"What's in a name?" Juliet famously asked Romeo in Shakespeare's tragedy of young love doomed because of their families' rivalry.

"A given name -- maybe two or more -- and a surname, of course," her Montague beau could have responded to evade this complex issue and avoid dampening the ardor of his Capulet belle.

He would have had a point, though, because although most societies around the world employ some combination of given names and surnames, there are myriad ways to go about the name game -- and the intricacies don't end with putting the surname last, as in the West, or up front, as in the East.

This week's topic of family trees seemed as good a reason as any to take a leisurely stroll through time and some of the world's spaces to consider a selection of fascinating naming conventions in use today.

The Chinese may have been the first to realize how useful it would be to impose a system of hereditary surnames to keep track of the masses. Indeed, as long ago as 2852 B.C., the legendary Emperor Fu Xi is said to have decreed to his subjects just that.

That practice eventually rubbed off on regional neighbors. Awed by the efficiency of Chinese administration, royalty on the Korean Peninsula began adopting family names during the early part of the first millennium A.D., and within a few centuries the custom had spread widely among their commoner subjects, too.

The isolationist Japanese hopped on board quite late. Though nobles had grouped themselves according to a designation of lineage or clan affiliation known as uji as far back as the eighth century, it wasn't until 1870 -- two years after the fundamental social reorganization of the Meiji Restoration began -- that all commoners, regardless of status, could take official family names.

When in Rome . . .

On the other side of the world, the prominent families of Ancient Rome went by imperious names of three, and sometimes four components. The first of these was the praenomen, followed by the nomen, which was hereditary and shared by families in a clan. (Praenomina, it should be noted, were only for use by close friends; even the most plebeian pleb knew better than to address Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.) merely as "Gaius.")

As the stock of permitted praenomina and nomina was limited, though, the Romans also tacked on hereditary cognomina derived from the nicknames of their forebears. Examples of these that resonate to this day include Cicero, meaning "bean," and Tacitus, "silent."

Not content even with such an array of nominal definitions, Romans sometimes threw in something called an agnomen as well.

This name was generally used to commemorate some major exploit in life -- as in the case of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (236-184/183 B.C.), the general who, in 202 B.C., conquered Hannibal's capital, Carthage, on the coast of present-day Tunisia.

With the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century A.D., hereditary surnames fell out of fashion, too, as Europe plunged into its Dark Ages. Later, as the strifetorn continent emerged into its medieval period, when people again began to feel a need to identify someone with some degree of specificity, they would attach a patronymic -- a surname adapted from a father's name.

If, for example, an English nobleman named Gerald and his secret paramour produced a son, they slapped a "Fitz-" onto daddy's name, giving the boy the surname Fitzgerald. Fitz, derived from the Norman French fils (son), implied that its bearer was the illegitimate son of gentry -- status, indeed, compared to the common herd of serfs. Similar patterns existed elsewhere in Europe, as in the Swedish surname Andersson, son of Anders, and the Spanish surname Fernandez, son of Fernando.

However, as patronymic surnames by their nature changed with every generation, figuring out somebody's family relations over more than a generation could get confusing.

By the 11th century, though, when the Normans were busily grabbing territory across Europe and expanding their bureaucracy in the process, the need for hereditary last names to assist in taxation and assigning inheritance, for instance, became more pressing.

Sometimes a patronymic simply became the hereditary surname. Other times, the surname described the bearer's occupation (in the British isles, Archer, Brewer, Cooper) or the place they lived, for example, Davignon referring to someone hailing from Avignon, southern France. By the 16th century, hereditary surnames were the norm.

Holdouts of tradition

But despite the growing popularity of hereditary surnames around the world, there were still holdouts.

Take, for example, the family of Mankonga Kumou, an official at the Embassy of the Cote d'Ivoire in Tokyo and a member of that Western African country's Agni people. His surname, Mankonga, is taken from his father Kablan Mankonga's given name. (The Agni, like Asians, place their given names last.) Similarly, Kablan Mankonga got his surname, Kablan, from his father, Yao Kablan.

Ironically, after Cote d'Ivoire became independent from France in 1960, Ivorians shifted toward a hereditary surname system more like the European model. Thus, our embassy official has given his four children the Mankonga surname rather than Kumou.

Iraqis were compelled to make a similar shift after 1968, when the Ba'ath Socialist Party took power. The new leaders discouraged the use of traditional appellations -- which strung together a given name, the father's name and a reference to the local tribe -- in a bid to shift loyalty to the central government.

In line with the new rules, strongman and then-Vice President Saddam Hussein al-Majid al-Tikriti ("Saddam, son of Hussein al-Majid, of the al-Tikriti tribe"), shortened his name and his children got the surname "Hussein," instead of "Saddam" as they would have before.

Nordic forebears

Meanwhile, there are those who still reject hereditary surnames altogether. Just after World War II, the people of Iceland toyed with the idea of finally dropping the patronymics of their ancient Nordic forebears in favor of hereditary last names, as other Scandinavian countries had done long before. A smattering of them did that.

But overall, respect for tradition won out over the pressures of modernity, and the idea never really caught on. Gestur Johannsson remained the son of Johann Haraldsson. (women, incidentally, add -dottir [daughter] to their father's names, meaning Gestur's sister is Bara Johannsdottir.)

Conservative, yes. Backward, no.

Iceland's Names Act 1991 allowed women to pass their surnames to their offspring. With the new legislation, proud new mom Sveinbjorg Sigurdardottir could call her baby girl Halldora Sveinbjargardottir.

Iceland, for one, found a way to stick with naming tradition and keep up with the times.