names contain the prefix El (“the” in English). For instance, Hassan El-Sabbagh, a Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Alexandria, can be safely addressed as Professor El-Sabbagh. Besides this particular case, I do not know whether there is a general way to tell if a person’s last name is his family name. I imagine that one must first know more about the various Arabian names and the Arabic language in order to be sure.

Most Arabian names have three parts: the first part is the person’s given name; the second part is his father’s given name; and the third part is his grandfather’s given name. My contact at the University of Cairo, Dr. Samir F. Mahmoud, told me that Samir is his given name, the middle initial F stands for his father’s given name Fahmy, and Mahmoud is his grandfather’s given name. His full name implies Samir means “son of.” His last name Mahmoud (“praised”) is not his family name. In fact, as far as he knows, he does not have a family name.

He said that if he wanted to he could tag on his great-grandfather’s name after Mahmoud. It is then not difficult to understand that he and his father have different last and different middle names. What is more unusual is that he is listed in the telephone directory under Samir, not Mahmoud. When he marries, his wife would be called Mrs. Samir, not Mrs. Mahmoud. However, her name does not formally change after marriage and her maiden name (without either Samir or Mahmoud) continues to appear on all official documents including her passport.

Sometimes a person can have two given names. For instance, a father may give the names Mohammed Amin and Mohammed Sayed to his two sons since Mohammed is a revered name for Moslems. Hence, the two brothers would have the same first name and the same last name. Both of them would appear in the telephone directory under the name Mohammed. (I imagine the Mohammeds occupy a much larger percentage of the directory pages in Cairo than the Smiths in New York.) In Egypt, as in Spain, it is not wise to assume that a person’s last name is his family name or that everybody will be known to his friends by his first name.

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In fact, assuming things in an unfamiliar foreign land can lead to erroneous conclusions. I have always admired the beautiful Arabic calligraphy, but the only thing I know about it is that it is written from right to left. However, when I made plans to visit the universities at Cairo and Alexandria, I was “sure” that at least I knew the Arabic numerals and could pay the right amount of money written on the bill at a restaurant or a store. I could not have been more wrong! It turned out that the Arabs in Egypt do not use what we have always accepted as Arabic numerals: 1, 2, 3, …. Instead they use a set of numbers from one to zero which bear no resemblance to the above except for one and nine. The comparative symbols are as follows:

Hindo-Arabic Numerals

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0

Arabic numerals used in Egypt


Encyclopedias tell us that the earliest numerals of which there is a definite record appeared in Egypt as early as the First Dynasty (around 3000 BC). The widely accepted modern numerals were derived from many sources, in particular, from the Hindus and the Arabians. India is the country which first used these numerals frequently in about the third century BC; hence, the modern numerals should perhaps be more properly called Hindu-Arabic numerals.

Contrary to the right-to-left flow of written Arabic, the numerals go from left to right. Thus, as one reads a message in Arabic from right to left, he must reverse the direction as he comes to a number. Unreasonable? Perhaps, but who is to tell the people who invented the numerals how to use them? Such is tradition and such is evolution of the symbols of communication.

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Hand set in Goudy’s Deepdene. All display type is Flash. Text is 70-lb. Vellum. Inks are Van Son’s Liberty Blue (rubber based) and 40904 Black. Published by Jake Warner and 480 copies printed by him on a 10×15 C&P at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, Maryland.

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