Nameday: It’s a thing!


Tomorrow could be my nameday, so give me chocolate!

You may ask what a nameday is, in fact, several people have recently, which may indicate that it’s not so natural for everyone all around the world to celebrate the fact that they have a name. Is Hungary finally as cool as Westeros in the Game of Thrones, where people celebrate their name days? Nah! It’s actually the other way around!

While it is far from being a unique Hungarian phenomenon (e.g. nameday is a thing for Czechs, Slovaks, Polish, Russians, Romanians, as well as in Scandinavian and Baltic lands), there are some interesting things you may want to know about first names in Hungary.

Something that may strike the visitor as odd when they arrive in Hungary for the first time: things are really the other way round. Hungarian logic tends to approach things from general to particular and from big to small. It would require a mind more polished than mine to figure out whether this logic has developed out of our upside down syntax or the other way round, but I’m pretty sure there is a connection.

Have you ever wondered why it’s so hard to read Hungarian texts in translation? I tell you why: it’s because the wonderful invention of topic sentence, which makes English texts flow so linear, does not traditionally exist in Hungarian. In English (ideally) a paragraph tends to begin with a thought that introduces the rest of the paragraph, like a kind of an introductory summary. Similarly, the first paragraph is ideally indicative of what’s coming. In contrast, Hungarian texts are upside down: you might find yourself reading some meandering prose about human ontology, some general parallels, anecdotes and examples… and find the punchline at the end. Core thoughts tend to unfold in a rather circular fashion through a succession of increasingly important paragraphs.

We like to keep you alert. It’s like we’re secretly testing your attention scope. For instance, you may want to find out something about namedays in a blog, and then you somehow get embroiled in long ramblings about syntax and narrative logic…  Mwhahaha! Anyway, back to namedays: you may have noticed that we write the date as year, month, day; and that the street name precedes the house number in addresses. Similarly, we go from family name to personal name, much like in Japanese. I’ve read somewhere that Japanese names reflect the fact that individuals identify themselves as primarily as part of their family, and personal names come second in self-identification. I don’t know if that holds for Hungarian names (or Japanese for that matter), but I’m pretty sure it has something to do with the ‘big to small’ logic.

So how do cute little Hungarian babies get their names and why do they deserve a cookie for it? In this day and age when kids are called Xanax and Chayla Bea’ootté, it seems somewhat old fashioned that Hungarians can only register names approved by the Institute for Linguistic Sciences of the Hungarian Academy of Science (Magyar Tudományos Akadémia Nyelvtudományi Intézete). Yes, there is a big book of ALL names, also known as the Ladó, after the original author of the first edition in 1971. Of course, a lot has been added to the first book since then. If the name you choose is not in The Book or you wish to use an alternative spelling, you will have to apply for a waiver with a good enough reason. The list is actually rather exhaustive and it’s more inspiring than restrictive: have a look at the full list for boys’ names and girls’ names, some are really quirky! In theory, you can give your child up to two officially registered names from the gender-appropriate lists.

They do accept ‘new’ names, but a team of experts including linguists and psychologists convene to make sure that it fits Hungarian cultural heritage and cannot be a source of ridicule for the individual later in life, either because of its meaning or the way it sounds. If you want a ‘foreign’ name such as Jeanette or Denise, you will probably have to spell it according to the phonetic Hungarian spelling: Zsanett and Döníz!

The Academy may dictate how you spell your name, but the day you choose to celebrate your child’s nameday is a more liberal affair, informed mostly by family traditions and calendar makers. Hungarian calendars come with the namedays printed under the date for each day to remind you of your duties to friends, neighbours and relatives. Most Hungarians are also aware of the more frequently occurring namedays, such as Attila, Zoltán, Katalin, Erzsébet, József, etc.

When a baby’s born and the parents decide on the name, they also have to check when the nameday is in the calendar. Some names have several namedays across the year, you can decide which one you’ll child will be celebrating based on family traditions or practical considerations, such as not too close in time to Christmas or birthdays. My parents’ decision to celebrate my brother’s nameday on my birthday is plain inconsiderate, especially that there is a perfectly fine Gergely day two months later.

Image source: Kaposvari Hirek

What happens on your nameday? It’s kind of a little birthday. You get toys and cake from your family when you’re a kid: perhaps not as epic as a birthday, but kind of. Once you manage to grow up you may lose your prerogative to make a big deal out of it, but it will become a sort of public celebration day for you. Colleagues and acquaintances may not know your birthday, but everyone will have a vague idea when your nameday is, or can check without sounding impolite or nosy. If nothing else, you’ll get a mention in mass Facebook statuses, such as ‘Happy nameday to all my Katalin friends, have a lovely day Katalin This, Katalin That, tag, tag, tag, tag, tag…’. You may get a phone call from friends or relatives you don’t often see. You may also get a card and a flower/chocolates or a bottle of wine at work. Quite handy really.

People normally celebrate their first given name (mine is Zsuzsanna), so unfortunately no chocolates for me tomorrow, although it’s tempting to go with the numerous Mária days and have chocolates every time.  You may, however, wish to make a note of 19 February, which is the nameday for Zsuzsanna.

You may have a name day in Hungary! Check and demand chocolates.

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