Naming Children after Grandparents: A Greek Tradition


Published in The National Herald, February 25, 2006 Issue
Authored by Rev. George Poulos
Special to The National Herald


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Most young wedded couples in America, upon discovery that they are to become parents usually ponder the prospective name of the child, male or female, for a good portion of the gestation period. In extreme cases, a decision has not been reached until after the newborn has arrived.  In either case, a more or less random selection, made without purpose, is an affront not only to the offspring, but also to the sacred mystery of life created by God in His Own image.

The dilemma of wading through a sea of names like some lottery ticket buyer is not a problem which faces prospective Greek parents who observe a tradition with meaning only for the perpetuation of a family name in every other generation, provided that there is a male offspring.  It is a Hellenic tradition to name a male child after the male parent's father, or after his mother if the baby is a female.

The second child, likewise, is given the name of the mother's mother or father, depending on the sex of the child.  Grandparents rejoice in grandchildren, but the joy of a Greek grandfather whose grandchild bears his name is boundless.  Irrespective of names, parents take exceptional delight in the love of the offspring brought into the world by their own children.  "Dyo fores paidi (a child twice over)," as the grandparents saying goes for their grandchildren.

When President Bush cited the facts and figures to prove that Americans of Hellenic origin were the leading ethnic group in the country, he was dealing in meaningful tangibles, but there are also the intangibles which make up the strong Greek character.  These are evident, in a return to values and traditions which, for a time, were being obscured by bigotry and prejudice against Mediterranean immigrants.  Chief among the victims of an English-speaking country were the cumbersome Greek names, which were often anglicized as a matter of expediency.  The irony is that, prior to the migrations, these conditions did not exist.  Otherwise, Mr. & Mrs. Grant would not have given the name Ulysses to their newborn son, who went onto become one of the country's greatest generals, not to mention the 18th President of the United States.

There are exceptions, of course.  The trend to use one's own name - instead of a more easily pronounced and remembered alias - is being abandoned by those proud enough to use their own surnames, whereas in prior years, it would have been a barrier (e.g. Sarbanes, Anastos, Pacino, Hoffman).  Each bear names which unmistakably identify their ancestry, but there is no longer any loss of social status or regard, as it was said in Massachusetts, "the land of the bean and the cod, where the Cabots speak only to the Lodges and the Lodges speak only to God."

It is when the time comes to name a newborn of a Greek family that a problem arises which is not easily solved, and often leads to embarrassing situations and circumstances.  The polysyllabic last name which has been abbreviated from Pappatriandafilopoulos to either Pappas or Poulos eliminates considerable wear and tear, but each abbreviation is for undeniably Greek surnames, and in all probability Pelopponesian.

Fortunately, most honorable Greek surnames remain intact because they do not consume a full newspaper column line, however mispronounced.  When a first-time father is faced with the prospect of having to name his son Eleftherios after the baby's paternal grandfather, he can hold out hope that the child will become a composer, musician or artist.  Odd-sounding names have a tendency to add to the skills of the aforementioned, among others.

Nevertheless, the return to traditional names need not lead to name-calling of the unflattering kind.  There is no room for compromise and absolutely nothing wrong with strict adherence to time-honored names such as Socrates or Alexander.  But the time will come when the pleasant-sounding baby will have a pleasant-sounding name to match.  There will be a time when traditional names for grandchildren will be carried out to the letter, or my name isn't originally George Demetrakopoulos.

The fact that someone on Ellis Island shortened my father's name from Panayiotis to Peter, thus giving a name perpetuated by four grandchildren, and the fact that a grandson bears my name, George Poulos, is heartwarming even if it is modification called for by the times.

Times are changing, however, and a return to age-old traditions is part of what have made Greeks, proportionately, the leading ethnic group in America.  It is little wonder, then, that when the country was being formed, it was proposed that the official language of the land be Greek.  That motion failed to carry out, but we can recognize that, if the Greek tongue was good enough for the Apostles and the original language of the Bible, there can be pride in carrying a Greek name, first, last and always.

Specifically, in the words of Stephen Vincent Benet, let us plant "family trees that remember your grandfather's name."

As written in 2006:
Father Poulos, the longest serving active priest in the Archdiocese (since 1948), is Pastor of the Archangels Greek Orthodox Church in Stamford, Connecticut.  He is the author of the book "Breath of God (Holy Cross Press, Brookline, Massachusetts:  1984)," a biography of the late Archbishop Iakovos.