Charles Philip Arthur George Windsor is the full name of the person commonly known as Prince Charles of Wales, heir to the throne of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern
Windsor is the adopted “house name”, or surname, of the British Royal Family since 1917. Charles is his first name, Philip the second, Arthur the third and George the fourth.
How do we count the names of a person; how do we decide which is first, second and so on? In most of the English-speaking world, counting is done in the same order that the names were given.
Thus if a baby is born and named Wanjiku, that becomes her first name. If some time later, she is baptised Mary, Mary becomes her second name and so she is Wanjiku Mary.
But not in Kenya: Our tradition is to add the new religious names before the given ones. Thus the girl above would be known as Mary Wanjiku. And if her father is Mungai, she would officially
be known as Mary Wanjiku Mungai.
Now I fear that we are in a naming crisis and it is causing a lot of confusion. Somewhere along the way, education institutions adopted the “surname-first” style of recording names. So, on
her graduation day, our girl would be called out as Mungai Mary Wanjiku.
NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT ORDER EXCEPT...
There is nothing wrong with that order apart from that in the written list, there should be a comma after the surname, that is, Mungai, Mary Wanjiku. Unfortunately, many institutions do not
put the punctuation mark and this has become quite confusing.
The normal interpretation of Mungai Mary Wanjiku in the English speaking world is that Wanjiku is the surname. You have to be Kenyan to understand that Mungai is a man’s name and
Wanjiku a woman’s; therefore, in our patriarchal society, Mungai must be the surname.
We can choose to see this as one of our peculiarities, but the confusion does not end there. A new trend is emerging where names are now totally reversed. Mary Wanjiku Mungai now
becomes Mungai Wanjiku Mary — again without a comma to signify that the surname is listed first.
This might appear trivial, but I have had to close two accounts because the banks could never get the order of my names right. They would then give me a headache whenever I needed to
transact using my ID card — the names wouldn’t match!
Recently, I witnessed the magnitude of this naming confusion when the Standard 8 parents at our school were being guided on how to register their children for the Kenya Certificate of
Primary Education examination. The officer from the Kenya National Examination Council went to great lengths explaining how it should be done, but in the end, I still felt that a significant number of the people were not sure about how to do it.
Perhaps the Ministry of Culture should publish guidelines about the Kenyan naming style. After all, naming is a very important part of culture.